Blake Griffin Holds Key to Clippers' Future...And All of NBA Free Agency

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistMay 8, 2017

SACRAMENTO, CA - NOVEMBER 18: Chris Paul #3 and Blake Griffin #32 of the Los Angeles Clippers look on during the game against the Sacramento Kings on November 18, 2016 at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

All eyes are going to be on the Los Angeles Clippers when NBA free agency gets underway, and for good reason: Their core will set the tone for the summer, dictating whether the league's competitive landscape remains mostly intact, endures meaningful change or pivots somewhere in between. 

Four of the Clippers' five starters will reach the open market this July, three of whom rank among the top-20 available names: Blake Griffin (early termination option), J.J. Redick and Chris Paul (early termination option). The other, Luc Mbah a Moute (player option), gives them four of the top 30 targets.

And out of everyone, no one stands to shape Los Angeles' future, or the rest of free agency, more than Griffin—power borne not from his own hand, but circumstance.

Calls for the Clippers to blow it up are multiplying en masse after their first-round loss to the Utah Jazz. The Big Three have now been together for six years and never once secured a Western Conference Finals appearance.

Reasonable excuses abound, from injuries, to the existence of the San Antonio Spurs, to a scorching-hot Houston Rockets squad in 2015, to injuries again. But the idea that these Clippers have peaked together is not an unfair one. Head coach and president Doc Rivers has not found a way to retool around his stars on a budget or through the draft. Maybe this core has reached its end, even if it holds the Association's third-highest winning percentage since its inception.

It was Rivers who, prior to the 2015-16 campaign, told Zach Lowe, then of Grantland, the Clippers were "right on the borderline" of growing stale. Two seasons later, they haven't sniffed the second round. If they were approaching their expiration date then, they are sure as anything past their shelf life now.

Have the Clippers as we know them peaked?
Have the Clippers as we know them peaked?Rocky Widner/Getty Images

With four of their five best players due for new contracts, and DeAndre Jordan eligible for free agency in 2018 (player option), now would seem like the time for a clean break—a natural reset point. 

"We’ll make all those decisions or they’ll make them for us," Rivers said on the matter, per the Los Angeles Times' Broderick Turner.

It's here we reach the great myth of these Clippers: They cannot make the decision to blow it up.

Consider their salary-cap situation, assuming they retain holds to their four starters and renounce all other free agents. The actual dollar amount on new contracts will be larger, but these are the figures the team will work with before deals are signed:

The Clippers: Stuck in Place
Player2017-18 Hold (before any contracts get signed)
Chris Paul$34,303,241
Blake Griffin$30,211,259
DeAndre Jordan$22,642,350
Jamal Crawford$14,246,988
Austin Rivers$11,825,000
J.J. Redick$11,066,250
Wesley Johnson$5,881,260
Luc Mbah a Moute$2,863,900
Brice Johnson$1,331,160
Diamond Stone$1,312,611
Taxpayer MLE$5,192,000
Empty Roster Charge$815,615
Stretched Money$1,412,964
Total$143,104,598
Projected Salary Cap$101,000,000
Cap Space-$42,104,598
Source: Basketball Insiders/RealGM.

Gutting the core at their leisure won't get the Clippers cap space. They're too far gone.

Some league officials expect Redick to walk for a starting salary north of $18 million per year, according to Turner. And Mbah a Moute is a flight risk. The Clippers own his Early Bird rights, which means they can only offer him 104.5 percent of the previous season's average salary before dipping into cap space they won't have.

Though the figure stands to change, Larry Coon, author of the CBA FAQ, has the average set at $6.2 million, so the Clippers can offer Mbah a Moute $6.5 million in Year 1. That's not enough to keep him. A different projection might increase their spending ability, but anything under $10 million annually opens the door for his exit.

Losing Mbah a Moute and Redick changes nothing about the Clippers' situation. Replace those two holds with empty roster charges, and their bottom line, before doling out new contracts, sits above $130 million.

Correct: There is a real scenario in which the Clippers forfeit two starters and still soar past the $121 million luxury tax.

Granted, this wouldn't qualify as the ultimate teardown. A genuine dissolution entails losing one of Griffin or Paul. Except, it can't be just one.

The Clippers cannot half-foot a teardown. For it to mean anything, it's essentially all or nothing.
The Clippers cannot half-foot a teardown. For it to mean anything, it's essentially all or nothing.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Ditch Griffin in addition to Mbah a Moute and Redick, and the Clippers duck the tax but remain almost $500,000 over the cap. Part ways with Paul instead of Griffin, and you're now under the cap by $8.1 million, but only after renouncing the nontaxpayer mid-level exception—which, at $8.4 million, is worth more than the space.

