The Unenviable Problems of the Los Angels Clippers

The Los Angeles Clippers are already experiencing the greatest season in franchise history.
 
From nearly any viewpoint, the team has never flown at these heights of on or off court success. For just their second time in Donald T. Sterling’s ownership, the Clips have not one, but two starters in the All-Star game in Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. They are playing at a .679 winning percentage, which is almost 80 points higher than their second-best record in over three decades of basketball. At 36-16, if the Clippers lost every game for the rest of the season, they’d still be tied for the 8th highest win total in their franchise’s history.
 
Looking into the future, if the team keeps it’s current trajectory, they will not only attain a top-4 seed for the first time and home court advantage in the playoffs for just the second time, but seem to be on their way towards capturing their maiden Pacific Division banner.
 
Most importantly, this season was the first time ever, at any in point in any season, where the casual basketball fan could say “the LA Clippers are the best team in the league.” That’s not hyperbole or exaggeration; the Clips have never been good enough in their entire existence as a franchise at any moment in time where someone could mention their name at the top of the league. Quite incredible.
 
But the present isn’t just what has Clippers fans excited–it’s the future. After years of squandering draft selections with titanically busted picks, signing over-priced free agents that no one else wanted and allowing players to walk and flourish elsewhere, the Red, White and Blue have finally given their long suffering followers a reason to hope.
 
It all starts with the top; Chris Paul holds high the belt as the undisputed point guard champion, no discount double check necessary. Blake Griffin has his detractors–count MAMBINO amongst them–but he’s only in his third season at the age of 22 with two All-Star berths and a 2nd Team All-NBA nod to his name. Even as his post game, jump shot, free throw shooting and defense leave a Kia-sized raft of shortcomings to be desired, Griffin still has years to grow into a true dominator.
 
The rest of the squad looks teeming with talent. DeAndre Jordan performs at times like the $43 million he signed for, providing the defense and shot blocking that drew comparisons to Tyson Chandler two years ago. Eric Bledsoe came to the Clippers from the Thunder in a rare lapse of judgment from Jedi Master Sam Presti. Chris Paul’s back-up has turned into one of the league’s finest back court defenders and one of the brightest prospects in the NBA. Jamal Crawford has been shockingly fantastic this year after a much maligned full mid-level exception signing, providing some of the playmaking that no other Clipper besides CP3 has been able to bring onto the table. Meanwhile, Matt Barnes continues to play career-best ball and Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Grant Hill and Willie Green perform their supporting roles well, even at a combined price of around $19 million.
 
Put this all together? You’ve got a championship contending team. The Clippers play like few incarnations ever have before it, locking down oppositions in the half court set, destroying oppositions in transition and relying heavily on two seemingly unstoppable All-Stars. Moreover, the Clips seem to have the room and assets to improve; Eric Bledsoe’s days with the team seem limited with free agent-to-be Chris Paul presumably re-upping with a bona fide contender this summer. Along with Lamar Odom ($8.5 million dollar expiring deal), Caron Butler (two years, $16 million) and Chauncey Billups ($3 million dollar expiring deal), as well as the rights to most of their future draft picks, the front office seems ready to wheel and deal before the trade deadline for another piece that could topple Oklahoma City and San Antonio.
 
But like any true Clippers story, there seems to be precarious caveats tied to every dream and hope for long-term success. As much flexibility the team seems to have going into their present as well as their future, nothing is concrete.

As much as the on-court product starts with Chris Paul, any question tied to the organization begins with his contract and his knees. CP3 has the right to walk away from the Clippers for nothing this summer, with the Dallas Mavericks and Atlanta Hawks being the primary suitors. It’s widely speculated that Paul wouldn’t be able to pass up the extra $25 million a title contender like the Clips could offer him, but like Dwight Howard across the hallway, there’s always a chance he’ll be wearing a different uniform in July.

But as terrified as the ever-skunked Clippers fans are about CP leaving them high and bone dry like a buffet after Lamar Odom departs, there’s nothing scarier than the prospect of keeping Paul, paying him over $100 million dollars and finding out that he’s junked goods. He’s had joint problems in the past, tearing cartilage in his left knee in 2010 and missing 42 games over the course of the season. Most people forget, but at the time when CP3 wasn’t missing games, he was hobbling around the court bereft of the agility and burst that made him into a MVP runner-up in 2008 to Kobe Bryant. Paul’s place at the top of the “greatest point guard in the NBA conversation” became muddled, a concept that’s completely foreign in 2013. This time, it’s CP’s right knee that’s the problem–he just got back on the court after sitting out for three weeks after suffering a knee bruise after a collision with JJ Redick.

