NBA Saturday: Clippers Reload for Another Run at a Championship

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Over the last few seasons, the Los Angeles Clippers have been unable to advance past the second round of the playoffs and have fallen short of expectations. Only one team wins the championship each season, so it’s not as if the Clippers are the only team to have missed their goals over the last few years.

The Clippers, however, have managed to lose in dramatic ways that make their failures more memorable unfortunately. They have also repeatedly been plagued by the same issues, with one of the most important being their lack of an above league-average starting small forward and quality depth.

When you have three max-level contracts on the books, as the Clippers do with Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, it can be difficult to round out a deep roster – unless you’re the Golden State Warriors, of course. With the Clippers’ big three taking up a vast majority of the Clippers’ cap over the last few seasons, team president and head coach Doc Rivers has had to find creative ways to fill up his roster.

Over the last few seasons, Rivers has managed to sign players to value contracts and find creative ways to bring in other players. The Clippers’ most glaring need has been at small forward, where Rivers has gone through an assortment of players like Matt Barnes, Jared Dudley, Hedo Turkoglu, Danny Granger, Reggie Bullock, Jordan Hamilton, Dahntay Jones, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Wesley Johnson, Paul Pierce, Lance Stephenson and Luc Mbah a Moute. Interestingly, of all these players, Barnes had the most success as the team’s starting small forward. Other players have had their moments, but no one seemed to fit as well as Barnes did.

Despite the glaring hole at small forward and lack of depth, the Clippers have been one of the best overall teams in the NBA over the last few seasons. However, after falling short so many times, with Griffin missing a big chunk of last season with injuries and he and Paul able to become unrestricted free agents next offseason, it was reasonable to wonder what Rivers would do this offseason.

While Rivers has been criticized for his moves as the team’s de facto general manager, he did a solid job this offseason of reloading his roster for another run. While his team ultimately may not have the talent to overtake the Warriors in a seven game series (does anyone really?), he has constructed a team that has more depth than in past seasons – though that glaring hole at small forward still remains.

This offseason, Rivers put his bid in on the Kevin Durant sweepstakes and stated on a podcast with Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical that he was informed the Clippers were in the top three of Durant’s preferences. Of course Durant ultimately decided to take his talents to the Bay Area rather than Hollywood, but it was a worthwhile attempt on the part of Rivers – especially considering he managed to retain most of his major free agents despite pursuing Durant.

Austin Rivers, Jamal Crawford, Wesley Johnson, Jeff Green, Luc Mbah a Moute, Pablo Prigioni and Cole Aldrich were all able to become unrestricted free agents this offseason. Coach Rivers managed to retain his son Austin, Crawford, Johnson and Mbah a Moute, while losing Green, Prigioni and Aldrich. In keeping Rivers, Crawford, Johnson and Mbah a Moute, Coach Rivers managed to retain key pieces who will be relied on heavily this upcoming season. Aldrich had played his way into a bigger contract than the Clippers could offer, so losing him was no surprise. However, perhaps the biggest loss was Green, who the Clippers traded Lance Stephenson and a protected draft 2019 first-rounder for. The idea was that the Clippers could re-sign Green using his Bird Rights, and that this would be their means of addressing the hole at small forward. Unfortunately, Green never really found his role with the Clippers and was disappointing in his short time with the team, as he has been in other stops throughout his career.

With a few key pieces staying in town and others moving on, Rivers went out and continued plugging the holes in his roster. After taking Brice Johnson (25th), David Michineau (39th) and Diamond Stone (40th) in the draft, Coach Rivers went out and signed Marreese Speights to a two-year, $2.9 million contract. Speights may not be a top-level defender at power forward or center, but he has a big frame, is a better rebounder than many expect and, most importantly, he can stretch the floor with his three-point shooting. Though Speights is only a career 30.5 percent shooter from distance, he shot 38.7 from beyond the arc last season with the Golden State Warriors. However, Rivers has brought in stretch-bigs in the past (Byron Mullens, Antawn Jamison, Spencer Hawes, etc.) and none have ever really worked out. The same could end up being the case here with Speights, but to get a big man on this contract in a market that was over-saturated with money is a big steal for the Clippers.

Then, Rivers went out and signed Brandon Bass to a one-year, $1.5 million deal. Bass has played for Rivers before and is familiar with his system, plays and schemes. Bass is somewhat duplicative of Speights in the frontcourt, but each offers something unique to the Clippers. While Speights can shoot from distance, Bass can shoot from midrange and provides tougher defense than Speights. When the Clippers need a stop or to execute a complicated play, Bass will likely get the nod. When the Clippers need to open up the court so Paul can penetrate the defense or when the Clippers need to open up the post for Griffin to go to work, Speights will likely get the call.

Then, to address the lack of point guard depth, Coach Rivers went out and signed Raymond Felton to a one-year, $1.5 million deal. Felton has been criticized in the past for his inability to consistently stay in top-level playing shape, but he did put together a solid season with Dallas this last year, averaging 12.5 points, 4.7 assists and 4.2 rebounds per-36 minutes. His shooting wasn’t great as he shot below his career averages from the field and from three-point range, but his ability to run Rick Carlisle’s adaptive and fluid offense was notable. With more size and strength than Prigioni, Felton should be a nice addition for the Clippers, who often use small lineups to overcome their lack of a top-level small forward.

Lastly, in a move to shore up their depth on the wing, the Clippers signed Alan Anderson. Anderson is a solid defensive player and a good shooter who shouldn’t be relied on as a solution at the small forward position, but does add nice depth and a good veteran presence in the locker room. Anderson missed much of last season because of an ankle injury that required surgery. He ultimately had to get a second operation on the same ankle because the first operation did not go as planned, which limited Anderson to 13 games last season with the Washington Wizards. If healthy, Anderson could be looked to for spot minutes on the wing to add defense and shooting, which is solid value on a one-year, $1.3 million contract.

None of these deals alone will blow anyone away or changes the power dynamic in the Western Conference and there is still a glaring hole at small forward. However, in a free agency market that was flooded with an unprecedented amount of money, Coach Rivers did well by bringing in veteran contributors on below-market deals. By reloading for the upcoming season, Coach Rivers is betting on his team’s ability to overcome its past gaffes and to find some luck in the race to the Finals. The Warriors stand in their way and likely are too talented to be beaten with all things being equal. However, as recent seasons have proven, all things are not equal in the NBA, especially when it comes to injuries (ask the Memphis Grizzlies about their 2015-16 season). While no one wants injuries to happen, they are inevitable in sports. That, and sometimes teams simply don’t come together as expected or never find real chemistry (see the Los Angeles Lakers with Steve Nash and Dwight Howard). Considering this, it’s hard to fault Rivers for giving his team at least one more shot at a championship run.