Biggest Needs for Los Angeles Clippers During 2014 Offseason
To be sure, the circumstances of this year's six-game ouster at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder were far different from those that felled the Clippers in six against the Memphis Grizzlies in 2013.
The replacement of the shaky Vinny Del Negro with the venerable Doc Rivers last summer all but erased any prior discord in the locker room, though Donald Sterling's stunning comments and the aftermath they accorded did plenty to inject chaos and drama into the Clippers' off-court situation.
No matter the details derived from the autopsy of the Clips' 2013-14 season, the result will remain much the same as it was last spring: a franchise record for wins, a Pacific Division title and an early start to summer vacation.
Fortunately for the Clippers, their front office is more than stable, with Rivers providing the requisite vision and leadership.
Even if their ownership situation is anything but.
If the Clippers are to build on their successes from this season—and, in turn, build toward their first championship—they'd to well to address the following areas of concern.
Shooting was supposed to be one of the Clippers' biggest strengths coming into this season. The additions of Jared Dudley and J.J. Redick, two perimeter marksmen, by way of the three-team trade that landed Eric Bledsoe with the Phoenix Suns seemed to guarantee that Chris Paul and Blake Griffin would have plenty of room to roam in the middle.
That didn't unfold quite as L.A. had hoped. Dudley struggled through nagging injuries and lagging confidence before losing his spot as the Clippers' starting small forward to the well-traveled Matt Barnes. Redick was great when healthy, with career highs in points (15.2) and field-goal percentage (.455) while shooting 39.5 percent from deep. But the 29-year-old's impact was mitigated by wrist and back injuries, which combined to sideline him for 47 games.
As a result, the Clippers' three-point shooting suffered. Without any other shooting specialists to boost its efforts, L.A. finished 22nd in three-point percentage (.352), despite logging the eighth-most attempts (24 per game).
Statistically speaking, the Clippers' lack of reliable shooting didn't hurt them much—during the regular season, anyway. They still finished with the league's most efficient offense. But without many floor-spacers on hand, the Clippers' attack suffered against the Thunder, particularly when the pressure was at its most suffocating.
The Clippers have some in-house options to whom they can turn, though none that would seem to be game-changers. Chris Paul and Jamal Crawford can both hit from range, but neither is going to spend much time standing or running around off the ball. Willie Green (.339 from three) didn't do much to supplement the Clippers' shooting efforts and may be cut loose this summer, since his salary for 2014-15 isn't guaranteed. Reggie Bullock came out of North Carolina with some promise but played fewer than 400 minutes as a rookie and shot just 30.1 percent from deep.
If the Clippers want to keep the court from cramping up on them in crucial moments, they'd do well to peruse the free-agent market for someone whose outside shot demands attention from opposing defenses.
And if he can lock down the other wing position in Doc Rivers' starting five, even better. Perhaps Rivers can lure one of his former Boston Celtics to L.A. to fill that role, as ESPN's Marc Stein suggested:
If [Kevin] Garnett decides it’s time to stop, [Paul] Pierce is bound to be intrigued even more by the scenario that is said to be on his radar already: Reuniting with Doc Rivers in Clipperland in what would also be a homecoming for the Los Angeles native.
A Small-Ball Solution
So long as the Clippers are in the market for a shooter, they might as well find one with some size and strength to boot.
Doc Rivers spent plenty of time and energy (and some money) this season in search of someone who could step in as the nominal power forward in "small ball" lineups. He cycled through a number of inexpensive options (i.e., Stephen Jackson, Hedo Turkoglu, Danny Granger), but each proved to be too far "over-the-hill" to fulfill such a role consistently and effectively. Granger surprisingly held his own in that regard during L.A.'s fourth-quarter comeback in Game 4 against OKC, but that came in a moment of desperation.
And, well, Granger's a free agent and doesn't figure to be retained on the basis of his overall performance as a Clipper.
