Even during the years when things were the most stable and playoff appearances were a given, there was a cloud of uncertainty that hung over the Los Angeles Clippers.
The core of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and J.J. Redick was extremely strong, but for the last two to three years, pundits, fans and league executives alike all wondered when the quartet was going to break up amidst one underachieving season after another. After a first-round playoff loss to Utah last spring, that era of instability finally began this season, and with it came losing both unfamiliar to this franchise — in the short term — yet eerily familiar to the franchise from a historical perspective.
The 8-15 start the Clippers are enduring — with 13 losses in 16 games and the second-worst defense in the league in terms of points allowed per 100 possessions right now — is just about the worst-case scenario for this team, and a start that’s accelerated the club’s doubt about its long-term future of both players and management.
How did Los Angeles get here? A quick refresher:
Just before July 1 free agency would begin, Paul told management he wouldn’t be re-signing and was dealt to Houston. More on that in a sec. Griffin re-upped with the team for five years and $173 million, ensuring he’d be the apparent franchise cornerstone throughout the prime of his career. Redick bounced for Philadelphia, halving the core the Clippers had relied on for so long.
But despite those key losses, there was optimism that these Clips, with Doc Rivers now out as general manager, would make the playoffs based on the way they retooled. The Paul trade on June 28 brought in a 2018 first-round pick and seven players, several of whom would be relied on to contribute right away. That haul included defensive wiz Patrick Beverley, scoring guard Lou Williams and promising young forwards in Montrezl Harrell and Sam Dekker.
A three-way trade sent out Jamal Crawford, who ended up signing in Minnesota, and brought in Danilo Gallinari, someone who could run, space the floor and be an athletic frontcourt player alongside Griffin and Jordan that L.A. always lacked. Four days after the Gallo trade, the Clippers signed Milos Teodosic, a European pass-first point guard maestro, to split the role with Beverley.
The plan worked brilliantly to start the season. L.A. won its first four games and five of its first seven, including Beverley famously punking crosstown rival Lonzo Ball in the opener. Then the injuries hit. Teodosic hurt his left foot in the second game and hasn’t played since. Gallinari missed a month with a glute strain. But more importantly, Beverley suffered a season-ending knee injury on Thanksgiving eve, and Griffin sprained the MCL in his knee six days later, an injury that’s expected to keep him out two months.
Without four of their key players, the Clippers have floundered, opening a Pandora’s box of long-term questions. Is Griffin the right player to build the team around long-term if he keeps getting hurt? Is Rivers the right coach for this team? Does he even want to stay if this losing persists?
But the more immediate and pressing question for the Clippers is what they’re going to do with Jordan. Nearly 29 months to the day that DeAndre re-signed with the team for four years and $88 million — reneging on a verbal agreement with Dallas following the Emoji-Gate, hostage situation — Los Angeles has to wonder about Jordan’s future with the team.
Don't agree with the furniture layout but I'm not an interior designer. pic.twitter.com/23PNgQB88z
— Blake Griffin (@blakegriffin32) July 9, 2015
Jordan has a player option following this season and turns 30 next July. Given that this may be the last long-term deal he gets, he’s going to look for a max contract next summer. This week, Jordan hired an agent (he previously hasn’t had one since the Dallas Buyers Club incident), ramping up speculation that he may want to bolt.
All that sets up the big picture decision for management and majority owner Steve Ballmer: Should the Clippers rebuild? If they do, they should start doing it pretty damn soon, especially since the trade deadline is Feb. 8, two weeks earlier than normal as the league tries to avoid the DeMarcus Cousins All-Star Game trade fiasco of last year.
Unless Memphis decided within the next six weeks that it wants to trade Marc Gasol, Jordan would be by far the most attractive big man, if not overall player, on the market, assuming L.A. doesn’t go nuclear and try to trade Griffin. Austin Rivers, Doc’s decently large adult son, has a player option next season also and will likely test free agency. Perhaps the rebuilding Clippers should consider dealing him, too.
L.A. needs to recoup some assets, with its second-round pick in 2018 gone and, much more importantly, it owes a lottery-protected first-round pick to Boston. To keep the pick, the Clips would have to miss the playoffs in each of the next two seasons, essentially incentivizing — to an extent — missing the postseason. Lou Williams is on an expiring contract as well, and should be trade bait for a second straight season. Teodosic is only signed for $6.3 million next season, a very affordable deal if the Clippers really decide to blow it up.
Decisions that will dramatically impact the Clippers future should be made sooner rather than later. Fewer than eight months after the Clippers core was making one last playoff run, things have gone really south, and the team may have to really start thinking about a rebuild. Thus is the cruel nature of the superstar-driven NBA, when one offseason could turn a franchise’s outlook from bright to oh-so-bleak.