Is the Championship Window Slowly Closing on the Los Angeles Clippers?

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Is the Championship Window Slowly Closing on the Los Angeles Clippers?
USA Today

Heading into the 2014-15 season, you’d be hard-pressed finding a trio of teams with a better shot at winning the NBA championship than the Los Angeles Clippers.

From star power to depth to two-way tenacity, the Clips have all the necessary ingredients and a coach,  Doc Rivers, more than capable of cooking up a banner-worthy meal.

But as with so many things L.A., what’s seen on the gleaming facade often mask the faults in the foundation.

The Clippers’ dirty little secret: After this year, it could be awhile before their title window is open that wide again.

Ludicrous, you say? A team coming off 57 wins, top-10 finishes in both offensive and defensive efficiency and with a pair of under-30 top-tier talents in tow on the downslide? What sport are you watching?

It’s a fair retort, to be sure. What this logic fails to acknowledge, though, is just how tenuous the team’s future continuity really is.

It begins where so many opponent possessions end: in the hands of center DeAndre Jordan.

 

Center of Attention

Uncredited/Associated Press

Jordan, who will become an unrestricted free agent next summer, is all but guaranteed to seek another, bigger payday. And rightly so: The 26-year-old center is coming off by far his most productive season to date, a year in which he led the league in rebounding and finished third in blocked shots.

In fact, Jordan’s play was so stellar that, early in the season, Rivers went so far as to compare his young pivot to longtime Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell. 

“DJ looked like that guy from Boston again,” Rivers said, via ESPN Los Angeles’ Arash Markazi. “I keep saying that if there is a better defensive player in the league, I don’t know where he is at. He was phenomenal tonight.”

Hyperbolic? Without a doubt. An earnest indication of just how valuable Rivers believes Jordan to be? You better believe it.

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

How much might Jordan fetch? If this summer’s free-agency period has taught us anything, it’s that the teams in need of specific skill sets are more than willing to break the bank to get it. (Jodie Meeks, anyone?)

According to the league’s collective bargaining agreement, L.A. would have the right to further exceed the salary cap in offering Jordan a maximum extension. But with the team’s ownership in flux and little  firsthand knowledge regarding what Steve Ballmer’s overall strategy might entail, it would be naive to assume Jordan’s return was anything close to a given.

Writing at ClipsNation, Lucas Hann zeroed in on the crucial calculus at play:

Overall, Jordan's impending free agency, and the possibility of a crippling long-term overpay in a time when the Clippers will be desperately trying to avoid the apron to retain the full MLE, are severely frightening.  He's certainly not worth a maximum contract, but if some team with cap space wants to overpay him, the Clippers will be stuck between two poor options.  I haven't heard anything about the Clippers offering Jordan an extension this summer, but should he be willing to take the $39.5 million for three additional years, it would seem to be a wise move for the team to lock him up now.

Without their stalwart paint protector, the Clippers—close to the cap as they are—would be forced to find a replacement on the open market. Either that or roll the dice on the serviceable, but by no means game-changing, Spencer Hawes.

Will L.A. be able to sell Jordan on comfort, continuity and continued contention? It’s certainly possible. It’s in pleasing another of the team’s big names, however, that stands to be Ballmer’s biggest challenge.

 

Doc’s Dilemma

Don Ryan/Associated Press

That Rivers could have walked away from L.A. at the height of the Donald Sterling saga is, at this point, common knowledge, via The Associated Press' Linda Deutsch.

What many may not recall is how, during negotiations over a 2013 trade that brought J.J. Redick to Tinseltown and sent Eric Bledsoe to the Phoenix Suns, Sterling’s ham-fistedness—despite having given full managerial control over to Rivers—very nearly resulted in the veteran coach cutting his Clippers ties, per Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski.

Add to that the controversial way in which Rivers left Boston, and there emerges a picture of a coach whose sense of loyalty isn’t exactly strong.

Whether it’s Jordan’s departure, feuds with ownership, basic family obligations or convenience appeal, there’s simply no telling as to how long Doc will be with the Clippers. 

The addition of Rivers helped transform L.A. from a formidable conference threat into a legitimate title contender—that much is undeniable. Sticking around when the going gets tough? Not so set in stone.

 

The Risk of Being Icarus

Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

For all the questions surrounding Jordan and Rivers, the Clippers faithful can at least bank on Chris Paul and Blake Griffin—both of whose contracts run through 2017-18 player options—remaining the team’s superstar cornerstones.

Stars they most definitely are. Invincible? Hardly.

In his nine-year NBA career, Paul has yet to play a full 82-game slate. And while his most significant injury remains a small meniscus tear suffered in 2010, CP3’s hard-nosed style of play can’t help but lend itself to the kind of cumulative tweaks and dings that, when added up, could result in longer stints on the sidelines.

Griffin, on the other hand, would seem as safe a bet as they come, why with L.A.’s freakishly gifted 25-year-old having missed a total of four games in four NBA seasons.

Rather, the worry with Griffin lies in the high-flying power forward’s seeming disregard for both the laws of physics and, more to the point, the risks inherent in his brand of basketball gymnastics.

Cynical though it may sound to suggest Griffin’s gravity-defying dunks are bound to take their toll sooner than later—join me in knocking on the sturdiest wooden object available—it’s also wholly realistic and speaks to the risk and reward of playing Icarus in a sport where everyone is already flying way too close to the sun.

No team, no matter how risk-averse, is about to impose sanctions on its players’ athletic feats. All the same, the fact that L.A.’s two biggest stars are walking such delicate high wires ought to convince ownership—whomever it ends up being—of one, overarching directive: We have to win and win now.

 

No Time Like the Present

Matt York/Associated Press

For all their red flags, the Clippers remain easily one of the most title-ready teams in the league. If all breaks right, there’s no reason to believe they couldn’t run away with the Western Conference crown. At that point, they’d almost certainly be squaring off against an inferior Eastern foe.

Still, there’s a danger in assuming that the past few seasons—positively script-flipping though they’ve been for a franchise long considered a league laughingstock—mean happy days are here to stay.

As such, it’s high time L.A.’s little brother recognize its opportunity and seize it. Because if NBA history has taught us anything about supposed dynasties in the making, it’s that a team's title window is never quite as open as it might think.

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