December 16, 2017

The Los Angeles Clippers are in a world of hurt, both literally and figuratively, and they have no easy way of digging themselves out.

Starting point guard Patrick Beverley is done for the year after undergoing microfracture surgery on his left knee to repair a torn meniscus, according to ESPN.com’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Fellow floor general Milos Teodosic remains sidelined indefinitely with a plantar fascia injury. Big-name free-agent signee Danilo Gallinari has missed the Clippers’ past 10 games with a strained left glute. And in the fourth quarter of Monday night’s game against the Los Angeles Lakers, Austin Rivers rolled up on Blake Griffin’s left knee, causing the big man to suffer an MCL sprain that could sideline him for up to eight weeks, the team announced Tuesday.

Suddenly, an 8-11 Clippers team could be without four of its five opening-night starters for the foreseeable future. That leaves the likes of Rivers, Lou Williams and DeAndre Jordan to shoulder the load until Griffin, Gallinari and Teodosic are able to return. (Spoiler alert: That’s going to end poorly.)

While the Clippers are riding a three-game win streak into Thursday’s home tilt against the Utah Jazz, their schedule is about to take a turn for the worse. Over the next few weeks, they have a home-and-home against the Minnesota Timberwolves, home games against the Washington Wizards and Toronto Raptors, and then a four-game road trip where they’ll face the Orlando Magic, the Wizards, the Miami Heat (on the second night of a back-to-back) and the San Antonio Spurs. By the time Griffin returns in December or January, L.A. could effectively be eliminated from playoff contention.

With DeAndre Jordan eligible to become a free agent this coming July, the Clippers once again find themselves at a crossroads. Do they continue building around Jordan and Griffin as the two big men into their 30s, or do they blow apart the remaining remnants of their Big Three and begin a rebuild in earnest?

In response to a question about those pushing for the latter, Clippers head coach and team president Doc Rivers made his stance clear.

“The day I start answering the internet people is the day I’m an internet person,” Rivers said Wednesday, per ESPN.com’s Arash Markazi. “That’s not going to happen. I don’t listen to all that stuff. We’re going to do what’s best for the franchise.”

Assuming Rivers isn’t just posturing—after all, an open admission of a fire sale would only drive down the trade value of everyone on the roster—it appears as though the Clippers will stay the course for the time being. But is that the wise move?

Even if the Clippers wanted to trade Griffin, who they re-signed to a five-year, $170-plus million max deal this past offseason, he isn’t eligible to be moved until Jan. 15. They can’t trade Gallinari, who they signed to a three-year, $64.7 million deal this summer, until Dec. 15. Since both of them are currently sidelined, the Clips would have next to no leverage in trade talks for either player at the moment.

The same can’t be said for Jordan, who could decline his $24.1 million player option for 2018-19 to become an unrestricted free agent in July.

The Clippers have reportedly “put feelers out to a handful of teams” with regard to a potential Jordan trade, according to NBA.com’s David Aldridge, who mentioned the Cleveland Cavaliers, Milwaukee Bucks, Washington Wizards and Toronto Raptors as potential landing spots for the big man. A league source told Cleveland.com’s Joe Vardon that the Cavs likely would consider flipping Tristan Thompson for Jordan, although it remains unclear whether they’d be willing to package the Brooklyn Nets’ unprotected 2018 first-round pick with Thompson.

Assuming Aldridge’s report is correct, this wouldn’t be the first time L.A. gauged Jordan’s trade market. According to ESPN.com’s Chris Haynes, the Clippers spoke to a few teams around the draft “in an exploratory fashion,” including the Phoenix Suns. ESPN.com’s Zach Lowe said the Clippers “did not shop” Jordan at that time, but they did “finally listen when suitors called.”

L.A. opted to stand pat at the time, and the team even spoke with Jordan about a contract extension in September, according to Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times. At the end of October, however, Lowe reported extensions talks had stalled. If Jordan did agree to an extension, his salary next season could be no more than 120 percent of his 2017-18 salary, which comes out to roughly $27.2 million. If he went the free-agent route, he’d be eligible for a starting salary north of $35 million based on the NBA’s current salary-cap projection of $101 million (via Shams Charania of The Vertical).

