NBA: Could the Clippers Break Up Their Core?
When the Los Angeles Clippers made the franchise-changing move to acquire Chris Paul from the then-New Orleans Hornets in December 2011, it immediately thrust high expectations on the franchise to potentially become the next powerhouse team in the NBA.
Although the deal sent away a few key players in Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, Al-Farouq Aminu, and the Minnesota Timberwolves’ unprotected first-round pick in the 2012 NBA draft (which wound up being Anthony Davis) it rejuvenated the Clippers. At the time, they’d reached the playoffs just once in the span of 14 seasons and missed the postseason in five consecutive years.
The trade gave Los Angeles one of the best players in the league, Paul, who was considered the best point guard as well. His new teammate and emerging star, forward Blake Griffin, was coming off a historic rookie campaign, and the thought of this new duo essentially put them above the Los Angeles Lakers as the main attraction at Staples Center for the first time.
The Clippers were an exciting team from the get-go, earning just their second playoff appearance with a then-best winning percentage in franchise history. They also reached the Western Conference semifinals for the third time in team history. Since that initial season with Paul, Los Angeles has been a mainstay in the playoffs for five straight seasons. They earned the franchise’s first two Pacific division titles and four 50-plus win regular seasons.
Despite playing in the daunting Western Conference, the Clippers are now considered a legitimate title contender thanks to their big three of Paul, Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan, (the latter player becoming one of the top young centers in the league over the last three seasons). At the same time, Griffin has continued to improve, becoming one of the top players in the league at his position.
The addition of head coach Doc Rivers three offseasons ago increased those high expectations due to his proven pedigree. Los Angeles may be experiencing the most successful stretch in franchise history, but they continue to fall short of those lofty expectations, going as far as the Western Conference Semifinals twice.
They appeared to have their best chance of finally breaking through last season when they led the Houston Rockets 3-1 in the second-round series. But they crumbled after that, losing the next three games — including giving away a 19-point lead in Game 6 and being completely blown out in Game 7.
That said, the Clippers were primed to get over the second-round playoff hump this season, especially given the fact that they were the only team to defeat the last two NBA champions in a playoff series. However, it all unraveled in their first-round matchup against the Portland Trail Blazers.
Los Angeles will lack their top two stars for the rest of the playoffs; both suffered injuries in Game 4 as Paul broke his hand and Griffin aggravated his quad. There’s still a chance that the Clippers can get past the Trail Blazers, but there will be an extremely difficult matchup against the defending champion Golden State Warriors even if the reigning MVP Stephen Curry is unable to play in the series.
If Los Angeles were to somehow get past the Warriors, the San Antonio Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder will be waiting in the Western Conference finals. (LA has gone a combined 1-5 against these two teams in the regular season.) All of these factors make it highly unlikely that the Clippers will compete in the NBA Finals for their first championship in team history, marking another year of failing to reach their ultimate goal.
This could lead to a summer of huge change for the franchise with many questions surrounding their future. Paul will enter the fourth year of his five-year, $107.3 million contract that has an early termination option following next season. The nine-time All-Star could elect to enter the summer of 2017 as an unrestricted free agent in favor of getting likely the last lucrative contract of his career.
Griffin has experienced one of the most frustrating seasons in his young career. He had suffered a partially torn left quadricep injury in late December, which put him out indefinitely, but things worsened when he was ruled out for four to six weeks due to a broken right hand that he suffered in late January from hitting a member of the team’s equipment staff.
This situation began to create rumors that the Clippers were interested in trading the five-time All-Star prior to February’s trade deadline. The team elected to keep Griffin, but it created serious questions about his long-term future with the organization. The 27-year-old, like Paul, also has an early termination option after next season, which could allow him to become an unrestricted free agent during the prime of his career and get an even larger contract.
As for Jordan, he could become a free agent in the summer of 2018 if he elects to decline his $24 million player option in the final year of his four-year, $87.6 million deal. It’s unlikely that Rivers, who doubles as head coach and President of Basketball Operations, makes any major alterations to his roster this upcoming offseason, but things could be much different after that.
Keep in mind, all of this uncertainty could be put to rest if the Clippers finally capture their first NBA title. All in all, next season could be the most important year in franchise history with so much hanging in the balance; it could be the last go-around for the Clippers’ current core of players.