LOS ANGELES — The Lob City era officially ended when Chris Paul was traded to the Houston Rockets last June, followed by Blake Griffin to the Detroit Pistons in February. As the 2017-18 season draws to a close for the Los Angeles Clippers, who will miss the playoffs for the first time since 2011, the Lob City demolition project likely isn't over.
Many tough decisions await owner Steve Ballmer and executives Lawrence Frank, Michael Winger and Jerry West. Together, they'll need to navigate the Clippers through their impending crossroads.
The conversation will likely start at with head coach Doc Rivers. A year removed from being relieved of his front-office duties, Rivers is heading into the final year of his coaching contract. Is it time for the veteran coach to move on?
The team's personnel decisions begin with DeAndre Jordan, who can opt into his contract at $24.1 million for one more season or choose to explore free agency this summer. He and the team have yet to agree upon an extension. Like Rivers, Jordan may be playing out his final days with the franchise.
Doc Rivers' Future
Rivers isn't likely to get serious consideration for Coach of the Year, but he should at least receive an honorable mention.
Despite multiple injuries to his players, including Patrick Beverley, Danilo Gallinari, Milos Teodosic, Austin Rivers, Jordan and the departed Griffin, Rivers kept his team in the playoff hunt until the final days of the season.
Instead of relying heavily on veterans, Rivers got production out of younger players like Tyrone Wallace, Jawun Evans, Sindarius Thornwell and C.J. Williams. He quickly integrated Tobias Harris after the Griffin trade and found roles for players like Montrezl Harrell and Boban Marjanovic. The Clippers probably won more than they should have this season, and Rivers deserves credit for that. Does that guarantee job stability in the NBA? No.
But the Clippers owe Rivers approximately $10 million for the 2018-19 season. That's enough money for the team to consider keeping him another year, but it is unlikely to reinvest long term in the veteran coach.
The buzz around the league—not from inside the Clippers camp, but among executives from other teams observing the situation—is that Rivers and the Clippers are indeed heading for a divorce sooner than later.
For now, the championship window is closed without Paul and Griffin.
What to do with DeAndre?
Jordan has control over his own future, to a point.
Turning 30 in July, Jordan remains a prolific rebounder (15.3 per night) but blocked only 0.9 shots a game this season.
He and the Clippers have long discussed an extension but haven't been able to settle on a number that worked for both parties. Los Angeles shopped him at the trade deadline to teams like the Portland Trail Blazers, Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards.
According to an NBA executive, Jordan was willing to opt into his contract if traded, provided the trading team was willing to give him another $100 million over the next three seasons.
Now, Jordan can explore free agency by opting out, where he's eligible for a maximum above $35 million per year.
Several franchises project to have significant cap space, but will the Dallas Mavericks (who had agreed to a deal with Jordan in 2015 before he reneged), Indiana Pacers, Atlanta Hawks, Sacramento Kings, Chicago Bulls or Lakers have interest at that price?
The rebuilding Hawks and Bulls probably shouldn't invest that much in Jordan, given his age.
The Lakers may make some sense to Jordan, given he wouldn't have to relocate, but Brook Lopez may be a better fit with his three-point range.
Ultimately, if Jordan isn't confident in the free-agent market, he may choose to opt into his contract.
The power would then shift to the Clippers, who can keep him for another season or look again to trade him this summer. While an extension isn't entirely out of the question, Los Angeles isn't close to Jordan's current asking price.
It's possible Jordan starts the 2018-19 season on the Clippers, but he probably wouldn't finish the year with the team.
Free Agents and Options
Jordan isn't the only player with an option this summer. Austin Rivers can leave $12.7 million behind to explore free agency, and he might.
One NBA executive (not with the Clippers) speculated Milos Teodosic will opt out of his final year at $6.3 million, but that Wesley Johnson is a near lock to stay at $6.1 million.
Although he had a productive season when healthy, Rivers may not be part of the Clippers' long-term plans without his father on staff. Fair or not, his last name may be why the Clippers acquired him initially and why they may move on, but Rivers been an important part of the rotation throughout his stay with the team.
Teodosic was productive as a 31-year old rookie, but both were hurt for significant stretches of the season. Johnson, presuming he opts in, would be expendable in a trade.
Patrick Beverley's $5 million salary is not guaranteed, but he's worth keeping at that price. The Clippers lost their best defender when he went down early in the season with a knee injury.
Los Angeles can and should make Harrell and Wallace restricted free agents. Both were positive contributors this season.
Avery Bradley will be an unrestricted free agent. Acquired in the deal for Griffin, Bradley struggled with his three-point shot as a Clipper before being sidelined with an abdominal injury.
On paper, Beverley and Bradley would be an imposing duo defensively although neither is a true point guard.
The Clippers will need to gauge the market closely to determine if Bradley is the right investment.
Summer of 2018 or 2019?
In addition to their own lottery pick (currently 13th), the Clippers will get the Pistons' (12th), provided Detroit doesn't end up with a top-three selection.
The franchise can get up to about $35 million in cap space if Jordan, Teodosic and Johnson opt out—and if the team cuts Beverley and any other free agents.
If some or all opt in, then Los Angeles won't have any space at all. The front office will need to prepare for both contingencies.
The Clippers are probably better suited to wait until 2019 when players like Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard, Kemba Walker and Jimmy Butler are free agents.
Los Angeles could have about $64 million in spending power next year without Harris, Jordan, Rivers, Bradley and others. That amount would shrink if the Clippers make other long-term investments this summer.
Look for the team to aggressively explore all options including trades, extensions and free agency, but the initial decisions are up to the players with options due before July.