The Clippers’ title window looks to have closed. With some big decisions looming, here’s how the franchise should move forward.
“None are so old as those who have outlived enthusiasm.”
- Henry David Thoreau
In 2015, Clippers head coach Doc Rivers stated, “I’m a big believer that teams can get stale.” His team has officially become stale, having finished with 50-plus wins in each of the last five seasons without a single conference finals appearance to show for it. This year’s first round loss to the Utah Jazz perfectly encapsulated the Clippers’ plunge down the Western Conference pecking order. A younger, more likable, more cohesive Utah team dominated the Clippers in Game 7. They moved on to face another younger, more likable, more cohesive Golden State team in the second round.
For a squad whose average starter is just 30 years old, the Clippers’ future is the subject of far too many articles like this one. It makes sense, though. We can all muster up some enthusiasm for the exciting old guys, like the Spurs’ vets or the Grizzlies’ core. It’s more difficult to be optimistic about a team that has completely outlived enthusiasm – a team best known for bad luck and bad attitudes.
Both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin will opt out of their contracts next month. In an ideal rebuilding scenario, the Clippers would’ve traded Paul and Griffin at the deadline or last summer. According to Zach Lowe of ESPN, the Celtics had exploratory talks regarding Griffin, and the haul would’ve been substantial. Paul’s trade market is more difficult to gauge. That said, even at 32 (Happy Birthday, CP3!), Paul is worth a king’s ransom. There’s no team he would not improve immeasurably.
Dealing that duo would’ve given Los Angeles a bundle of picks, young players, and expiring contracts. Instead, the Clippers have Diamond Stone and Brice Johnson, and owe other teams four picks over the next three drafts. The cupboard is empty. You can advocate for a complete teardown if you want, but that will only turn the Clippers into the Nets, and DeAndre Jordan into Brook Lopez. Here’s what the front office should do:
Re-Sign Paul And Griffin
Paul will demand the five-year, $200 million super-max that only the Clippers can offer. That’s a ton of money, but it’s the price you pay for relevance. League sources expect Paul to sign that deal, per Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN. On the other hand, Griffin’s future is uncertain. The 28-year-old forward had a torrid last two seasons, succumbing to countless injuries and one moment of true stupidity.
Without offering a contract to Griffin, it will be difficult to convince Paul that the franchise is still serious about winning. At the same time, is it really a good idea? With Griffin, Los Angeles is nowhere near Golden State. Without him, they haven’t been much worse. In the past three regular seasons, Los Angeles is 51-32 with Griffin out of the lineup. This past season, the team finished 51-31. The Clippers shouldn’t be devastated if he seeks greener pastures.
Renounce Rights To J.J. Redick
J. J. Redick will likely demand more money than the Clippers can pay. The team should be fine with that. Redick is an amazing shooter (and podcaster), but he’s also almost 33 years old and somewhat one-dimensional. If Griffin re-ups, Redick’s contract would bring Los Angeles past the luxury tax threshold. Why pay the tax to accommodate an aging player who doesn’t move the needle?
Instead, the Clippers should proceed with Austin Rivers at shooting guard. Nepotism jokes aside, Rivers has become a reliable two-way player. He gives Los Angeles more off-the-bounce dynamism than Redick, and at 24, he still has room to improve.
Get Younger, Somehow
This step is easier if Griffin leaves. Without Griffin, the Clippers can carve out around $7 to $10 million in cap room by renouncing the rights to free agents like Luc Mbah a Moute, Raymond Felton, and Marreese Speights. That’s not much space, but it could be enough for one or two undervalued young guys. The Clippers could also sign Mbah a Moute, then use the mid-level exception to nab a free agent. Here are some possible targets:
Mike Muscala, Atlanta: 25 years old, shot 42% from three last season at 6’11.”
Cristiano Felicio, Chicago (Restricted): 24 years old, physical backup center, the Bulls front office is wildly unpredictable.
Dante Cunningham, New Orleans: 30 years old, same age and position as Mbah a Moute, but a much better shooter.
Justin Holiday, New York: 28 years old, decent all-around wing, should be cheap.
Retaining Griffin would put the Clippers’ payroll well above $120 million, likely leaving them with only the league minimum and the taxpayer mid-level exception to acquire players. Either way, Los Angeles needs to try out all the young guys it can in Summer League and training camp. Maybe you get lucky and strike gold; then again, luck hasn’t really been the Clippers’ forte.
Prepare For The Rebuild
Doc has done everything he can to win now. It hasn’t worked. Eventually, the Clippers need to rebuild around a new core, and the infrastructure to rebuild needs to be established now.
The front office should identify high-upside players in the upcoming draft, then exchange cash for a second-round pick. They should gauge interest in Jamal Crawford before the draft, after free agency, and at next year’s trade deadline. They should give Brice Johnson and Diamond Stone legitimate playing time. They should consider signing a player from the European leagues.
And yes, if he re-signs, they should eventually test Griffin’s trade value. Bill Simmons even thinks they will. Get back an expiring contract, a good young player under long-term team control, and a couple draft picks, and suddenly the team has legitimate assets. If Griffin’s performing at his 2013-14 best, great. That means Los Angeles is a pseudo-contender and has no need to trade him.
2016 first-rounder Brice Johnson played just nine minutes all season. (Photo: Isaiah J. Downing – USA TODAY Sports).
If Griffin doesn’t re-sign, the Clippers would waltz into 2018 free agency with Paul, space to re-sign Jordan, and maybe space for a third max contract. Could they get someone better than Griffin in 2018? Probably not. But they could certainly get someone (or a few guys) younger than him.
With few assets to trade and no young players of note, “blowing it up” will not make the road back to contention any easier. Los Angeles has no choice but to stay good-not-great. Behind the scenes, though, the front office needs to be in rebuild mode – compiling undrafted free agents, second-round picks, and the rights to overseas players until something sticks.
By the end of Paul’s expensive new contract, the Clippers may actually have the assets to rebuild. For now, they’ll just be the same old Clippers.
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