Los Angeles Clippers Just Need Minor Tweaks, Not Another Superstar

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistJune 26, 2014

In theory, there are 29 teams in the NBA that would do just about anything to pry LeBron James away from the Miami Heat.

But there are some important exceptions to that rule—or at least there should be. 

It wouldn't be the San Antonio Spurs' style. And for all the team's might, there's neither the cap room nor the assets to make a deal happen.

A handful of rebuilding teams (the 76ers, Bucks, etc.) know they simply have no hope of attracting the best player on the planet. 

Then there's the curious case of the Los Angeles Clippers.

The club has a premier coach and point guard, is on the verge of contending and hails from one of the league's prime markets. 

According to the Los Angeles Times' Broderick Turner:

Doc Rivers, the Clippers’ president of basketball operations and coach, and his staff are doing their due diligence to make the team better and would consider moving All-Star power forward Blake Griffin along with others in a sign-and-trade deal to get James, according to the officials.

That's bold.

And yes, it's something you'd have to consider if you're the Clippers, LeBron or the Heat.

But it also might be the wrong direction for Los Angeles, a team that's already so close to being exactly what it wants to be.

Make no mistake about it: James is better than Griffin.

He'd immediately secure the Clippers' status as contenders and give the team a legitimate chance of taking on the defending champion Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder.

Then, as Turner notes, the chemistry between superstars James and Chris Paul may be almost instantaneous: 

"One official said James really liked Rivers and was good friends with Clippers point guard Chris Paul," reports Turner.

So what's not to like?

For starters, the message it sends.

The message it sends to everyone else on the roster, including Paul. The notion that even the most promising and, at times, dominant young talent is expendable for the right price. The idea that titles can be bought if the right mercenary comes along.

You can certainly point to other super-team experiments that worked, Miami's chief among them (with the Celtics' Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce-Ray Allen project not far behind).

But neither Miami nor Boston parted with a player of Griffin's caliber. Neither team jettisoned such a central and popular piece in its quest to quickly become an elite contender.

That's the kind of move that can tear at a team's fabric.

There's also the risk that James and Paul just don't mesh on the floor (even if they're close off of it). Chris Broussard writes for ESPN Insider (subscription required):

I'm told the Clippers are not among James' most preferred destinations. While James and Clippers point guard Chris Paul are great friends, there are concerns about the compatibility of their games. Paul is not as capable of excelling off the ball as Wade was when he adjusted to playing with James.

James and Paul started eight games with one another as recently as the 2012 London Summer Olympics.

It's an imperfect comparison given Team USA's inflated star presence, but it suggests the two have at least some history of finding a rhythm together.

During those games, James averaged 13.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 5.6 assists in just 25.1 minutes per contest. Paul added 8.3 points and 5.1 assists.

Take that for what it is—a limited sample size and a different context—but perhaps a sign that the two ball-dominating superstars wouldn't be a total bust together.

Chances are this discussion will remain a hypothetical one. Turner caveats his report by concluding that "the Clippers expect James to return to the Heat."

If it weren't for that pesky salary cap, the Clippers could of course sell James on the notion of joining both Paul and Griffin, signing him outright without having to play ball in a sign-and-trade arrangement.

That would obviate the need to part with a franchise-building piece, and it would make the allure of joining Los Angeles almost irresistible for James.

But alas, it's virtually impossible for the Clippers to shave the kind of salary it would take to make anywhere near a max offer to James.

Though Turner's sources would seemingly suggest that the Clippers would nevertheless entertain dealing Griffin for James, there are countervailing winds that indicate such a move is highly unlikely. 

ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne reports:

While the Clippers would need to move significant players and money to make a run at either James or [Carmelo] Anthony, sources told ESPN that Clippers president and coach Doc Rivers has told Griffin on numerous occasions that he considers him 'untouchable' in any trade.

Now, that sounds more like it.

So does another deal the Clippers may be contemplating. Shelburne adds, "Sources said the team has engaged in trade discussions this spring with the Orlando Magic regarding shooting guard Arron Afflalo."

Though "those conversations were initially rebuffed by the Magic...," Shelburne leaves the door open, noting, "...the clubs could revisit those talks later if they morphed into a three-team discussion."

Afflalo would shore up Los Angeles' wing and provide the team with an effective and underrated two-way presence.

He'd be a solid improvement over current options like Jared Dudley and Matt Barnes. Though Afflalo is more of a shooting guard than either Dudley or Barnes (both small forwards), the Clippers could easily operate with Paul, Jamal Crawford/J.J. Redick and Afflalo all on the floor at the same time.

It's unclear what L.A.'s package for Afflalo includes, but it could be a sensible deal assuming the cost is modest enough.

It represents the kind of piecemeal improvement for which the organization should be aiming.

The core that's already in place certainly should be able to win a championship on paper. It includes perhaps the league's best point guard, dominant interior scoring and a top-shelf coach. It boasts dangerous perimeter shooting and a center who protects the rim.

The Clippers are close to where they need to be.

Oh so close.

Beyond adding someone like Afflalo, the biggest difference-makers will be things like forging common institutional knowledge, staying healthy all year long and giving J.J. Redick some more time to integrate himself into Rivers' schemes. 

And perhaps the single greatest variable will be the continued evolution of Griffin himself. It's not that the Clippers need new star power. They just need their current star to do what he's been doing, perhaps at an ever-so-slightly higher level.

Griffin is coming off a career season in which he averaged 24.1 points and 9.5 rebounds. He carried the team during stretches of the regular season when Paul was injured and looked more like a franchise cornerstone than ever before.

When you're talking about a 25-year-old with that kind of trajectory, the status quo isn't so bad.

Adjustments may be in order, but they should be just that—adjustments.

An overhaul would be overkill.


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