It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The Clippers broke their franchise record for wins (which they set last season), captured their second straight division title and seemed to be firing on all cylinders going into the postseason.
Then, audio tapes of team owner Donald Sterling making bigoted remarks surfaced on TMZ, and everything changed. A nicked-up Chris Paul led the Clippers past the Golden State Warriors. But they looked drained by Game 6 of the second round -- after a controversial call in Game 5 -- and eventually succumbed to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Normally, when we talk about uncertainty surrounding a team, the roster features key impending free agents, or the coach has underachieved with the talent provided him. In this case, uncertainty around the ownership of the Clippers -- whether the league will be successful in forcing the sale of the franchise or if Sterling will sue for control -- places their future in limbo. For the purposes of this story, we'll assume that the Clippers will operate normally next season (i.e., no voiding of current player contracts).
2014-15 status quo baseline: 60.7 wins
(from Bradford Doolittle's ATH system)
I. Main assets (personnel)
Elhassan: The story of this season has to be the growth shown by Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Griffin's offensive arsenal became more complete: He's a more consistent midrange shooter, especially off bank shots, a terrific passer and a more conscientious defender. Jordan took a step toward being one of the premier defensive anchors in the league. He's not in the same class as of Joakim Noah and Dwight Howard, but he's a tremendous rebounder and elite shot-blocker with more awareness defensively than years past. He's still offensively inept at anything that's not a dunk or layup, but the chemistry between Griffin and Jordan creates numerous shots for him above the rim. Meanwhile, Paul grew to accept not dominating the ball, allowing the offense to go through stretches to go through Griffin. Offseason acquisition J.J. Redick proved to be the perfect fit as a spacer with gravity and a secondary playmaker coming off screens, but Jared Dudley struggled to find his 3-point range and fell out of the rotation.
The Clips got it right trading for Redick last season.
Doolittle: The Clippers are starting from a great place, with a pair of perennial MVP candidates in Paul and Griffin heading up the roster. Those two sport a combined WARP of 26.6 wins for next season and are joined by Jordan's 8.8 to give the Clippers a title-contending big three. Of course, that's what we thought this season. Age-wise, Jordan and Griffin are just entering their respective primes, while Paul turns 30 during next year's playoffs. It's a powerful core built to win now. L.A.'s overall team age was 29.0, seventh-oldest in the league, and given the athleticism of the Clippers' foundation players, you'd like to see some younger energy guys. Of course, we're talking about Doc Rivers, so he might not use the young guys anyway.
II. Shake it up
Elhassan: As mentioned earlier, the Clippers have one of the strongest cores under contract in Paul, Griffin, Jordan and Redick. The biggest need would probably be on the wings: Dudley struggled, Matt Barnes was a defensive stopper but an inconsistent shooter, and Reggie Bullock showed flashes but isn't quite ready for major rotation minutes. Moreover, Barnes was reportedly upset about almost being traded to New York at the trade deadline.
Deng could be the missing piece for the Clippers.
The Clippers might be better suited pursuing a sign-and-trade for Luol Deng, who is unlikely to return to the Cavs, by sending Barnes (whose 2015-16 salary is only $1 million guaranteed) and Dudley along with a first-round pick swap in 2016. Willie Green's non-guaranteed 2014-15 deal can be waived, saving them roughly $1.4 million (he can be brought back for a one-year veteran minimum deal that would show up as only $915,243 on the books). Additionally, continuing their recent trend of adding veteran contributors on minimum deals, they can roll the dice on someone like Charlie Villanueva as a cheap 3-point threat who can rebound and Nazr Mohammed as another big body.
Doolittle: Rivers' presence is itself a boost to the Clippers' baseline, as his teams are annually strong on the defensive end. The Clippers improved by only one place -- to eighth -- in defensive efficiency during Rivers' first season, but he was working with a weak-rebounding roster that finished 26th in defensive rebounding percentage despite the presence of Griffin and Jordan.
The Clippers got little help on the boards from the wings and had a minutes-weighted team height that ranked just 25th in the league. Getting longer and a little younger would be a boost to this roster. As it stands, the Clippers will struggle to stay under the tax line, so Rivers and Gary Sacks will have to make hay via a clever trade or two or with a taxpayer's midlevel exception. The good news is that as long as the ownership situation is resolved quickly, the Clippers will be at the top of the list for low-cost veterans looking to win. The bad news is no one knows if the ownership situation will be resolved quickly. Retaining the same roster might well be the best approach for the short term.
III. Obstacles to success
Elhassan: As it stands, the Clippers are dangerously close to the projected tax threshold of $77 million. While Darren Collison, Glen Davis and Danny Granger are expected to opt out of their deals, nothing is a given, and if any of them opt in, it reduces the flexibility the team will have to improve its roster. Of course, the organization has also suffered a black eye from the Sterling scandal, and it remains to be seen whether that will affect their ability to attract talent.
Doolittle: The Sterling situation does indeed cast a pall over the organization, one that will dissolve the instant he is divested of ownership. At that point, the Clippers can resume their championship pursuit. Paul and Griffin can only hope Rivers sticks around to lead them, as he has been non-committal in his public comments. The Clippers' star duo both have three more years, plus a player option, remaining on their contracts, so L.A.'s window of contention should remain open for a few years to come.
IV. The "Ideal" Roster
Elhassan: Acquiring Deng in a sign-and-trade gives the Clippers another high-IQ, high-level defender on the wing who also offers some scoring punch out of floppy sets and wide pin-downs. His 3-point percentage has regressed the past two seasons, but playing alongside an elite point guard like Paul will give him better looks (he shot 36 percent from 3-point range in Derrick Rose's four healthy seasons, 31 percent since then).
Adding Leandro Barbosa and Brandon Rush by splitting the midlevel exception should bolster the Clips' 3-point shooting and bring depth to the backcourt. Barbosa replaces Collison as Paul's backup and gives them another tough defender. Villanueva and Mohammed as one-year vet minimums means their cap hits show up as only $915,000, and trading out of their first-round pick for a 2014 second rounder allows them to add a high-risk, high-reward talent such as Isaiah Austin and pay him a three-year minimum deal using the remainder of the midlevel exception.
The "Ideal" Roster
Pos Clippers 2015Age 2015$ 2015WARP
C DeAndre Jordan 27 $11.4m 8.8
PG Chris Paul 30 $20.1m 15.3
SG J.J. Redick 31 $6.8m 2.6
SF Luol Deng 30 $7.3m 4.2
PF Blake Griffin 26 $17.7m 11.3
bC Nazr Mohammed 38 $1.4m -0.8*
bPG Jamal Crawford 35 $5.5m 2.9
bSG Leandro Barbosa 32 $2.8m -1.3
bSF Brandon Rush 30 $1.4m -1.2
bPF Charlie Villanueva 31 $1.3m 2.4*
RES1 Reggie Bullock 24 $1.2m -0.4
RES2 Isaiah Austin 22 $0.5m 0.9
Est. Payroll: $76.5 million; Updated Win Range: 58 to 62
Notes: Est. Payroll includes built-in minimum salary slots beyond top 12 on roster; Updated Win Baseline includes a coaching adjustment. * - actual cap number would be $915K. Bold=new player