Bright Future, Tight Window: LA Clippers Have Zero Margin for Error in West

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Bright Future, Tight Window: LA Clippers Have Zero Margin for Error in West
USA TODAY Sports

Whereas in past years there have been more modest goals and hopes of steady improvement and evolution, those days are gone for the Los Angeles Clippers.

With a new owner, head coach Doc Rivers in his second year and the trio of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan now plenty familiar with one another, winning a title is now the primary focus for everyone in the organization. 

That's been reflected in the moves the Clippers have made this offseason. The signing of Spencer Hawes to the non-taxpayer mid-level exception, the trade of a future first-round pick (for better or worse) for flexibility this season and the re-signing of Rivers all point to a singular goal.

When Rivers first arrived in Los Angeles last season, he made it clear to Paul that in the grand scheme of things, he had accomplished nothing. In that sense, even though the Clippers are far better off going forward now than they were before Rivers took over, the Clippers are still missing real validation.

Bart Young/Getty Images

Here's Paul relaying what Rivers told him upon his arrival, via Marc J. Spears at Yahoo! Sports:

'As professional athletes, you always want someone to push you and motivate you,' Paul said. 'The first meeting I had with Doc, he pretty much told me I wasn't anything. He told me I hadn't done anything in this league, and he was right. You don't always want somebody that's going to tell you what you want to hear.'

It's silly to ignore the process and only evaluate the results, but you can be sure that Paul is starting to feel the pressure to reach the NBA Finals. 

While the title window for Paul and the Clippers is undoubtedly open this year, it's interesting to consider how long that window will stay open. 

Here's Jim Cavan of Bleacher Report:

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.

If there's one thing that's guaranteed about the NBA, it's that there are no guarantees. Just in the past few months, we've seen the landscape of the league change entirely. A serious injury to Paul George killed the title hopes of the Indiana Pacers and may have slammed their window shut. LeBron James leaving the Miami Heat for the Cleveland Cavaliers may have ended Miami's dynasty while starting a new one.

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Point being, you just never know when something great can come crashing down in one fell swoop. With Jordan slated to be an unrestricted free agent next offseason, it's not impossible that he'd decide to take more money elsewhere if the Clippers balked at a max contract. Unlikely? Yes. Impossible? No.

Here's Zach Harper at CBSSports.com:

He'll be knocking on the door of 27 years old when he hits the free agent market in 2015 and he's going to command a bigger salary than when he was trying to be poached and paid based on potential.

Re-signing Jordan on the open market will push the Clippers and new owner Steve Ballmer deep into the luxury tax. They're slated to be $2.6 million over the tax in 2014-15, but with $71 million already committed for 2015-16, the luxury tax hit to keep Jordan will be significant.

Luckily for the Clippers, his financial growth has ended up being their gain. Lob City is more substance now than it ever has been and his improvement is a big part of that. After just one year under Rivers, he's helped become a devastating force for them on both ends of the floor. Even keeping his game where it currently is would warrant All-Star consideration over the next few seasons when he'll be entering his prime as a big man.

Without Jordan, the Clippers would be rather gutless defensively. Hawes is a solid big man, but by no means is he a defensive presence in the middle. Without Jordan, the Clippers would lack the substance and defensive play to be a strong contender, even if Blake Griffin and Chris Paul willed them to wins in the postseason.

While it makes sense not to worry about what you can't control, it's fair to wonder if injuries will once again weaken the team's chances after a long 82-game season.

Here's Stephen Babb of Bleacher Report:

One historically bothersome factor has been health—not catastrophically damning injuries, but the kind of nagging wear and tear that have limited Paul and Griffin. Griffin battled a debilitating ankle injury in 2013 and a knee injury the year before that. Paul dealt with a groin strain in 2012 and hamstring issues last season.

Though it's difficult to find a direct culprit for that kind of misfortune, it wouldn't be surprising for Rivers to watch minutes a bit more closely this season.

The reigning champion Spurs remained fresh in 2014 on account of a radically egalitarian distribution of minutes. No one on San Antonio's roster played 30 or more minutes per game. Point guard Tony Parker led the way averaging just 29.4 minutes.

The fears for the Clippers aren't all that dissimilar to other teams. Of course they'd be in trouble if they lost Griffin or Paul to a significant injury. That's to be expected.

The issue is, with the Western Conference being so competitive and with there being at least two other teams who could easily win the title in the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs, the margin for error is so incredibly slim.

Noah Graham/Getty Images

A bad bench, like the Clippers had last year, can doom you against a team with the depth of San Antonio. The lack of good defenders on the wings, like the Clippers still have, can be a death sentence against the perimeter scoring of OKC

Again, that's not to imply that the Clippers aren't a legitimate contender. It's just that to escape the Western Conference, a lot of things have to go right, and your MVP candidates have to play their best basketball.

With Griffin and Paul both locked up through the 2016-17 season (with player options in 2017-18), and with Rivers on board, the Clippers almost certainly won't see their window for a title shut completely in at least the next three years.

The danger is that it will get tighter and tighter as the means to improve the roster evaporate. If the Clippers are a luxury-tax team, that comes with some limitations with trading, the size of your exceptions and more. It makes things a little tougher.

Is this the best chance at a title the Clippers have ever had?

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More importantly, if Griffin and Jordan are the only rotation players who stand to improve over the next three years instead of decline, you wonder how much better the Clippers can get. Two future first-round picks have already been dealt (2015 and 2017) and we've seen very little of Reggie Bullock so far, one of the few prospects on the team.

Aside from future injuries, you aren't worried about Paul (29) aging poorly and deteriorating, but this may be the perfect intersection of his and Griffin's careers. Paul has lost a little off his fastball after knee injuries earlier in his career, but he's still near his peak as a player. After a monster season last year, Griffin may be approaching his prime. Jordan has seemed to finally fill his potential as a defensive anchor. 

Everything is coming together at the same time, and the future appears to be plenty bright, but things change too quickly in the NBA to guarantee anything at all. For the Clippers, the time is finally now.   

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