If the Clippers signed Jordan to a five-year, $200-plus million max contract, they’d have north of $60 million tied up in him and Griffin alone for the next four seasons. That would all but condemn them to the treadmill of mediocrity, which Rivers appears to recognize.

“We want DJ back,” he told Lowe in October. “We think we can win a title building around him and Blake. You also need room in the budget for other people.”

If the Clippers don’t move Jordan by the trade deadline, they’re effectively pot-committing themselves to re-signing him next summer. Perhaps they believe that a lack of cap space around the league—one team executive described this upcoming summer as “nuclear winter” for free agents, per ESPN.com’s Bobby Marks and Tim MacMahon— will turn negotiations in their favor. Whatever the case, refusing to trade him by February and then losing him for nothing in July would be an unconscionable setback.

To avoid that possibility, the Clippers may decide it prudent to trade Jordan in the coming months, particularly if they can receive a package including draft considerations in return.

Since selecting Griffin first overall in 2009, the team has woefully undervalued draft picks. From that point forward, the Clippers have spent only four first-round picks over the past eight years—Al-Farouq Aminu (No. 8 in 2010), Reggie Bullock (No. 25 in 2013), C.J. Wilcox (No. 28 in 2014) and Brice Johnson (No. 25 in 2016). Their most infamous faux pas regarding the draft came in 2011, when they sent an unprotected first-round pick—which later became Kyrie Irving—to Cleveland to escape from Baron Davis’ contract. They also gave up a lottery-protected first-rounder to ditch Jared Dudley, a lottery-protected first-rounder to acquire Jeff Green and a second-round pick to shed Byron Mullens.

Without a steady infusion of young talent, the Clippers set themselves up for failure in the post-Big Three era. Chris Paul helped the Clippers make up for those years of mismanagement when he facilitated a trade to the Houston Rockets this offseason rather than depart as a free agent and leave L.A. empty-handed. However, the two prized young prospects in that trade, Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell, have hardly cracked Rivers’ rotation through the first quarter of the season.

Since the strength of this upcoming draft class appears to be big men—between centers such as Deandre Ayton and Mohamed Bamba and forwards like Marvin Bagley and Michael Porter Jr.—the Clippers may see the heir apparent to Jordan somewhere in the college ranks. Shipping him out and embracing a rest-of-season tankjob could give them the much-needed young blue-chipper they’ve lacked for the past half-decade.

Unlike the Philadelphia 76ers, who engaged in multiple years of unabashed tanking to acquire as many high lottery picks as possible, the Clippers wouldn’t necessarily need to embark upon a Process-esque rebuild even after trading Jordan. Griffin is a far better building block than anything then-Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie inherited before he started stripping their roster down.

Philadelphia was bereft of both talent and draft picks due to the disastrous Andrew Bynum trade from the prior summer, which effectively necessitated Hinkie’s approach. The Clippers’ future draft-pick situation is equally dire—they owe a lottery-protected 2019 first-rounder to the Boston Celtics—but having players such as Jordan, Griffin, Gallinari and Williams to dangle as trade bait would give them a huge leg up on an expedited rebuild.

Finding a workable trade for Jordan would be no easy task for Rivers, as the Clippers are hard-capped due to their sign-and-trade for Gallinari. According to Marks, they’re $6.1 million away from that threshold at the moment, so they could take back no more than $28.7 million in any Jordan deal. If they prioritize premium draft picks in return for the big man, they could be forced to swallow an onerous contract as part of that package.

At this point, that still may be the Clippers’ best option. Shipping out Jordan will end the most successful era in franchise history, but the Clippers don’t want to find themselves where the Grizzlies are right now—holding the bag around two injury-prone 30-something stars whose trade value declines by the day.

Bryan Toporek

Bryan Toporek is just talkin’ about practice. He writes about the NBA at BBALLBREAKDOWN, FanRag Sports and The Step Back. He also helps curate NBAAsesets.com.

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