It's taboo enough to let one or two top-20 talents, in Griffin and Paul, walk for nothing. It's even worse when there are no viable alternatives. The Clippers can't create serious cap space without losing both, have no draft picks and don't have the assets to make an impactful trade unless the New York Knicks feel like getting hosed in any Carmelo Anthony deal.

Hit reset, and all they have is bottoming out, without the free-agency appeal to accelerate the process. So they won't start over. Not by their design. A full-scale rebuild begins only if that decision is made for them, by Griffin or Paul—but more likely Griffin.

"Given his snakebitten tenure with the team and the possibility of another early exit, the prospect of exploring what's out there will be alluring," ESPN.com's Kevin Arnovitz wrote. "One premise volunteered in good humor suggests that Paul is more likely to take a slew of meetings in a public process but ultimately re-sign with the Clippers, while Griffin is more likely to mull the decision privately under the guise of night, but announce he'll be playing elsewhere in 2017-18."

Paul will find it harder to turn down the five-year deal that, per Turner, the Clippers plan to offer him and Griffin. Most of the teams that can afford his max salary ($35.4 million) aren't contenders—squads such as the Denver Nuggets and Philadelphia 76ers. 

Competitive units like the Dallas Mavericks, Indiana Pacers and New Orleans Pelicans can get there if they really try, mostly through salary dumps, but there isn't a place Paul can feasibly go that improves his outlook. The San Antonio Spurs are beyond a long shot, and at 32, he doesn't have time to wait on a developing superpower.

Griffin is the Clippers' most powerful offseason barometer.
Griffin is the Clippers' most powerful offseason barometer.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Griffin, 28, has more room to gamble. He can latch onto the postseason-ready Celtics, try pushing fringe-lottery squads—like the Nuggets and Miami Heat—over the top, or join rebuilding projects like the Los Angeles Lakers or Minnesota Timberwolves.

And what happens if he leaves? Specifically, we don't know. Generally speaking, chaos.

Maybe the Clippers rush to re-sign Redick in Griffin's absence. But that's assuming he hasn't signed elsewhere, or that Rivers can talk owner Steve Ballmer into paying around $20 million per year over the next three or four seasons for someone who turns 33 in June.

Griffin's departure doesn't make Redick any cheaper. It doesn't help the Clippers afford Mbah a Moute. It just increases the likelihood they're left with their nightmare scenario—a foundation of Jordan and Paul, with no means of building around them:

The Clippers' Nightmare Scenario
Player2017-18 Hold (before any contracts get signed)
Chris Paul$34,303,241
DeAndre Jordan$22,642,350
Jamal Crawford$14,246,988
Austin Rivers$11,825,000
Wesley Johnson$5,881,260
Brice Johnson$1,331,160
Diamond Stone$1,312,611
Non-Taxpayer MLE$8,406,000
4 Empty Roster Charges$3,262,460
Stretched Money$1,412,964
Total$104,624,034
Projected Salary Cap$101,000,000
Cap Space-$3,624,034
Source: Baksetball Insiders/RealGM.

Paul would have to take a serious look in the mirror at this point. A five-year, $200-plus million deal is nice, but he won't be competing for anything in Los Angeles. Griffin is young enough to stick around if Paul leaves, but it doesn't work as well the other way around.

Suddenly, just like that, the death of the Clippers as we know them is reality. And it's this demise that would define the offseason, with Los Angeles' core being spread throughout the league, possibly creating or completing two more contenders.

Even the secondary market of non-stars will feel the ramifications. Contingency bigs like James Johnson and Kelly Olynyk will see their zip code change if their respective team lands Griffin. JaMychal Green, Amir Johnson and Nikola Mirotic won't enjoy immediate bidding wars if Griffin is shopping around, his affections truly up for grabs.

If Paul's reaction to his superstar running mate fleeing is to leave himself, it becomes harder for George Hill and Jeff Teague to suss out max or near-max deals. If the Spurs somehow unload the contracts necessary to woo Paul, it has a chain reaction. At least one of LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol Danny Green and Tony Parker will be playing for a new team, while each of Dewayne Dedmon, Patty Mills and Jonathon Simmons will be forced to sign elsewhere.

No other players have this power. Actual flight risks are scarce among this summer's top free agents. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Jrue Holiday, Serge Ibaka, Kyle Lowry, Otto Porter Jr., even Gordon Hayward—they all feel destined to stay put.

Who knows, perhaps the Clippers' core will, too. That remains the most likely outcome. And yet, there's a legitimate chance they look different anyway. They've already peaked, everyone knows it, and Griffin, more so than anyone else, is in position to trigger their undoing.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.

Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference or NBA.com. Team salary and player contract information via Basketball Insiders.

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