An NBA contender in Los Angeles reaches a fork in the road.
Down one path, a 32-year-old all-time great at his position facing a major payday. Down the other, a homegrown superstar in his prime, not far removed from off-court issues, eying his first foray into unrestricted free agency.
Thirteen years ago, it was the Los Angeles Lakers who shipped Shaquille O’Neal to the Miami Heat, putting the kibosh on his feud with Kobe Bryant and setting the stage for Bryant’s return.
Now, it’s the Los Angeles Clippers who are looking to pick up the pieces after trading Chris Paul to the Houston Rockets, per The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
The first big item? Blake Griffin. The five-time All-Star has already opted out of his contract. He’s well positioned to sign a nine-figure deal in July. Now that Paul is gone, the Clippers have little choice but to put all their eggs in his basket.
To be sure, relations between Paul and Griffin were never as toxic as the nuclear standoff between Shaq and Kobe. But as ESPN’s Jeff Goodman noted, the Clippers’ inside-out tandem wasn’t particularly close off the court, either:
Even so, they worked well together—well enough to lead L.A. to the most prosperous six-year run in the franchise’s sordid history. Paul’s arrival in December 2011 precipitated six straight playoff appearances, with five consecutive 50-win seasons since the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign.
For all their talent, though, the Clippers failed to advance to the Western Conference Finals, let alone compete for a championship, amid injuries and untimely meltdowns. Paul’s departure puts the onus on Griffin to change that—assuming the latter comes back.
Per the Los Angeles Times‘ Broderick Turner, the team believes that Paul’s departure “clear[s] the way” for Griffin to re-up for as much as $170 million over five years. In truth, it will probably take more than dollar signs to convince him to stay. The Clippers’ brass, with Jerry West joining Doc Rivers and Lawrence Frank among the brain trust, must sort out a path to contention in a post-CP3 world.
In some respects, L.A. did well to position itself for the future by passing over paying Paul upwards of $40 million a year deep into his 30s. In the near term, the Clippers will receive a return for Paul—built around Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Sam Dekker, Montrezl and a 2018 first-round pick, per Woj and Turner—that, while an exchange of dollars for dimes on its face, still beats losing a franchise cornerstone for nothing.
And while it won’t open up enough cap space for the Clippers to splash cash in free agency this summer if Griffin returns, it could allow the team to retool around its power forward in 2018. No current incumbent Clipper is locked in beyond the 2017-18 season. DeAndre Jordan, Austin Rivers and Wesley Johnson all have player options to exercise (or not) next summer. Jamal Crawford’s $14.5 million salary for 2018-19 isn’t guaranteed.
As for those said to be heading west from Houston, Williams will be unrestricted next summer, Harrell will be restricted, Dekker has a team option for 2018-19 and Beverley has a non-guarantee. Ryan Kelly, Tim Quarterman and DeAndre Liggins—all part of the deal as well, per NBA.com’s David Aldridge—figure to be expendable, as well.
The free-agent class of 2018 could be filled with players who, on paper, would pair well with Griffin in L.A. Paul George is already angling for a return to his Southern California roots. Russell Westbrook could be, too, if he and the Oklahoma City Thunder can’t agree to an extension this summer. LeBron James will be back at it, though the word from The Undefeated’s Mike Wise is that he “will never be a Clipper”—and would seem even less inclined to be now that Paul, his buddy, doesn’t play for them anymore.
Still, there will be big names for the Clippers to pursue. Whether they can reel any of them in is another story.
Beyond his on-court dominance, Paul was instrumental in recruiting free agents to L.A. Losing him leaves the Clippers down a powerful voice with even more powerful connections, as the head of the National Basketball Players’ Association.
Will Griffin have anything close to that kind of pull with his peers? Is he even the right guy to build around?
Both questions merit murky responses. The latter is particularly tough to answer, given Griffin’s physical frailties. He’s missed at least 15 games during each of the last two regular seasons and has seen his previous two playoff runs cut short by injuries. Remember, too, that what was supposed to be his rookie season in 2009-10 ended before it began with a knee injury, and that his 2012-13 postseason was also abbreviated by knee troubles.
Committing max money to a big man whose body appears to be breaking down might be just as problematic as doing the same with an aging point guard. Griffin would be hard-pressed to push the Clippers any further in the playoffs if he can’t stay on the court.
To his credit, Griffin is no longer as reliant on his physical gifts as he once was. He’s established himself as one of the best passing forwards in basketball, averaging at least 4.9 assists during each of the last three seasons. Where once his range barely extended outside the restricted area, he’s now a reliable midrange shooter (43.6 percent between 16 feet and the three-point line in 2016-17) and an improving three-point threat (33.6 percent on 1.9 attempts per game last season).
The Clippers will need Griffin to continue to sharpen and showcase his full range of skills if they’re going to succeed in Paul’s wake. Beverley, Williams, Crawford and the younger Rivers are all capable shot creators, though Griffin may still be L.A.’s most reliable distributor. If the Clippers surround him with shooters and wing defenders—which Goodman reports is among the team’s to-do’s this summer—Griffin could quickly find himself playing point-forward within a radically different style of play.
Or, if he bolts to Boston, Miami or elsewhere, L.A. may be back to square one, though not in the worst way. The Clippers have their own 2018 pick and could add other assets by offering up Jordan, Crawford, Rivers and/or the Rockets arrivals. Tank the 2017-18 campaign and voila! The Clippers could snag another young star at the top of next year’s draft and head into free agency with gobs of cap space.
That being said, these are nervous times for Clipper Nation. Paul transformed the team from league laughingstock to legitimate threat in the West, and he’s out. Griffin’s emergence made the Clippers a palatable landing spot for Paul, and he might be gone too.
But if Griffin stays, his club can look to its Staples Center co-tenant for some modicum of comfort. Four years after O’Neal’s ouster, the Lakers were back in the Finals, with Bryant as the league’s MVP and two more championships on the horizon.
The Clippers can only hope their turn at star-studded drama will play out so favorably in the long run.
All stats via NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.
Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook and listen to his Hollywood Hoops podcast with B/R Lakers lead writer Eric Pincus.
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