Adding a shooter who's quick enough to guard wings but can at least hold his own against post players on the defensive end would go a long way toward opening up a range of lineup options that Rivers can use to his team's tactical advantage. Reggie Bullock, at 6'7", could become just the kind of big "3-and-D" guy the Clippers need, but, as mentioned earlier, he's still largely unproven.
The more L.A. can do to find a more reliable version of Bullock in free agency, the better equipped they'll be to handle just about any and every arrangement they encounter in next year's playoffs.
Some Legitimate Depth Up Front
Even if the Clippers find the perfect forward to unlock small-ball possibilities, they'll still need some more size on their bench.
You know, the sort that can rebound, take up space in the middle and protect the rim from time to time.
As much as DeAndre Jordan has improved as a defensive dynamo, he still finds himself in foul trouble on occasion, and he can't be expected to play the full 48 every night anyway. Blake Griffin would make more sense as an option to slide over to center in Jordan's stead if his arms were long enough to deter intruders who'd dare venture into the lane.
And, of course, if the Clips had other reliable options at power forward. According to NBAwowy.com, L.A. gave up 106.3 points per 100 possessions, with the opposition launching its two-pointers from an average distance of just under seven-and-a-half feet from the hoop, whenever Griffin took the court without Jordan this season.
This shouldn't come as any great surprise, given the dearth of quality bigs on the Clippers' bench. Ryan Hollins, long enough to challenge shots but lacking the bulk to be a force on the boards, fell out of Doc Rivers' rotation weeks before the playoffs began. Glen Davis, Rivers' once-and-former pupil, fluctuated between non-factor and nuisance in L.A. after being bought out by the Orlando Magic during the season. The summer signings of Antawn Jamison and Byron Mullens seemed silly at the time and proved to be just that, at least until the Clips dumped them ahead of the Feb. 20 trade deadline.
No team that sports a pair of athletic carom collectors like Griffin and Jordan should be outrebounded over the course of an entire season. Neither should that squad struggle to clean the glass against an opponent whose frontline was as devastated by injuries and foul trouble as Golden State's was in the first round.
Surely, having another dependable pivot to bring off the bench would've helped the Clippers in that regard. Had that been the case this year, we might be talking about L.A. moving beyond Round 2 for the first time in franchise history.
Maybe next year—if the Clips fill out their frontcourt this summer.
Guarantee Jamal Crawford's Contract
Of all the things the Clippers can do this summer to shore up their championship hopes for 2015, none is easier or more important than the retention of Jamal Crawford.
Or so it seems at first glance.
Crawford, now a two-time Sixth Man of the Year, will head into the offseason with two years remaining on his current contract. Neither of those years, though, is fully guaranteed.
You know what is guaranteed? L.A.'s backslide if Crawford's not around. He was integral to the Clips' success in 2013-14. His 18.6 points per game—the highest average of any reserve in the NBA—sparked the team's ever-shifting second unit. His ability to handle the ball and start in a pinch made him particularly pivotal this season, as Doc Rivers juggled his rotation to account for injuries to J.J. Redick and Chris Paul.
The Clippers' need for a secondary creator only figures to grow in the years to come. Paul isn't getting any younger, and his body can't seem to hold up amidst the wear and tear of a long season without something undermining him in the spring.
Crawford, though, is no spring chick himself, at least by NBA standards. He turned 34 in March and suffered through some setbacks of his own in the waning stages of the regular season. Guards don't tend to age well, especially when they're as slight of frame as Crawford is, at 6'6" and 185 pounds. It's possible, then, that 2013-14 will turn out to be Crawford's last as a consistent difference-maker in the NBA.
Of course, there's no way to know that until 2014-15 rolls around. What we do know is that the Clippers' payroll is likely to come in over the salary cap but under the luxury-tax line whether they keep Crawford or not.
According to Basketball Insiders, Crawford's $5.45 million take for next season would peg the Clips' salary obligations at just under $72 million—well below a tax level that collective bargaining agreement guru Larry Coon recently projected to reach $77 million. If that's the case, Doc Rivers will still have some semblance of the mid-level exception with which to add pieces this summer even if he retains Crawford.