Fears have been momentarily assuaged after I watched him in person gut the New York Knicks in Madison Square Garden yesterday afternoon, needling passes to teammates and hitting that famous step-back jumper with ease. However, regardless of whether or not this was a freak injury or an ominous sign of things to come, Paul’s recent DL trip was a reminder of just how fragile his health has been over his career. Since CP3 came the Clippers just over a year ago, the fan base has been living in an idyllic paradise where the true franchise player they’ve never had finally landed in their laps. However, the future seems less than secure with their said savior perhaps playing on balky knees and borrowed time. Granting any player a nine-figure contract is frightening, but doing so after trading a young, cheap talent like Bledsoe could induce nausea.

CP’s understudy seemingly has a departure all but set in stone, especially looking at the Clippers’ place in the standings. Bledsoe, it seems, it just one trade chip in a basket of many. They’re firmly entrenched 4 games behind the Thunder and 4 1/2 games behind the Spurs in the Western Conference postseason bracket, with far more noticeable holes in their rotation.

DeAndre Jordan has been up and down this season, but cannot keep himself on the floor both with his propensity to foul and a 42.9% on free throws. Lamar Odom has been finishing up games for the Clippers, and though he brings with him a championship pedigree, isn’t the player he was when the confetti rained down in 2010. The team could use another big man to pair with Blake Griffin, especially one that’s able to create his own shot on the block as a complement to CP’s playmaking. The All-Star forward hasn’t improved in any great measure in his fourth season, struggling with a jump shot that looks nice, but rarely ends well. Jamal Crawford is scoring 16.8 off the bench and is the only other Clipper with skill enough to create offense besides Paul. However, he does so at such low efficiency (42% shooting) without driving into the lane and putting enough pressure on the opposing interior defense. In other words, Crawford is going to shoot it in the fourth quarter on a killer crossover, won’t draw contact and will probably miss wildly.

It’s clear that the Clips need another big playmaker to become better-executing half court team, especially in crunch time. The fact that they’ve gone through this season without it deeply affecting their overall record is a testament to just how well Paul has played, but looking at their win-loss slate without him, how reliant they are on their point guard’s skillset. Both the Spurs, Thunder and the Grizzlies are excellent defensively in a slow-down half court set, especially if they focus their energies trying to nullify CP and force him to shoot. Luckily–or unluckily–for the Clippers, they have the resources to bring in some reinforcements. Players like Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap specifically come to mind as front court creators whose situations and salaries match up with the Red, White and Blue.

Bledsoe, Jordan, Billups, Butler and Odom are prime targets for trade, either for their youth, expiring or near expiring deals. The latter three would be easy chips to give up, considering their age and short term future in LA. However, Caron is still a nominal starter and Odom has been the closing big man for the Clips. Dealing either would create huge holes in the current team’s lineup that the new imports would have to quickly plug up.

Moreover, Bledsoe has just turned the corner as a productive player, while Jordan’s length, strength and energy could have him primed for a career as a game-changing defensive force. It seems here that the future is at odds with the present–to compete this year, the Clippers have an obvious need for another veteran playmaker with postseason experience to put them over the top and into the conversation with the Spurs and Thunder. At the same time, is it wise to give up two twenty-somethings knowing full well that a 23 year-old Blake Griffin and a 27 year-old Chris Paul are there–injury history not withstanding–awaiting a presumed half-decade of contention?

The Clippers have been known as a patient franchise, but perhaps too patient.  They’ve been all too frequently rebuilding, or building, to a future that never existed and passing on opportunities that would make them a better team today. Which one are they right now? Last summer, the Clippers were criticized for not even engaging in the Dwight Howard sweepstakes, staying far away from a deal that could possibly net them another top-5 player to go along with their MVP-candidate point guard. Seeing as today, D12 is self-admittedly 70% of himself, the Clips chose well in not going all-in for the center.

It’s just one unenviable problem in a box of them for the Clippers. They’re ready to gamble $100 million dollars on a point guard with bad knees. They’re ready to double down by trading away a supremely fine “point guard of the future” candidate. They’ve got several tradeable assets on hand, but could live to regret sending away young players for older vets near the ends of their careers or current deals. On paper, they don’t have enough to get past the top two seeds in the West, but might have to mortgage the future to win in the present. But is a future assured knowing the injury histories of their two stars?

These are problems every team has to face. Every team with a serious shot at winning, that is. In short, are the Clippers going to compound their risk and go all-in this year? Or will they simply bet big on the future?

Welcome to the land of hard decisions, Clippers fans.

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