Biggest Offseason Priorities and Targets for Los Angeles Clippers
This is the moment the Los Angeles Clippers have long been dreading, the one the media have been pointing toward and harping on for months (if not years), the one that’s had the team’s fragile fan base so nervous for so long.
The most pivotal point in franchise history.
Now that the Clippers have been eliminated from the NBA playoffs by the Utah Jazz in 7 games, there’s little other than vacation time until July 1, when Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and J.J. Redick hit free agency.
Griffin, whose freak toe injury in Game 3 against the Jazz ended his own postseason and doomed L.A.’s, was the game-changing talent who made the Clippers an attractive destination for established stars. Paul, who was redirected to the Clippers after the league nixed an initial trade to the Los Angeles Lakers in December 2011, transformed the City of Angels’ other basketball team from top to bottom. Redick was Doc Rivers’ first major free-agent signing in L.A., and has been the unsung hero of one of the Association’s best offenses since he arrived.
With them, the Clippers have been a perennial powerhouse, albeit one that’s crumbled amid seemingly supernatural misfortune spring after spring. Without them, a team that spent decades as the league’s laughingstock could be destined for more dark days ahead, depending on how the higher ups handle these and other concerns.
Deal with Their Own Big-Name Free Agents
The Clippers have made it clear that they intend re-sign Griffin, Paul and Redick, even at the cost of a sizeable luxury-tax bill.
“I love those guys, and I want those guys back,” team owner Steve Ballmer told ESPN.com’s Kevin Arnovitz.
Whether those feelings are mutual is unclear at this point.
Many around the organization anticipate that Paul will be back. A five-year deal worth more than $200 million may be too much to turn down. As much as he’s done on the court during his six seasons with the Clippers, he’s given plenty more of his time and energy to revamping the organization behind the scenes. It probably won’t hurt the incumbent’s case that it plays in L.A., where Paul, the president of the National Basketball
Players' Association, will be close to most of the NBA’s prominent agents.
Some are far less sanguine about Redick’s return. He’s been the most vocal player in L.A. when it comes to discussing the team’s internal discord publicly.
“I don’t know what to expect from this team anymore,” Redick said during a mid-March slump, per the Los Angeles Times’ BradTurner. “It’s just—we’re in a bad place right now.”
The Clippers will be in a much worse place if Griffin decides to leave. This being his first foray into unrestricted free agency, he figures to look around and find no shortage of suitors eager to make him the man, rather than second fiddle to an alpha floor general like Paul.
As easy—and now cliche—as it may be to suggest that L.A. should “blow up” a team that has yet to so much as escape the second round of the playoffs, there’s plenty more to be said for keeping together a squad that wins 50 games year in and year out, with the talent to do much more. The Clippers will pull out all the stops to keep this group together, and keep their fingers crossed that it’s enough to extend the most prosperous period in franchise history.
If Chris Paul or Blake Griffin Leaves, Be Ready to Recover Quickly
So what happens if Paul or Griffin decides he wants a change of scenery?
Suppose Paul feels like joining forces with one of his Banana Boat buddies in Chicago (Dwyane Wade) or New York (Carmelo Anthony), where the NBPA is headquartered. The Clippers could then have the cap space to pursue one of a slew of other point guards—from Kyle Lowry and Jrue Holiday to George Hill and Jeff Teague—who, while far from Paul’s stratosphere, would be no worse than passable replacements for the Point God.
Say it’s Griffin who succumbs to the seven-year itch—eight if you count what should’ve been his rookie season in 2009-10. If he leaps into cap space cleared out by the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, Knicks or any one of a long list of suitors likely to hound him with phone calls come July 1, the Clippers would do well to pounce on an available power forward (Serge Ibaka? Paul Millsap?) or, perhaps, a bigger wing (more on that in a bit).
Replacing either one, or both, will require a caliber of preparation and speed on L.A.’s part to put its backup plans into action. In a free-agent market that typically moves at the speed of a cell phone connection, there is no time to waste. Big names might not wait for their Clippers counterparts to make their choices before putting pen to paper.
If L.A. has any inclination that Paul or Griffin is on the way out, it will have to switch gears quickly, just as the team did after its meeting with Kevin Durant last summer.
Things could get even more complicated if one of those stars wants to join a team that doesn’t have the cap space to sign him outright, like the San Antonio Spurs or Miami Heat. The Lakers and Knicks would need to perform some kind of cap gymnastics to clear a max slot themselves.
That is, unless they can agree to a sign-and-trade with the Clippers, in which case L.A. may not come away empty-handed.
Beef Up on the Perimeter
With or without Paul, Griffin and Redick, the Clippers have some long-standing roster issues to address. Chief among those is improving their lot on the perimeter.
