The Los Angeles Clippers' season didn't start out as a total mess, but it sure ended up that way.
The Memphis Grizzlies mauled the Clips for four straight playoff games, bringing about an abrupt, uninspiring conclusion to a campaign that featured plenty of positives early on.
Chris Paul and Co. enjoyed an undefeated December, the ascension to alpha-dog status in L.A. and more highlight-reel lobs than ever in 2012-13. But old issues reared their heads and new ones developed as the Clippers devolved into leaderless dysfunction.
Vinny Del Negro's shaky head-coaching performance wasn't new, but the reported infighting between Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan was. Plus, the franchise actually took a step backward by bowing out in the first round of the playoffs, despite winning more regular season games than ever before.
Things couldn't have fallen apart at a worse time, either, as Paul will head into unrestricted free agency this summer with some justifiable doubts about returning to L.A.
The door's that way.
Naturally, the offseason plans in L.A. revolve around resigning Paul. With just $45 million committed to salaries next year, the Clippers can easily afford to max Paul out and still have some cash left over to bring in a free agent or two.
But convincing Paul that Los Angeles is a place he can have postseason success just got a lot harder.
The other big issue the Clippers will have to address is the status of coach Vinny Del Negro, who took heat all season long for dubious rotation decisions, poor clock management and an offensive strategy that seemed to be limited to giving Paul the ball and letting him decide what to do with it.
And after Del Negro's uninspiring quotes after L.A.'s Game 6 loss to the Grizzlies, it's hard to imagine the Clippers brass putting up with another season of a coach who feels like he belongs in L.A.'s bygone days as a laughingstock franchise.
Other key free agents include Lamar Odom, Matt Barnes, Chauncey Billups and Ronny Turiaf. Of that group, Barnes is definitely the most valuable. But his huge season as a bench contributor probably means he'll be fielding plenty of offers from other clubs.
If L.A. wants to keep its vaunted bench unit intact, it'll probably have to come up with some pretty big bucks for Barnes.
L.A.'s draft needs will depend largely on what they think their free-agent losses will be. Because of the timing of the draft, they'll have to make some educated guesses as to their potential roster holes.
One place to start is up front, though, as DeAndre Jordan is the only center currently under contract.
With the 25th pick in the first round, the Clips aren't going to be picking among potential All-Stars, but in a historically weak draft, it's possible they'll be able to get some relative value out of their late-round slot.
If a center's what they're after, the Clippers could do worse than 6'11" Pittsburgh freshman Steven Adams, who Draft Express conveniently rates as the 25th-best prospect in this year's draft.
Adams is physical, has good size and plays extremely hard. He's also raw, but hey, L.A. rostered Ryan Hollins and Ronny Turiaf this past season, so their standards obviously aren't all that high.
There are plenty of dominoes that would need to fall before the Clippers would move Eric Bledsoe. For starters, Chris Paul would have to re-sign, making the backup point guard expendable.
Even then, the only real reason L.A. would consider trading the athletically gifted defender would be to avoid losing him for nothing when some team blows him away with a free-agent offer L.A. couldn't possibly match (assuming Paul would already be maxed out) in two years.
Trading Bledsoe obviously isn't an inconceivable notion, either, as L.A. was deeply involved in talks to send him and Jordan to the Celtics for Kevin Garnett at the 2013 deadline.That deal fell through when the Clippers pulled out of it, but it proved that the team was willing to make a move if the price was right.
Beyond that, Griffin and Jordan probably aren't going anywhere unless their late-season spats prove to be more than the result of natural frustration.
Truthfully, the Clippers don't need to blow things up; they need to add a couple of shooters and can their overmatched coach. If Paul comes back, the roster is good enough as it is.
Barnes' "I'm about to get paid" face.
Unrestricted Free Agents
We've been over this already; Paul is L.A.'s top priority this summer and he'll command (and more than deserve) a max deal.
As for the likelihood that he'll even want to come back, well...let's just say he's at least going to mull over his options:
CP3 on his future: "I got a lot of time to think about that. We'll see what happens."— Ramona Shelburne (@ramonashelburne) May 4, 2013
Odom made $8 million this past season, but if he returns to the Clippers, he'll have to take far less than that. Obviously a fan of being close to his famous in-laws (and the attention that proximity generates), Odom might very well accept a discount to stay in SoCal.
Of course, he might also find that his services are no longer desirable. That tends to happen when you average four points and 5.9 rebounds on 39 percent shooting.
