Free Agents: Dahntay Jones (Unrestricted), Hedo Turkoglu (U), Glen Davis (U), Ekpe Udoh (U), Austin Rivers (U), DeAndre Jordan (U)
“I love this challenge. As strange as it sounds, I thought a couple of those bad years in Boston where we were trying to add players and we finally did it [helped me]. I love those years because you’re building and then when you’ve finally got it, you’re built toward a championship and try to win another one, so this is a great stretch.”
At their peak last season, the Clippers looked like less of a dark horse and more of a real contender. Doc Rivers the coach did an admirable job for 93 games, until everything came crashing down in that incredible series loss at the hands of James Harden and the Rockets.
Doc Rivers the GM, though, might have stunted the growth of the team. Sending away a budding prospect in Reggie Bullock in exchange for Austin Rivers was so controversial that many cried of nepotism, and Rivers’ futile attempts to bolster the depth of his wing players, as well as finding a backup to Jordan, ended poorly. Finally, the trade of Matt Barnes and Spencer Hawes in exchange for team-killing Lance Stephenson could mark the nail in the coffin of the 15-16 Clippers before they even get off the ground. The acquisition of Stephenson is the ultimate high risk/high reward move, and if Rivers feels like he can be the coach that breaks through, all the power to him. Apart from Jordan, Austin Rivers, and Glen Davis look like the only free agents the Clippers are even remotely interested in keeping, which faces them with the dilemma of upgrading their bench, and finding a small forward who is starter-material. This is where Paul Pierce comes into play, as he has a substantial interest in reuniting with Rivers, albeit it could be a hair too late; Pierce has faced a steady decline in recent years and last season’s tour with the Wizards could’ve been his last breath as a difference-maker on any level. If the Clippers need to open up more cap space, they could unload Jamal Crawford’s expiring $5.6 million dollar contract onto another team, as one could make the argument that he didn’t make a positive impact on the Clippers this year (according to Basketball Reference, he sports a league average True Shooting percentage of 53.2%, and is a defensive hindrance with a negative Defensive Box Plus/Minus rating). Still, few teams would want to trade for a 35 year old shooting guard whose best days are behind him, so it seems likely for Crawford to stay in LA.
For the first time in team history, the Clippers did not enter the NBA draft with a selection, which came as a result of the agreement which secured Doc Rivers’ departure as head coach of the Celtics and subsequent arrival in Los Angeles. They did, however, manage to purchase the 56th pick of the draft from the New Orleans Pelicans for an undisclosed sum of money ($3 million at the most; this is the maximum amount of money a team is allowed to add throughout all trades conducted over the course of the season) and select Branden Dawson. Coming out of college, Dawson was labeled as an undersized power forward who plays with extreme hustle in order to offset his height disadvantage – perfect for a league that has slowly gravitated towards smaller lineups. Dawson should be able to inject some energy within the Clippers’ bench, which is great news for one of the weakest supporting casts in the league.
Speaking of new, the Clippers have also rebranded. Owner Steve Ballmer and Blake Griffin unveiled new uniforms, a new logo, and a new court design on Conan O’Brien’s show. The only problem is, no one likes it. The redesign has been panned by fans across all forms of social media, drawing comparisons to EA Sports’ logo (and warranting chants of “E-A-Sports, its in the game!”). Not a good look, but I suppose it’s the on-court product that matters most.
Most importantly, the Clippers are going to need to retain the services of DeAndre Jordan, and make sure he is not poached away by Mark Cuban and the Mavericks, who are the frontrunners to acquire him if LA does not. Money shouldn’t end up being a determining factor, as after adjusting his earnings for state income tax in both destinations, Dallas and the Clippers can offer similar earnings with Dallas offering him a larger after-tax paycheck. Though, if he does leave for Dallas, a sign-and-trade could be arranged in which Tyson Chandler comes back to his home state (along with vet reserve Raymond Felton). The two big men are very comparable players, but Chandler isn’t quite the defensive juggernaut that Jordan is. Still, his free throw shooting and reduced tendency to foul could prove to be a very slick coup for Los Angeles if Rivers can adequately manage his minutes – this absolutely means finding a solid backup for Chandler. Of course, Jordan could make his way to Milwaukee, in which case the Clippers could ask for John Henson in return, who is an athletic rim protector in the mold of Jordan. Alternatively, Jordan could move teams yet stay in the same city – the Lakers also have a noted interest in the big man, but are considered a long shot, just as Milwaukee is, to sign him. Should the Lakers strike out on players like Cousins, Aldridge, and Love, Jordan would be an excellent plan C; the odds of a trade being made here are slim unless Jordan explicitly asks for the extra money that the Clippers are able to offer him based on bird rights. In that scenario, Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak might be willing to part with prospects Jordan Clarkson or Julius Randle. Finally, Jordan could opt to stay with the Clippers in the very end, and put aside his feud with Chris Paul in a more focused pursuit of a championship. This would be optimal for both parties, as the Clippers are saved from a potential collapse, and Jordan can continue to play in Doc Rivers’ system where his occasional on-court mental lapses are forgiven.
Overall, the Clippers aren’t in as desperate of a spot that some claim them to be. Jordan has about as good a chance to return as he is to go anywhere else, and if Paul Pierce has anything left in the tank, Clippers fans could surely get used to having his clutch aura aid them in late-game situations. If they can entice a few quality veterans (as in, not Hedo Turkoglu or Dahntay Jones) to play for less money in hopes of a title (see: David West, Brandon Bass, Wayne Ellington), they could make a push to reach the conference finals at the very least. If Jordan returns, the continuity between him, Paul, and Griffin would give them a significant edge over the retooling teams, the same one that Golden State just rode to a championship. That being said, DeAndre Jordan has a legitimate chance to find a new home, and one can’t expect Lance Stephenson’s shooting woes to dissipate over a single summer.
Prediction: I see the Clippers dropping down to the seventh seed in a worst-case outcome, but maintaining the third seed position they ended last season with at best. My bet is that the Lob City trio breaks up, but Paul, Griffin, and an improved cast of role players can adequately pick up the slack and secure a fourth seed, with a good chance of making it to the second round.
This piece is part 3 of the 30 Team Offseason Preview Series by Fazal Ahmed.