By Brandon Jefferson
Lob City is no more. The Los Angeles Clippers have reached the end of the best five-year run in franchise history. While blowing a lead in a playoff series in each of the last five postseasons is not ideal, it does represent the peak of this team’s competitiveness in the NBA.
Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan have been the trio to spearhead this organization back into basketball relevance. One almost left Los Angeles a couple years ago (Jordan) and the other two get their first crack at dipping their toes into the free agent pool this offseason (Paul and Griffin). Throw in the fact that sharpshooter J.J. Redick’s contract is also up at the end of the year and a big part of this team’s core could find themselves playing elsewhere next season.
Yet, for all the talent this team had at the top–including an elite NBA champion head coach in Doc Rivers– it was their inability to surround their stars with the right supporting cast that ultimately doomed them.
Redick and Jamal Crawford were the only two role players to have an impact during the Doc era. Redick was so good at his part, he eventually became lumped in with the trio to create a Big Four for the Clippers. Crawford’s ability to produce off the bench made him a mainstay in the rotation.
The other additions never found their footing.
The catalog of role players that suited up for the Clippers could be divided into three categories: Over-the-hill Veterans (Caron Butler, Grant Hill, Chauncey Billups, Matt Barnes, Danny Granger, Antawn Jamison, Hedo Turkoglu, Willie Green, Stephen Jackson, and Dahntay Jones), Free Agent/Trade Busts (Josh Smith, Jeff Green, Paul Pierce, Nate Robinson, Glen Davis, Jordan Farmar, Wesley Johnson, Carlos Delfino, Luc Mbah a Moute, Lance Stephenson and Byron Mullens), or Viable Pieces Moved For Nothing (Eric Bledsoe, Darren Collison and Jared Dudley).
The ill-fated roster can be blamed on a number of people (Donald Sterling’s unwillingness to spend big might top it), but there are ways to overcome a cheap owner. Rivers and the rest of the front office have not held up their end of the bargain for their stars. Now, it may be too late to find out what could have been.
To bring this group back for another run could potentially cost Steve Ballmer $300 million including luxury tax penalties.
Chris Paul is 31 years old and has played 13 seasons in the NBA, he’s only coming back to the Clippers on a five-year max deal (likely to be worth $200-plus million). Would Los Angeles be comfortable paying him an average of $40 million a year through his age 36 season? He could be considered the greatest player to ever suit up for the Clippers, but nostalgia doesn’t always correlate to wins; just look at what Pierce has contributed in his two seasons.
Since being selected with the number one overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft, Blake Griffin has dealt with numerous injury issues during his eight years in the league: Back spasms (2014), Staph infection (2015), Torn left quad (2015), Broken hand (2016), Sore left quadriceps (2016), Sore right knee (2016), Right knee surgery (2016), Broken toe (2017). He too will seek max money on the open market and at 28, his deal won’t look bad as long as he can remain healthy through the bulk of it.
However, for as talented as these two players are, the Clippers haven’t been able to turn that into postseason success. Though their regular season numbers have been great (217-111 since 2013 and 65-45 with one of Paul or Griffin out according to StatMuse), they’ve failed to make it to the Western Conference Finals once since acquiring Paul.
The early speculation is that Paul is more likely to re-up with the Clippers than Griffin. If that turns out to be the case, it wouldn’t have a big result on the end result for this team. They’ve posted a 0.662 winning percentage since 2013-14 as a team and that number only dips to 0.620 with Paul playing without Griffin. With Griffin and no Paul, the winning percentage plummets all the way down to 0.516.
If they are able to bring everyone back and keep this team together, it would assure Los Angeles of a 50-win season, but at what cost? Teams like Golden State and San Antonio seem to hit 60-wins without much effort. The upstart Utah Jazz that just sent the Clippers home seem likely to improve upon their 50-win effort of this year. And in Houston, Mike D’Antoni and James Harden look like they’ll pick-and-roll their way to 50-wins for the foreseeable future. While 50-wins is not an accomplishment to turn your nose up at, in the Western Conference that doesn’t even guarantee that they’ll secure home-court advantage in the first round.
Would Ballmer keep digging into his own pocket to pay a hefty tax bill year-after-year if all he had to show for it was first-round exits?
That money, or most of it, will have to go to someone. If both Paul and Griffin opt-out of their current deals then that would leave the Clippers with a hierarchy trio of Jordan-Austin Rivers-Crawford. Not exactly a murderer’s row.
For my two cents, I believe the fifth-year is enough to get Paul to stick around, but Griffin decides to move elsewhere. Paul and Jordan as a pick-and-roll combination are very dangerous and then the onus will be on Los Angeles’ front office to surround those two with the necessary shooting to force defenses to make a choice between alley-oop dunks by Jordan or giving up open three-pointers on the perimeter.
Consecutive 50-win seasons should not be deemed as a failure for the Clippers organization, but if they want to “reverse the curse” as we’ve seen the likes of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Cubs, and Boston Red Sox do throughout the last decade-plus this summer is crucial to setting up their future as a franchise.