The Los Angeles Clippers floored the league in July 2019 when reports came out that they had not only landed Kawhi Leonard as a free agent, but also Paul George in a trade.
The moves brought immediate pressure to win, with Leonard's contract for just three years instead of four and a player option on the final season. Los Angeles not only gave up Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the trade for George, but five first-round picks (two from the Miami Heat), plus the rights to swap picks in 2023 and 2025.
"They gave up everything to get the package deal of Kawhi and PG, they can't let that fall apart," one Eastern Conference executive said.
But after the Clippers' collapse in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs—yielding a 3-1 advantage to the Denver Nuggets—they shocked the NBA world again Monday, parting ways with revered head coach Doc Rivers.
Rivers led the Clippers throughout their best times. He's one of the NBA's most respected ambassadors. In the face of Donald Sterling's racism, he was graceful. After the recent shooting of Jacob Blake, he spoke for a traumatized league.
"I guess some things can be both expected and surprising at the same time," one Western Conference executive said.
Unfortunately for the Clippers, Rivers' track record ran short in the postseason year after year. With offseason acquisitions Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, failing to get out of the second round wasn't enough.
That also falls on Leonard, George and the rest of the players who didn't deliver to their potential against the Nuggets. But the blame hits the coach well before the players.
Add that Rivers lost a similar 3-1 lead to the Houston Rockets in 2015, and this seemed like a pattern. By "mutual decision," per the team's press release, Rivers is out.
The move puts the Clippers in a precarious position, given the contract statuses of their two stars. Like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Victor Oladipo and Jrue Holiday, both Leonard and George can hit free agency in the 2021 offseason.
The time to consider trading a star is typically at least a year before their contracts expire.
That's when Anthony Davis pushed for a trade from the New Orleans Pelicans, when the San Antonio Spurs traded Leonard, and when George was traded from Indiana.
The Clippers can’t possibly be at that point already, can they?
"Roll it back and blame Doc," a former Western Conference executive said. "Easy answer, run it back, but I'm sure they will do something to change the team."
The immediate expectation would be a championship for the Clippers' next coach. That's a lot of pressure, which is why assistant coach Tyronn Lue stands above the rest.
ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski has Lue and current ABC/ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy among the first candidates on the Clippers' list.
Lue has a championship ring after leading LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers to the title in 2016. Van Gundy coached the Houston Rockets and took the New York Knicks to the NBA Finals in 1999.
Other candidates could include current assistant Sam Cassell, Mike D'Antoni, Mark Jackson and a long list of rookie coaches.
Current Lakers assistant Jason Kidd would be an unlikely consideration with Clippers executive Lawrence Frank involved in the decision. The two have a difficult history dating back to their time together in Brooklyn with the Nets, according to Wojnarowski for Yahoo Sports in 2013. Per a recent inquiry, "bad blood" still exists between the two.
What about the roster?
The right coaching hire is vital, but it's only one decision of many. Navigating free agency and the trade market is far more complex.
The Clippers need to start with Marcus Morris, whom they acquired from the New York Knicks for a first-round pick and a first-round pick swap. The most the Clippers can pay to retain Morris in the first year of a new deal is $18 million.
Few teams will have cap room this offseason, while others will have almost $10 million to offer with their mid-level exception. Provided Morris wants to return, the Clippers have the means and should be able to retain their starting power forward.
The trickier question is Montrezl Harrell. The NBA's reigning Sixth Man of the Year was exposed in the playoffs as a 6'8" center trying to deal with Denver's 7-footer Nikola Jokic. The only teams that project to have significant cap room this summer include the Atlanta Hawks, New York Knicks, Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks. If Harrell can get a significant offer, the Clippers may not be inclined to meet that price—Harrell is unrestricted, so he has a significant say in what's next.
One Eastern Conference executive suggested the Miami Heat, though the team would need to find the right price to re-sign Goran Dragic and a way out of Kelly Olynyk's $13.2 million player option.
"They will leave space for Giannis, but they could give [Harrell] a big one-year deal" the executive said of Miami. "They always figure it out."
If those five aren't making a play for Harrell, then the market will be a mid-level deal starting just below $10 million. Perhaps a contract starting in the $12-15 million range would be enough to get Harrell to return, provided the Clippers are so inclined.
"I bet they will try to sign and trade Trez," the executive said.
That could work, giving Harrell a wider list of potential destinations to include teams over the cap and bringing talent back in return. Such a move would be complex but viable (provided the trade partner's payroll is below approximately $139 million).
"If we look at last year and how few teams this [offseason] will have cap room, I think we'll see a lot of sign-and-trades," a different Western Conference executive said.
The Clippers have other decisions, including on reserves Reggie Jackson (free agent) and JaMychal Green (player option). The Clippers could also use an offensive upgrade at point guard; Patrick Beverley is a strong defender but not a playmaker.
Lou Williams is a scorer who can create some offense for others, but he underperformed in the playoffs and was placed in an extended quarantine after visiting an Atlanta strip club while on an excused absence outside of the NBA's Orlando bubble. With Williams heading into the last year of his deal at $8 million, the Clippers could look to move him. But can the team let go of its two vaunted bench scorers and get enough of a return to stay competitive?
Finally, George struggled throughout the playoffs. How much did that impact the locker room? Could Leonard have lost faith in his teammate? That may be a bridge that needs rebuilding.
Heading into the season, the Clippers had championship dreams, but the Nuggets ended their season prematurely. Rivers is gone. Harrell is in limbo, and Ballmer could lose his two prize stars in 2021.
If it's championship or bust, the Clippers need to not only catch the Los Angeles Lakers (with James and presumably Davis) but Denver with Jamal Murray and Jokic and a healthy Warriors team. They're going to need another impressive offseason to get back on track.
Email Eric Pincus at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.