The Jazz exposed L.A.’s lack of size and two-way skill on the wings in their first-round series. Redick could barely get a clean look against the outstretched arms of Utah’s bigger, stronger wings. Luc Mbah a Moute held his own against Gordon Hayward and Joe Johnson at times defensively, but the Clippers only had one of him to deploy—and might soon have none if he declines his player option. Wesley Johnson, who has two years left on his deal, was practically unplayable for much of the regular season and saw only scant minutes in the postseason. Paul Pierce is retiring, and struggled defenisvely during his two-season homecoming.
For all Alan Anderson brought to the table as a calming locker-room presence, his chronic ankle problems severely limited his impact. And while Austin Rivers has become a versatile defender in L.A., there's only so much a 6'4" combo guard can do to disrupt an opposing wing who's 6'7" or taller and accordingly bulkier.
As Bleacher Report’s Kevin Ding noted after Game 5, Utah’s abundance of scoring prowess on the perimeter punctuated L.A.’s absence in that regard:
And with the Jazz now on the brink of a second-round matchup with Golden State, it is clear Johnson is exactly what Paul needs on the capped-out Clippers, who've sputtered in past playoffs because of injuries but also because they lack a two-way wing threat. Blake Griffin has grown his game, though not into a LeBron James/Kevin Durant/Kawhi Leonard kind of beast, and now he's hurt again.
Should one of L.A.’s big names bolt, the Clippers could go for broke at that position with Hayward or Danilo Gallinari. Perhaps Doc Rivers’ proclivity toward snagging opponents who have plagued him in the past would lead him to lavish Andre Iguodala with a new deal. Or maybe L.A. plays its hand more prudently with more of a mid-tier option like Kyle Korver, P.J. Tucker or James Johnson.
What matters more than the names and salaries are the measurements and basketball abilities of those brought in to aide the Clippers. They won’t go far in the West, let alone compete for a title, without someone capable of stymying the likes of Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James.
Get Serious About Getting Younger
The Clippers, at Doc Rivers’ behest and with his guidance, have gone to great lengths to build out their organizational staff. Peep the team’s page of staff and executives on RealGM, and you’ll find more than 60 people hired across departments—from scouts and assistant coaches to analytics experts and sports scientists—since last summer.
But while L.A. has come a long way in monitoring its players and modernizing most aspects of its operation, it still has plenty of catching up to do when it comes to developing young prospects into contributing pros.
Much of the responsibility for that deficit falls at Rivers’ feet. Under his auspices, the Clippers have yet to draft and develop a member of their regular rotation.
Not that Rivers and his staff haven’t shined up other players. Austin Rivers and Luc Mbah a Moute have grown by leaps and bounds since joining the Clippers. DeAndre Jordan probably wouldn’t have so many superlatives on his resume had Rivers not directed him to devote his energy toward rebounding, defending and finishing around the rim.
"[DeAndre] felt like he was given something that was his," Griffin told Arnovitz. "Doc gave him purpose. He believed him. He said, 'Defense—that's your thing. Go do it.' DJ ate it up."
Now, it’s incumbent upon the Clippers to put that ability to develop players to good use on some inexpensive youngsters with upside. Ultimately, what separates the league’s model franchises (i.e. San Antonio, Golden State, Miami) from the rest isn’t so much their ability to attract stars as it is their nose for either unearthing diamonds in the rough or fashioning them out of lumps of coal.
Persuade More Vets to Come
To be sure, there is value—and, potentially, lots of it—in what Rivers and Paul bring to the table as recruiters.
Paul’s gravitas, as head of the players’ union and on-court stud, has helped to draw peers to L.A., with Jamal Crawford, Raymond Felton and Brandon Bass among those who’ve heeded his call. Rivers’ ring with the Celtics strengthens his case. So does his ability to pitch wayward veterans on coming to the Clippers on a short-term discount and leaving for bigger paydays later on. Mbah a Moute and Marreese Speights are among those who can speak to Doc’s powers of persuasion in that regard.
Granted, cycling through the bargain bin year after year is hardly the ideal way to build a title contender’s supporting cast. But as well as, say, the Warriors have done to turn prospects like Ian Clark and Patrick McCaw into impact players, and as much as the Spurs have done the same with Kyle Anderson and Jonathon Simmons, both of those squads have had their bacon saved just as much (if not more so) by enticing the David Lees, David Wests, Matt Barneses and JaVale McGees of the basketball world to sign on at steep discounts.
With Pierce retiring, Mbah a Moute and Speights considering player options for 2017-18, and Felton, Bass and Alan Anderson bound for free agency, the Clippers will have plenty of roster spots to fill this summer. And without a pick in this year’s draft, they’ll be hard-pressed to close those vacancies with more youngsters to groom next to Brice Johnson and Diamond Stone.
Like it or not, then, L.A. will have to get back on that familiar carousel that’s seen experienced players hop on and off each year and hope there will be enough talent left to field a full team.