Billups is little more than a locker-room presence and a glorified assistant coach at this stage of his career. He barely shot 40 percent on the season and managed to play in only 22 games.
He's a great winner who commands a lot of respect around the league. But he's not a particularly useful player anymore, so the Clippers are likely to seek out a younger, more athletic replacement.
Hustle is great and all, but Turiaf's maddening habit of kicking out offensive rebounds, even when he's wide open under the hoop basically nullifies his only statistical worth. He's been on five teams over the past four seasons for a reason: he's expendable.
If not for Del Negro's inexplicable late-season rotation experiment that paired Hollins with Turiaf in the frontcourt, the third-string big man might never have made any headlines.
Plus, when the guy who plays ahead of you just earned the "expendable" label, it doesn't exactly bode well.
Hollins is big, fairly active and willing to commit a foul, so he's got some use. But at anything more than the veteran's minimum, he's not worth it.
Barnes went out with a bang, tallying 30 points and 10 boards in the Clippers' final postseason game. His attitude and edge make him a great role player on a team that needs a wild card.
Plus, he can defend any wing player and knock down threes at a respectable (34 percent this past season) rate.
He'll command a lot of attention on the open market as teams continue to figure out that there's immense value in a player like Barnes. If the Clippers are smart, they'll bring him back.
But they might have to shell out at least $5 million per year over a three-year deal to do it.
So, the Clippers could use a floor-spacing shooter to open things up for Paul in the pick-and-roll and Griffin on the block, huh?
How about Kyle Korver, one of the deadliest snipers around?
Korver knocked down over 45 percent of his threes in 2012-13, and as an unrestricted free agent, his services are available to the highest bidder. He made $5 million last season, which is a figure the Clippers could (and should) easily eclipse, even if they bring CP3 back into the fold for the maximum.
This one's a no-brainer. The only problem is that every good team will be after one of the league's best role players.
This might be a pipe dream, as it's possible Iguodala will get a max offer from somebody, but man, would he be perfect for the Clippers.
Caron Butler is a shell of his former self, Jamal Crawford can't guard anybody and both Billups and Barnes may be gone. So why not bring in a terrific athlete and one of the NBA's very best perimeter defenders in Iguodala?
Assuming Paul comes back for around $22 million per season, the Clippers could still offer Iggy a deal that would pay him nearly $10 million annually and still keep the team below the luxury tax.
And if L.A. is really serious about filling its need for a defensive-minded athlete, it could decline Willie Green's $1.3 million option and make a few minor moves to free up even more money.
If Iguodala and Korver were too ambitious for you, how about a more modest move? Earl Clark could give the Clippers a dimension they currently don't have: He's a budding stretch-4, one of the hottest commodities in the league.
Plus, he wouldn't even have to relocate.
Seriously, though, if L.A. wants to fill a hole with a relatively inexpensive option, Clark makes some sense. He's young, has room to improve and at 6'10", showed the potential to drag opposing big men away from the rim with his outside shot.
Bledsoe has been a defensive terror for a couple of years now, but he made major strides as an all-around contributor in 2012-13.
In about 20 minutes per game, Bledsoe nearly doubled his assist average while seeing only a modest increase in turnovers. Plus, he hit 45 percent of his shots from the field and nearly 40 percent from long range, both of which were career highs.
Daily training sessions with the best point guard in the world has obviously helped accelerate Bledsoe's development, and now, he's gone from having a ceiling as a defensive spark plug to being a player with the capacity to actually run a team some day.
He's not there yet, but at just 23, Bledsoe's definitely on the rise.
Will Chris Paul Be Back?
No surprise here, right?
Look, the Clippers were a joke before Paul came to town and they'll go right back to that status if he leaves.
His presence gives the team an edge that no other player on the roster can duplicate. As a floor general, Paul has been able to overcome the incompetent leadership of Del Negro, forging the Clippers into a team that competes on both ends and generates lots of high-percentage looks.
And if he weren't around, L.A.'s late-game offense would disappear, right along with the franchise's legitimacy as a contender.
This isn't rocket science, folks; if Paul isn't around, the Clippers lose everything they've gained over the past two seasons.
Don't let an ugly playoff exit cloud the larger body of work. If Paul comes back, a better coach than Del Negro takes the reins and one or two solid free agent moves provide some defense on the perimeter and a shooter, the Clippers will be at least as good as they were in 2012-13.
And if players like Griffin and Bledsoe continue to develop, they could be even better.
Consider this power ranking a sign of faith in their ability to take care of business this summer.