Certainly it’s always terrible timing to lose a playoff series to injuries when a team fancies itself a contender. The opportunity to compete for a title is available each season to a maximum of five or six teams, and even though the Clippers were probably just on the fringe of contention one more year of not succeeding in the playoffs is a borderline disaster for the team. Chris Paul has never made the conference finals, and in his five seasons with the Clippers, Paul has now made the second round three times and lost twice in the first.
Of course, this year none of the blame can possibly be placed on Paul after breaking his hand in a freak injury that could happen to anyone. If CP3 makes the conference finals next year, he’ll be 32 years old by the time the series starts. Small point guards tend not to age well, and even a little slippage may be enough to conclusively put an end to the Clippers’ title hopes. JJ Redick turns 32 in a month and is coming off an unreplicable career-year where he averaged 16.3 points per game with a ridiculous 63.2 True Shooting Percentage (which takes into account the added value of three-pointers and free throws), ranking Redick third among 274 players with 1,000-plus minutes played – only behind Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. Redick has always been an underrated team defender, but at his size and athleticism, there’s a chance Redick will quickly become a liability on that end as his abilities wane.
DeAndre Jordan turns 28 during the summer, and Blake Griffin is already 27 coming off a season in which he missed more games than he played. Both are players who rely on athleticism a ton, and are probably either right at or past their peak in that area. It’s also unclear where each will improve as they lose that extra advantage they have had versus the entire league. Jordan is apparently never going to make a free throw, and after seven years of showing virtually no improvement, it’s unlikely Jordan ever will.
Griffin has been a pretty efficient post-up scorer until this season, but with a post game based on overpowering his man and often really ugly footwork, it’s hard to know how that part of his game will age. Griffin has improved tremendously as a shooter, and he’s one of few bigs to go from a near 50 percent foul shooter to an above 70 percent one. In his first year, Griffin only took 18.1 percent of his shots from beyond 16 feet, a number which has ballooned to over 40 percent over his past two seasons… with reasonable efficiency. However, due to Griffin’s mechanical release and the improvement he’s already gone through, it’s unlikely he will ever become a great shooter.
Griffin bad footwork in the post
The Clippers’ core has peaked. And with Paul and Griffin hitting unrestricted free agency during the summer of 2017 – both have early termination options that they’ll likely exercise to get a long-term contract and to take advantage of the rising salary cap – next year will be an incredibly important year for the franchise.
HOW GOOD ARE THE CLIPPERS?
People have such distaste for the Clippers, because of the constant flopping and complaining about calls that it’s easy to forget what a great team they have been over the past five years with Paul. During that time, the Clippers have a 262-132 record, a 65.5 winning percentage and the third best mark in the NBA – just behind the Spurs and Thunder, and right before the Warriors.
Los Angeles Clippers, offensive-, defensive- and net rating since 2011-12
In the last four years, the Clippers have been the best offense in the NBA twice, and have been ranked in the Top 5 in net rating every time. All this has been accomplished with a bench that has been terrible. Especially without Paul, the team has absolutely tanked in both the playoffs and the regular season. Over the past two years, the Clippers have been 18.2 points per 100 possessions better with Paul on the court compared to when he sits, equaling the difference in net rating between the Thunder and Lakers.
Jamal Crawford just won the Sixth Man of the Year-award, which is ironic considering he’s been part of the bench problem. Crawford is a horrible defender, and ranked 446th in Defensive Real Plus-Minus. The team was 6.7 points per 100 possessions better without him on the court and he shot below 50 percent in 58 out of 79 games this season.
The lineup data paints an even clearer picture. During Redick’s three-year tenure with the Clippers, the four-man unit of Paul/Redick/Griffin/Jordan has outscored opponents by 14.4 points per 100 possessions. Over the past three seasons, the best lineup with significant minutes has been the Warriors’ death lineup, but the second-best has likely been the aforementioned Clippers unit with literally any player on the wing pretending to be a viable 3-and-D option.
Griffin’s and Jordan’s skills may overlap in the lane, and the Clippers haven’t been able to crack elite defense status with both on the court at the same time, but their Top 3 players are so talented that it hasn’t mattered. The reason why the Clippers haven’t been able to succeed in the playoffs isn’t because Paul has choked – an unfair label for an all-time great with insane playoff numbers at 21.0 points, 9.4 assists, 2.3 steals on superb efficiency – or because Griffin is “soft”. The problem has been that the Clippers have gone into every playoff series with, at maximum, four players that are Real Plus contributors.
SURVIVING WITHOUT GRIFFIN
The Clippers played really well with Griffin out more than half the season, which brings up a few points. On the X’s and O’s basketball-side, it’s interesting to see the power of small-ball unleashed, and what that does to a defense on a nightly basis. The Clippers woke up and one day, and I literally do mean one day, just happened to have a spread pick-and-roll offense built around Paul’s pick-and-roll magic, Jordan rolling in the lane, at least one good shooter in Redick mixed in with one or two wing players pretending to be threats from the three-point arc.
