The Clippers are on the cusp, yet quite far away. How do they close that gap, and how big even is it?

Over the last few weeks, the BBALLBREAKDOWN team have been taking looks at five important questions each NBA team will be facing going into the upcoming offseason, continuing here with the Los Angeles Clippers.

A year under the ownership of Steve Ballmer, the Los Angeles Clippers are undertaking an aggressive rebranding. There will be new logos, new uniforms, and a new marketing campaign; anything to dissolve the ties to decades of misery under previous owner Donald Sterling.

What remains to be seen is how much the team or its fortunes will change, having endured yet another second round playoff defeat – their third in the four seasons of the Chris Paul-led Lob City era.

Four years in, the core of Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Paul appear to have peaked as a trio. In so many ways the Clippers’ 2014-15 campaign mirrored their previous bodies of work, from Paul pacing himself through the first half of the season, to the incremental progress of Griffin and Jordan, right the way through to their ultimate playoff collapse.

The question now shifts from how much more their franchise cornerstones can give to whether it’ll be enough with what head coach and general manager Doc Rivers can put around them.

Griffin and Paul remain firmly under contract, extreme bargains for all they bring to the franchise even at veteran max contract deals. Likewise, sharpshooter and underrated secondary creator J.J. Redick is handsomely compensated, filling in the gaps and opening up another branch of options around Paul’s exquisite pick-and-roll work while providing a capable defensive presence. Behind them, the high wire, high-variance act of Jamal Crawford will try to remain firmly on the positive side of the ledger another year off the bench while age continues to diminish his margin of error. Throw in Austin Rivers and the newly acquired Lance Stephenson, and it’s an imbalanced, guard-heavy roster with many of the same questions from last summer.

The only significant free agent is Jordan, who is unrestricted with no shortage of suitors in a summer replete with teams willing to throw around significant dollars before next summer’s cap room boom frees up almost every NBA team to compete over free agents. His future is one of the five key questions facing the Clippers this summer.

1. Is This a Championship Core?

So many questions appeared to be answered this spring when the Clippers broke through against the San Antonio Spurs in a seven-game instant classic. It was arguably the highest level of basketball played by two competing teams throughout the entire playoffs.

Unfortunately, it was also merely the first round.

Dethroning the defending champion Spurs brought out the best in the Clippers, and it was absolutely formidable enough to stand up to the best anyone else in the NBA can offer. The problem for the Clippers is there is a sizeable difference between a team’s ceiling and its normal baseline of play. Their series against the Spurs took everything out of them, and the team lost steam against the Houston Rockets mid-series, blowing significant leads.

The questions facing the Clippers are whether they can raise their baseline of play to a level closer to their ceiling, or at the very least make their highest levels of play more sustainable.

Depth was the obvious failing for these Clippers last year, but it might also be time to question whether this is a core that lends itself well to building depth around it. Griffin and Paul are top-10 NBA players, and as such are going to consume tons of resources in terms of cap space, usage and on-court real estate. Jordan’s all-around game falls well short of star level, but his size, athleticism, and improving understanding of defensive nuances are rare, transformative, and therefore expensive.

Even when the supporting cast is clicking around them, the Clippers have been a team prone to roller coaster peaks and valleys.

The Clippers’ core trio is devastatingly effective together, but the individual components have their flaws. Jordan and Griffin work as a pairing because Griffin’s interior passing negates Jordan’s inability to contribute anything but hard screens and plays at the rim on offense, while Jordan backs Griffin with elite rim protection. Together, anchored by Paul’s pick-and-roll work, they form a large frontline capable of inflicting damage on a league getting increasingly quicker, smaller and versatile.

While it is true that rotations grow smaller in the playoffs, depth still matters. Other elite teams are able to maintain depth even while shrinking rotations by staggering the minutes of their star players and constructing various lineup combinations around at least one star at all times.

Can Griffin function as a high usage full-time center in smaller lineups without imploding the defense? Are there lineups Rivers can construct around Jordan that don’t depend on Paul’s playmaking and scoring brilliance, Griffin’s interior passing, or a viable stretch four?

This Clippers core is very powerful, but is it adaptable? When a star needs very specific skill sets around them to make lineups function for 48 minutes, it diminishes the malleability of the roster, increases costs and diminishes the margin of error.

Still, this is a team within reach of a first seed every season in the Western Conference. And while its own inadaptability might make its title contention more dependent on matchups and luck than other contenders, nearly every championship in NBA history has been shaped by good fortune. The Clippers as presently constituted are certainly capable of taking advantage if the opportunity presents itself.

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2. Is DeAndre Jordan Worth A Max Contract?

Rivers has already been on record stating the Clippers will offer Jordan the max contract, and still a few teams will come recruiting. It’s therefore fair to say he’s worth a max contract.

The thing about max contracts is that they greatly suppress the value of legitimate franchise players, so comparing players across this salary tier is an exercise in futility. Jordan, to be clear, is not a franchise center or All-Star. But roster construction is all about resource allocation, and the necessity and rarity of certain skill sets can inflate a player’s value immensely. Jordan is limited offensively, but smart offensive systems can leverage his elite athleticism and finishing ability as a constant threat that reverberates throughout entire offensive possessions.

It’s easy to picture a team like the Dallas Mavericks surrounding Jordan with a bevy of shooters, passers and a touch of dribble penetration, running multiple pick-and-rolls around defenses already distorted by Dirk Nowitzki. Jordan can’t space the floor or anchor an offense with his shot creation, but the threat of his dives can collapse defenses and open up easier passing and driving lanes for teammates indirectly. And while Jordan isn’t quite an overall elite defensive player, he’s very good, and his rim protection and athleticism gives schemes a larger margin of error.

