Where Do the Clippers Go Next?

The curse of the Clippers was supposed to die with the ousting of Donald Sterling. The team will always be the Lakers’ little brother, but by the time Sterling was banned — for life — they had established themselves as Hollywood’s best basketball team. It should have been smooth sailing from there, and yet, the state of the franchise remains as chaotic as ever. The last two seasons have been a non-stop roller coaster.

Things were looking up after Chris Paul — with a bum hamstring — dragged the team to a Game 7 victory against the defending champion San Antonio Spurs last year, only for the team to implode after being up 3–1 over the Rockets in round two. The Clips have been undoubtedly one of the best teams in the league for years now, and yet they’ve never made a Conference Final, a fact which looms larger over Paul’s otherwise-fabulous career with each passing year.

The fates were no less cruel to the Clippers this season. First, Blake Griffin injured his quad. Next, Blake Griffin punched equipment manager Matias Testi in the face, breaking his hand. Things calmed down a bit from there, despite Griffin’s quad injury continuing to linger. The Clippers eventually earned the West’s fourth seed, and looked poised to roll over the fifth-seeded Blazers in the first round, taking the first two games by a combined 41 points.

Then Steph Curry slipped on a wet spot on the floor in Houston, and the door seemed wide open for the Clips to finally get to the West finals. Less than 36 hours, the door had slammed shut, with Clippers hopes crushed between the door and the frame. In Game 4, the Clippers two best players, Paul (broken hand) and Griffin (aggravation of the quad) had suffered season-ending injuries. That left Doc Rivers putting out a Memphian starting five, and despite fighting hard, the team dropped the last four to Portland. Their season is now over.

The question hanging over the franchise as the off-season begins is: are they going to blow this thing up? After a season that was so marred by injuries, there is a temptation to give it one more go-around. And the Clippers might do that — but remember, this is a team that’s never even got halfway to the title, even when full healthy. They’ve now had four chances with their core group of Paul, Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan — three legitimate All-NBA players — and they’ve disappointed every time. It feels like it’s time to go in another direction.

The question then is what is the best route to building the championship team this iteration was supposed to be. The most obvious way to try and do that is by trading a star — but which one? Most people seem to think of this as a choice between Griffin and Paul, ostensibly because either of them would bring back a better return than Jordan, despite Jordan’s long-term contract and superior durability.

Paul and Griffin each have their pros and cons. Paul is a killer on both ends of the court, and one of the six or seven best players in the league. He’s also 31, short and good for an extended injury absence once a year. Griffin is younger than CP3 at 27, but he’s even more injury-prone than Paul. He’s also frankly not as good, but a team that believes he’s not done improving may pay a higher price than they would for Paul.

There’s no right choice in a vacuum, and who the Clippers choose to trade away is heavily dependent on what teams are offering in return. If LA ends up swapping one or the other, we’re likely never to know what other offers were on the table. But that’s the beauty of shopping multiple superstars: If they’re not overwhelmed by any one of the packages put in front of them, they can just run this thing back for another go.

The opportunity provided by Curry’s injury was only there for about a day, but it shows why second-tier contenders shouldn’t rush to blow things up. A healthy Clippers team would have had a real shot against the Warriors, even if Steph played half the series. And if you can take down the champ, then all bets are off from there.

The most likely outcome seems to be that the Clips will shop Griffin first this off-season. That seems like a smart decision. Despite his youth relative to Paul, what makes you believe Griffin is going to be better than Paul over the next few seasons? People look at Paul’s age and get scared that injuries and declining athleticism are going to rob him of his effectiveness, but aren’t as quick to bring up those same concerns with Griffin.

Injuries — knees, especially — are worrisome, and it doesn’t matter what a great floor general Paul is he if he’s only playing 55 games a year. But I don’t buy the declining athleticism argument. Skill has always come before athleticism in terms of importance to Paul’s on-court success.

CP3 is dependent on quickness to a certain degree, and I’m not saying his skill will always compensate for losing a step or two, but Chris freaking Paul isn’t going to forget how to be the right place, right time kind of player that he’s been since he came into the league. He’s unlikely to be John Stockton — the paragon of small point guard durability and longevity — and that’s totally fine. There are three or four more All-NBA level years left in those legs if he can stay on the court.

Griffin has many of the same concerns as Paul, and it’s hard to see the age difference making up for it. If you want to talk about declining athleticism really affecting a player’s effectiveness, there’s a good chance Griffin ends up alongside Dwight Howard as your poster boys. Griffin’s skill level is great — he’s the best ball-handling big man in the NBA — but you can already seem some of his otherworldly athleticism eroding.

When that’s gone, when Griffin is a relatively ground-bound player, what’s left? A good player, in all likelihood, but not a superstar. Not somebody who’s worth the max contract he will command next summer. That said, it’s not hard to see a team looking at a player like Griffin and paying for the player he’s been, rather than the player he might become.

Given the injuries both Paul and Griffin have suffered over the last couple of seasons, we’ve been able to get a pretty good feel for how they each slide in beside Jordan while the other is absent. The verdict in that time span has come down decidedly in Paul’s favor. Since the 2014–15 opener, the Paul-Jordan combination without Griffin has outscored opponents by 9 points-per-hundred-possessions, a figure that would’ve ranked third in the league this season, well ahead of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Put Griffin next to Jordan without Paul? You’re still a nice team, of course — that differential is about 3 points-per-hundred, in line with that Heat-Hawks-Celtics-Hornets group that all won 48 games this year. But you’re not the on-paper juggernaut that the Paul-Jordan + spacing combo is.

There’s no guarantee that those numbers will maintain to the same degree they’ve shown, but just look at the two options. The spread-pick-and-roll of Paul and Jordan looks more conducive to winning basketball in the modern NBA than the clogged lanes and mid-range jumpers of a Griffin-Jordan partnership.

I don’t mean to insinuate the Griffin is a bad player by any means. He’s one of the 15 best in the league right now. “Right now” are the most important words in that sentence, however. With the injuries piling up, it’s becoming more of a concern that we’re not going to see the Griffin we saw in 2014–15 — when he was the Clippers best player — on a regular basis any longer.

There are some fun rumors about what Griffin could bring back in return. Around the trade deadline a Griffin for Carmelo Anthony swap was thrown out there as a deal that would benefit both sides. Now there’s the Kevin Durant for Griffin sign-and-trade gaining traction. It’s difficult to see either of those happening, but if that is the type of return Rivers’ general manager alter-ego Roc Divers is able to get in return, the Clips might not need injury luck to advance in next year’s playoffs.

They don’t even necessarily have to get a star, of course. Nabbing draft assets and players that can fit around the Paul-Jordan pick-and-roll game would be an excellent return, even if it won’t win the press conference. Rivers would be wise to give his old boss Danny Ainge a call if that’s the route he’s looking to go.

No matter what, it seems likely that the five that takes the floor for the Clippers first game next year will look a whole lot different than the one we’re used to. Whether they can maximize their return on a star is the answer we’ll all be waiting for.