Paul’s ability to get to the middle of the floor on every pick-and-roll, and his underrated strength to keep the defender away is among the funniest actions to watch in the NBA, and Jordan’s gravity is one of the least appreciated super valuable offensive skills in the game. Teams have moved to an increasingly conservative style of pick-and-roll defense, and there’s two clear ways to beat that defense. The first is by having a player who can shoot pull-up threes at a high rate, such as Damian Lillard or Curry. The second is with the lob, since the big man defender covering the play at the foul line has a tough time covering a pass that can be thrown near the top of the backboard.
The Clippers use Jordan as a screener in creative ways off the ball, and while the defense focuses on the shooter coming off a pick, if you leave Jordan’s body for a moment he can sprint to the rim for alley-oops and there’s no way to recover on the play.
Nikola Jokic a step too far from Jordan
I’m skeptical a team can win the title just by running spread pick-and-roll with Redick coming off of down screens and some 3-and-D wings. Griffin’s post-up ability to facilitate from the elbows does provide another look that can be helpful when defenses are able to key in on certain actions in the playoffs. In any case, it’s clear that small-ball can be super powerful, as we’ve seen with the Warriors death lineup, and the fact that the Heat are better when only one of Chris Bosh or Hassan Whiteside plays – surprisingly, despite Bosh being a great shooter.
The Wizards took a step back trying to go small this year, and the Pacers tried it out with CJ Miles for a stint before going to traditional lineups. Meaning? Small-ball isn’t for everyone. As teams continue to experiment with different tactics, it’ll be fascinating to see where the league goes.
FAILING TO BUILD SUPPORTING CAST
Since the Clippers played so well without Griffin, it became clear Griffin would find himself in the middle of trade rumors. At the trade deadline, two of the most popular trade ideas became a move with the Celtics to get Jae Crowder, Avery Bradley, and perhaps some future assets, and a potential move with the Nuggets, going for Danilo Gallinari and Will Barton.
The logic behind these potential moves are and were obvious. The Clippers were looking for competent wings to surround Paul and Jordan, and secondly trying to re-stock on draft picks. It’s also worth noting that these speculated trades targeted multiple players.
It’s the Clippers’ failure to build around their Top 3 players that put them in a position to even consider moving Griffin. While Doc Rivers has come out and said that the team won’t break up its Big 3, the team did reportedly offer Griffin to the Nuggets, who declined.
Having a core of Griffin, Jordan and Paul puts you so far ahead of the game that trading one right in the middle of their prime is a clear indicator that a lot has gone wrong. Twenty-five teams in the league would kill to start from that baseline and work from there, regardless of minor fit issues in the frontcourt.
In the NBA, this is about as big an advantage as a team will ever have when it comes to team building. Rivers has done poorly as the Clippers’ general manager, and his lowlights include dumping Jared Dudley along with a 2017 first-round pick to the Bucks (Dudley shot 42.0 percent on three-pointers this season and would have been the Clippers’ best small-ball power forward option), and trading another protected first rounder for Jeff Green – whose teams have always played better with him on the bench – along with missing in free agency year after year.
Last summer, the Clippers took calculated risks on Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith, neither of whom worked out. And while going through every individual deal that the Clippers could have made is unfair, teams like the Clippers have to hit on lower level free agents during the summer. Somewhere, some year, you have to uncover a Shaun Livingston, Al-Farouq Aminu, Danny Green or Ed Davis – either through internal development, Europe or free agency.
Heading to next summer, the Clippers and Rivers will be precisely in the type of situation they’ve failed in previously. The team will be capped out, or very close to it, potentially getting up to a bit over $10 million in cap space by renouncing their rights to outgoing free agents Crawford, Green, Wesley Johnson, Austin Rivers and Cole Aldrich.
However, this seems unlikely since the Clippers won’t be able to find better replacements under the cap than those players. This leaves the Clippers with their mid-level exception and bi-annual exception, starting from around $5.6 and $2.2 million respectively. That’s not much to work with and most of the free agents who would definitely help the team are out of their price range.
It’s almost impossible to predict what will happen a year from now, and whether or not either Griffin or Paul decides to leave. But even if they don’t, the Clippers will be perpetually capped out and won’t be able to add any major pieces. The Clippers need a major break, at least one big hit or a few smaller successful moves to give themselves a real shot at a championship, and this is where having a coach who is responsible for personnel decisions can hinder a team. Rivers doesn’t have the time to scout college players all year, and fly to Serbian gyms looking for the next second round steal – a la Nikola Jokic. The top players in Europe could contribute to NBA teams, but finding the right guys is an incredible amount of work.
The Clippers can only make moves around the fringes, but that’s where you need to be great to win the NBA title.
Mika Honkasalo is an NBA writer, geek, chart maker and most of all fan. He studies computer science and works in software development and business analytics. His writing can be found at Nylon Calculus and Vantage Sports, and you can find him on Twitter @mhonkasalo.