It’s early May and once again, as dictated by tradition, the Clippers suffered a playoff disappointment, losing to the Jazz 104-91 at home in a Game 7.
In six years of being a good team led by Chris Paul, the Clippers have lost three times in the first round and never made the conference finals – always coming up just short or derailed by injuries in the postseason – despite fancying themselves a contender and winning an average of 54 games a year.
The consensus seems to be that the team is cursed, and returning with the same roster doesn’t make sense. After all, haven’t we seen everything this group has to offer, and wouldn’t it be better to blow it up? Especially with their core of DeAndre Jordan, Blake Griffin and in particular Paul heading toward the end of their primes.
Once Paul and Griffin decline their player options for next season (a guarantee for both), they will be headed to unrestricted free agency and command max salaries. In short, that means the Clippers will have an exceedingly expensive team for the next four or five seasons should both re-sign. The players’ union negotiated the “over-36 rule” to change to the “over-38 rule,” basically to allow Paul to receive a five-year deal this summer (and LeBron James to do the same next summer). Add to the mix JJ Redick, who is also an unrestricted free agent and due for a big raise.
At this point, it’s easy to call for the Clippers to “blow up” their team and start re-building, but their reality is more complex. Even if the Clippers chose not to re-sign Paul or Griffin, or if those players decided to change teams, the team would still be capped out next season and have no coherent way of improving the roster around the remaining players. In a best-case scenario, both could choose to sign for slightly under the maximum salary, and then bringing Redick back would be too expensive.
Starting over with just Jordan on the roster doesn’t make any sense either. The Clippers have exactly zero good young players with upside on the roster, counting Austin Rivers, who turns 25 before next season. Toronto will be receiving its pick in this year’s draft, and the Clips are out another lottery protected pick to the Celtics in 2019 (with the addition of a couple of second-rounders too). Trading away everything, including Jordan should that decision be made, would start a rebuild that would take upwards of five years with no guarantee of success.
Paul may have a reputation to choke in the playoffs. Griffin may be too injury prone to be a reliable contributor in the postseason. Jordan won’t improve as a free-throw shooter and remains a one-dimensional offensive player. However, none of that is the Clippers’ real problem.
Players like Paul and Griffin are exactly the type of cornerstones any franchise would love to have, and the team’s best three players (along with Redick over the past few years) are good enough to compete deep into the playoffs. Almost every team would have traded places with the Clippers just a few seasons ago, and over half the league probably would now. The mindset would be: “Give us Griffin, Paul and Jordan. Trust us, we’ll figure out the rest.” Jazz fans will point to Rudy Gobert missing parts of the series, but the difference between the teams is that the Clippers didn’t have a single good player to replace Griffin’s minutes, whereas the Jazz could play small and substitute in Derrick Favors. Luc Mbah a Moute is a good defensive player and shot the ball well this season, but isn’t someone the defense is afraid the leave open. Jamal Crawford and Raymond Felton are bad defensively, and Crawford just isn’t efficient enough on offense.
“The rest” part of the championship equation has haunted the Clippers for the past six seasons. Just take the examples of the draft picks they owe: one was to dump Jared Dudley’s (a solid role player) contract to the Bucks and the other was to trade for Jeff Green – who everyone knew at that point doesn’t help a team win. Almost every team in the NBA has done a better job filling out the rest of their roster, and developing young players over multiple years to fill those spots hasn’t been of any interest to them. The veterans the Clippers have brought in haven’t been the ones to make a difference. Paul Pierce playing 21 minutes in a closeout Game 7 at home isn’t good enough.
Somewhere along the line you have to hit in a low first-rounder, and you can’t be on the losing end of every trade that leverages your future. It doesn’t have to be a monster steal like Draymond Green in the second round, but getting a Danny Green to play as a 3-and-D wing, trading for an undervalued player like Khris Middleton. The Clippers had Joe Ingles, who would have been the team’s fourth-best player in the playoffs, but waived him. Any specific move is hard to point to, but the complete lack of success in building around their “Big 3” has been the team’s biggest fault. Every year, units with Paul on the floor have been fantastic, and their most played lineups have always been one of the two or three best units in the league. The Clippers were 20.3 points per 100 possessions worse without Paul on the floor this season, larger than the margin between the best and worst team in the league in almost every season you can look up the statistics on.
Paul is the best point guard in the NBA since Magic Johnson, and the advanced numbers love him even more than the eye test. This season, Paul was ranked first in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus at +8.02 and has been in the Top 7 in each of the past four seasons. The six-foot point guard has averaged 18.7 points, 9.9 assists and 2.3 steals in his career, and those numbers are even better in the playoffs with improved shooting efficiencies across the board, in addition to being ranked third in Box Plus-Minus for his career. Perhaps Paul would have messed up in the playoffs with a better team, but it’s also worth pointing out that at no point have the Clippers had even a fifth reliable player to play at the end of games in big playoff series.
Going forward, the Clippers are pretty much in the same spot they’ve been the almost the entire decade. When healthy, the core is good enough to make a deep playoff run, and it will be up to management and Doc Rivers to try and put the correct pieces around them. The only difference is, time is running out and at this point it’s hard to trust the Clippers will find the right pieces on the waiver wire, second round of the draft, or via a sneaky trade. Paul is still playing at a peak level, but in a year or two decline is coming, and at that point the great talent on the Clippers will have been spent.
Best case, everyone stays healthy and the Clippers find two or three surprise contributors to help the team make a better push in a year or two. Worst case, either Griffin (possible, but not likely) or Paul (unlikely) leaves and the team is just good enough to compete for the lower playoff spots. Most likely, everything stays the same, but with Redick gone, and the Clippers make another quick playoff out in 2018.
You can find Mika Honkasalo on Twitter @mhonkasalo.