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NBA Sunday: Time For Clippers To Rebuild

Doc Rivers refused to rebuild in Boston. In Los Angeles, it’s time to face the music.

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It was a nice ride while it lasted.

Over the past few weeks, as the Los Angeles Clippers have sputtered and become one of the league’s talked about teams, it’s become pretty obvious that the team is in the worst situation in which an NBA team can find itself…

On the road to nowhere.

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Entering play on December 3, the Clippers have lost 11 of their last 14 games and have slowly become one of the worst teams in the Western Conference.

In the interest of fairness, it’s imperative to state the obvious: the team has dealt with some fairly significant injuries to some of its core pieces, especially Blake Griffin. Griffin has been out of the lineup for the past week after suffering a sprained MCL. He’s not expected to return until mid-January at the earliest.

Patrick Beverley, who along with Lou Williams was the prized piece brought back in return for dealing Chris Paul to the Houston Rockets, has been lost for the season. He underwent surgery to repair a micro fracture and meniscus tear in his right knee.

Two of the team’s other newcomers, Danilo Gallinari and Milos Teodosic have already been sidelined for the past several weeks. Teodosic suffered a plantar fascia injury in his left foot while Gallinari is nursing a strained glue that will likely keep him sidelined until mid-December.

In other words, four of the Clippers’ most important players—three starters and their sixth man—have suffered fairly significant injuries. The roster has been decimated and, unsurprisingly, the Clippers have struggled.

Rivers certainly doesn’t have control over whether oft-injured players do get hurt, but he certainly has control as to the extent to which his team relies on them. And if there’s one thing that Rivers has done incorrectly since Paul decided that he wanted to take his talents to Houston, it was put too much faith in the wrong players.

One of the best things about Doc is also one of his worst qualities: his stubbornness. One of the things that led to Rivers’ exit from Boston was the philosophical difference between he and Danny Ainge. Having believed the team’s “big three” era to have run its course, Ainge wanted to tear the team down, trade away its pieces and begin rebuilding. Rivers, in long with the team’s personnel and still believing in their ability to compete, had no interest in the idea. They parted ways with Ainge going through with his plan and Rivers ending up replacing Vinny Del Negro in Los Angeles.

As the years have gone by, it’s become obvious that the move was right for both parties. The Celtics, by winning in free agency and wisely utilizing the draft picks they were able to attain by trading away Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry and Jeff Green, have essentially been able to rebuild on the fly.

The Clippers, with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, seemed to have a legitimate shot to contend for a championship. But when Paul decided that he would pursue greener pastures elsewhere, Rivers should have probably made the decision he once refused in Boston—the rebuild.

Like Kyrie Irving, Griffin entered the season with the opportunity to rebrand himself, adjust his game and prove that he was better than just being the second-best scorer on a conference contender. Despite his injury history, Rivers re-signed Griffin to maximum-allowable five-year, $173 million contract. The decision itself was easy enough to defend, as it’s never advisable to allow a talent like Griffin to walk away for free.

But was Rivers simply being stubborn in believing that the oft-injured Griffin could ever become the primary player for a championship team? Griffin has missed an average of 28 games per season over the past three years, after all.

After re-signing Griffin, Rivers then went out and executed a sign-and-trade deal for Gallinari to the tune of a three-year, $65 million deal.

The end result is the Clippers having a $119 million payroll this season, the team being hard capped and not much in the realm of results to show for it. In August, Rivers was relieved of his front office responsibilities so he could focus more on the coaching end. 

When making predictions as to how certain teams will fare and where their seasons will end up, for the most part, it’s appropriate to assume them to be 100 percent healthy. But injuries are inevitable, and at a certain point, it would be wise for a team to cease attempting to build around oft-injured pieces.

Along with Griffin, Gallinari certainly fits that description. After missing the entire 2013-14 season, Gallinari has missed an average of 24 games over each of the three seasons that ensued.

At this point, it’s fair to wonder whether Rivers would ever embrace the idea of rebuilding, because even with Beverly, Teodosic, Lou Williams and DeAndre Jordan, it appears that the Clippers are on the road to nowhere.

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As the Clippers walk toward July 1, 2018, the team is certainly at a crossroads. Jordan, Teodosic, Austin Rivers and Wesley Johnson each have player options for next season.

Over the past few weeks, there has been consistent speculation as to whether the Clippers will attempt to trade Jordan. The All-Star center famously agreed in principle to join the Dallas Mavericks a few years ago only to have a change of heart and renege on his verbal commitment.

Especially with where the Clippers are right now in terms of their status as a contender, the mere possibility of losing Jordan for nothing in return should send shudders down Steve Ballmer’s spine. It would be a disaster, which is exactly why teams around the league are calling the Clippers to gauge their interest in trading Jordan.

To this point, the Clippers have reportedly entertained the notion of signing Jordan to an extension, but it’s fair to question whether or not that would be the wise move. For the Clippers, the team can continue on down the path they’ve been on for several years, attempting to build around Jordan and Griffin in the tough Western Conference. Or, the team could make the tough decision that Danny Ainge once did—trade away pieces and go all-in on a rebuild.

On the road to nowhere, for the franchise, the conclusion that trading away both Griffin and Jordan is the way to go, should be a fairly easy one to make.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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