The bigger concern with Crawford's salary could come down to a matter of team ownership. If the Clippers wind up in limbo, wrested from Donald Sterling's control but not yet sold to a new group, the league might implore L.A.'s front office to lighten the team's fiscal load (and boost the eventual sale price) by shedding salary, with Crawford's as the chief culprit.
None of which would make Doc Rivers' decision regarding Crawford's future—a decision that should be simple, based on Jamal's recent contributions to the club—any easier to suss out.
No More Donald Sterling
The concerns over Crawford hint at a much bigger issue underlying every move the Clippers may or may not make this summer.
That is, no matter what Doc Rivers and company do from a basketball standpoint this offseason, everything will be affected and overshadowed by the fallout from the Donald Sterling debacle.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver did well by the players (and, ultimately, by the league) in banning Sterling for life and fining him $2.5 million for the racist remarks of his that were leaked to TMZ and Deadspin in the middle of L.A.'s first-round series against Golden State. Sterling, through his lawyer, has already refused to pay the fine while vowing to fight the league in court for the due process from which he feels he's been deprived, per Sports Illustrated's Michael McCann.
That potential fight merely precludes the hard part for the league: stripping Sterling of his most prized possession and sorting through the lengthy list of potential suitors to find the proper successor.
The gears are already churning in that regard. The league's Advisory/Finance Committee met just days after Silver's announcement and resolved to reconvene soon to further hash out a plan for pushing Sterling into basketball exile. A vote among the 29 other owners on Sterling's future figures to come relatively soon, though even that could take several months to organize.
And that's to say nothing of the legal mess that such proceedings could and probably will spark. Angelenos should know. They've been privy to Sterling's litigiousness over the years.
They've also recently seen how ugly things can get when a league office tries to pry a reviled owner from his franchise. It took Major League Baseball, led by commissioner Bud Selig, nearly a year of pressure, much of which was applied through bankruptcy courts, to convince Frank McCourt to sell the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Sterling figures to be a much tougher nut to crack. He's more stubborn than McCourt; he's not involved in concurrent divorce proceedings like McCourt was, and he doesn't need the money like the then-debt-ridden McCourt did.
Like the Dodgers of yesteryear, though, the Clippers could find themselves paralyzed by such legal wrangling and the instability it instigates at the highest levels of the organization. The Dodgers' hands were largely tied when it came to upgrading the roster in any significant way.
And as much as the players and coaches who were already there did to block out the distraction caused by that dispute, its effects ultimately trickled down onto the field and into the stands, from which Dodgers fans fled in order to send a clear message to McCourt.
The same may well happen to the Clips if Sterling drags this business along until the bitter end. Plenty of the team's fans are already dubious about the prospect of supporting the team when their money would still wind up in the pockets of a despicable bigot.
Moreover, the Clippers can ill-afford to let their moment pass. They have one superstar (Griffin) just entering his prime and another (Paul) in the midst of his. Unlike MLB, the NBA's rules and regulations don't allow teams to buy up other team's stars as they see fit, as the Dodgers did in their blockbuster trade with the Boston Red Sox back in 2012.
As such, it's not as though new owners, however deep their pockets may turn out to be, could simply splash the cash around and expect the Clippers to get better as a result. There are all manner of salary cap considerations for the team to take into account.
In the meantime, the longer this situation drags on, the more difficult it'll be for the Clippers to attract marquee free agents, and the more likely it is that the those off-court concerns take their toll on the team's on-court performance.
In all likelihood, solving the Sterling problem this summer will be a pipe dream for both the Clippers and the NBA. This could take months, if not years, for the courts to sort out, lest the two sides find a way to settle on their own.
Until it's resolved, L.A. will be hard-pressed to maintain its current competency, much less take the next step up the ladder of title contention, without being undermined by matters more befitting of a soap opera than of a sports scandal.
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