By the time staffers at Staples Center started removing the Clippers’ logo from its hardwood floor and pulling down banners writers and pundits like Bill Plaschke and Jim Rome made it clear what management should do: break up a struggling team. The former San Diego franchise has been maddeningly inconsistent — they’ve lost five straight playoff series while giving up a one, or two, game lead and seen their star forward go home injured twice. But the Clippers also won 50 games in each of the past five seasons. They can handle challenges, like a seven game series against the Spurs in 2015, won on a last-second shot in a San Antonio by Chris Paul. The Clippers’ first round loss to the Jazz did more than remind fans and reporters of their weaknesses, it’s inviting speculation about how many players will leave Los Angeles via free agency and what management will do next.
The most obvious freebird has to be Chris Paul’s running mate. JJ Redick had a bad run in a winnable series against Utah that included a notable drop in three-point accuracy. The erstwhile Orlando Magic sniper shot .429 percent during the 2016-2017 season; he is capable, but not worth the $18 million per season Redick is reportedly seeking. Why? When Blake Griffin went out during Game 3 the Clippers lost their one post-up threat and the best draw they had to keep defenders away from Redick. By the time Utah clinched their first-round win it was evident the Clippers’ guard wasn’t able to score off the dribble or from the post. There was little incentive for Redick to build out while Griffin and DeAndre Jordan dominated the paint, though that could change if the Clippers find a partner interested in exploring a trade for Jordan.
Where the red-and-blue are concerned there are two priorities: Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Both players can opt out of their contracts and pursue five-year extensions; a maximum contract would be worth $175 million to Griffin, Paul’s tops out at $205 million. If Steve Ballmer’s deep pockets were a deciding factor there would be nothing to worry about, but he’s got to contend with well-funded rivals in Houston and San Antonio. This should minimize any lingering doubts about Griffin’s durability, Paul’s reliability, or their value to a team with championship aspirations. The point guard’s reported interest in joining the Spurs should create a new one for Ballmer. According to ESPN’s Mark Stein the feeling is mutual — as an unnamed source put it “they love him,” and are confident about securing a meeting with the State Farm pitchman.
There is a sense in Clipper country that this Summer is make-or-break, that the front office will have to do more than tinker with the roster to challenge Golden State. The way Steve Ballmer and Glen Rivers responded should be encouraging for fans. They made some important symbolic moves, like entering the Paul George sweepstakes and putting out word management was “going to be active” on draft day. The key was stealing Jerry West away from the Lakers. If Chris Paul and Kia figurehead Griffin opt out the red-and-blue will have eight free agents to deal with, everybody from Luc Mbah a Moute and Brandon Bass to Raymond Felton and Alan Anderson. Superfan that Ballmer is, he’s not known for judging talent from his seat on the baseline; Rivers, despite his pedigree as a coach, does not have a record as president of basketball operations that shows he can handle this job alone.
Even with West on board as a consultant the Clippers are facing a tremendous challenge, one that could lead its brain trust to call on Carmelo Anthony. The Knicks’ forward has been a popular target in Los Angeles, in part thanks to his career scoring average and ties to Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul. He’s also a defensive liability with a no-trade clause on a three-year, $42 million contract who is not worth what Phil Jackson would want — reportedly a mix of two or three players that includes Austin Rivers. If the Clippers are going to put off rebuilding and remain contenders they’ll have to pull off what looks nearly impossible: re-sign Griffin and Paul, restructure half of their roster, bring some youth into one of the older teams in the NBA, and contend with a salary cap estimated to top $100 million this season. Rivers and West have a lot to talk about this week.
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