Factor in the fact that his departure from the Clippers wouldn’t create an abundance of cap room, and it’s imperative that the team re-signs their center. Their title window is now, and barring a Tyson Chandler-for-Jordan sign-and-trade as a stopgap backup measure before cap space opens up for everyone, there really aren’t any alternatives to Jordan that keeps the Clippers on the fringe of title contention.

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3. Does The Lance Stephenson Trade Move The Needle For The Clippers?

Acquiring Stephenson from the Charlotte Hornets in exchange for Spencer Hawes and Matt Barnes seems a move born of equal parts desperation and measured risk. The money is neutral, with each team ridding themselves of failed offseason signings from a year ago, and with the Clippers able to rid themselves of Stephenson’s contract quicker. It cost the Clippers no further draft picks or young prospects for a young player just one year removed from the fringes of All-Star consideration.

However, the further weakening of the depth is of concern. The Clippers struggled at times last season to field seven competent rotation players, and Barnes was at least a competent floor spacer and defensive wing with no misgivings about his role or place within the locker room. Should Stephenson remain mired in the funk that made him nearly unplayable in Charlotte, an already threadbare wing rotation would be stripped even further.

The Clippers are banking on making his talent and upside work, as his game fails to answer any pressing team needs (shooting, a large defensive player on the wings), and shares redundancies with backups Crawford and Austin Rivers as ball-dominant combo guards (though Stephenson’s presence might portend another move to resolve that logjam).

Even in his breakout season in Indiana, Stephenson was merely acceptable in three-point proficiency. He displayed an excellent handle from the shooting guard position with the vision and passing ability to make plays for others out of pick-and-rolls and in transition, but he also lacked the burst to consistently turn the corner, making him ill-suited to anchor sustained offensive runs.

On the Clippers, should his shooting return being at least competent from three, his court vision and handle could push defenses scrambling after Paul-initiated pick-and-rolls past their breaking point by attacking closeouts. At the very least, he provides a different attack angle for defenses to consider and a player large and capable enough to harm teams for cross matching in an attempt to keep their point guards from defending Paul.

In a best case scenario, Stephenson returns to the do-it-all role he provided in anchoring the Indiana Pacers’ second units, taking a large enough playmaking role to allow the Clippers to move Crawford or Rivers and stagger Paul and Griffin’s workloads some. Defensively, Stephenson’s proven capable of guarding quality scorers within the Pacers’ defensive schemes, and should at worst step in for Barnes with no drop off.

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4. Can The Clippers Upgrade Their Depth?

The good news for the Clippers is their depth could hardly get any worse, and the team isn’t looking for much. Perhaps first on their list is Paul Pierce, who opted out of his contract with Washington and is said to be considering a reunion with Rivers if he decides not to return to the Wizards.

If Rivers can leverage his history with Pierce to sign the veteran for the roughly $3.4 million taxpayer midlevel exception, it would immediately cross four major needs off their list; shooting, a large wing capable of playing sound team defense, a part-time shot creator, and a small ball power forward capable of spacing the floor around Jordan or Griffin. This in turn will unlock a few more lineup combinations for Rivers.

Dan Woike, Clippers beat reporter for the Orange County Register, reports the Clippers are also interested in Mike Dunleavy Jr., Gerald Green, Wes Johnson and Al-Faroug Aminu; all large wings capable of either shooting or bolstering their defense.

On the fringes of the roster, it’s time for Rivers to stop wasting roster spots on retreads like Hedo Turkoglu and Glen Davis and start investing in young players that can contribute one or two NBA-level skills to develop. Not every fringe three-and-D prospect is going to turn into a Danny Green, but the opportunity costs of doling out minutes and roster slots to players with no upside can cripple a franchise starving for cheap depth.

5.Can Doc Rivers Settle Into A Competent Front Office Role?

Thanks to his time in San Antonio, Rivers had a front row seat to the last person that successfully pulled off a dual role as coach and general manager in Gregg Popovich, who Rivers almost replaced the year the San Antonio Spurs won their first NBA Championship.

Rivers has often (rightfully) been mocked for seemingly not having updated his scouting reports since the Boston Celtics last won the championship. But if you look at the Spurs early in Popovich’s tenure as the primary decision maker and coach, they relied heavily on veteran retreads such as Mario Elie, Danny Ferry, Terry Porter, and Jerome Kersey.

It wasn’t until Popovich began ceding some of the higher level front office responsibilities to R.C. Buford that the Spurs began regularly churning out foreign finds and valuable contributors from out of nowhere. This doesn’t necessarily speak to their eye for talent, but rather how coaches tend to opt for players they know and can trust as opposed to an unknown that will need some time to develop.

Rivers has a great basketball mind, is capable of creating a strong organizational culture, and has managed to extract production from players like Glen Davis and his own son. There’s everything he needs to grow into a quality steward of this franchise. He simply needs to find and empower the right people to delegate some of the responsibilities to.

In other words, the restructuring of the Clippers needs to be more than a new logo and uniform design.

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Jesse Blanchard

Jesse Blanchard is the author of Dynasty: the San Antonio Spurs Timeless 2013-2014 Championship, author/illustrator of the unpublished #LetBonnerShoot, A Dr. Seuss Story, and former contributor for 48 Minutes of Hell, Project Spurs, and Boris Diaw is his pickup game spirit animal.

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