Five burning questions and answers about the immediate future of theLos Angeles Clippersin the wake of L.A.'s second-round collapse against the Houston Rockets:
1. After a meltdown like this, is it time to try something new?
People get emotional after a meltdown. Fingers are pointed. Narratives are written. But the truth is the Clippers just blew this series. They were up three games to one and couldn't finish off the Rockets. They were up 19 points in the third quarter of Game 6 and couldn't close out.
Did their lack of depth hurt them? Yes. They looked like they hit a wall in Game 6 and just didn't have anything left in Game 7. But everyone is tired this time of year. That can't be your excuse to blow up the core group of Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan.
The core isn't the problem. The depth is, and that's on Doc Rivers, president of basketball operations, more than anyone else. He's the man who constructed a roster that hasn't been particularly flexible, deep or dynamic all season. Griffin and Paul each took turns taking the blame for not getting this group out of the second round. As the All-Stars here, they should.
But it's really on Rivers to get them more help and he has failed to meaningfully do that each of the past two summers. The decision to prioritize Spencer Hawes over a small forward like Paul Pierce or Trevor Ariza looks awful in retrospect. So does the decision to trade away Jared Dudley and a first-round pick to clear enough salary cap space to fill out the roster with Hedo Turkoglu and Glen Davis. That first-round pick could've helped them in trades this winter as they pursued the likes of Jeff Green or Arron Afflalo.
Yes, they got more out of Austin Rivers than most expected. But it wouldn't have been necessary to even make that trade if they'd re-signed Darren Collison last summer and didn't miss badly on Jordan Farmar.
Doc Rivers acknowledged after the game that he's got to get Griffin, Paul and Jordan more "support" this summer. It'll be hard to do that with a team that has such limited financial flexibility. But that's where the problem lies, not in breaking up the core no matter how frustrating it is to keep bumping up against the same second-round ceiling.
If anything, the Clippers should look to the team they vanquished in the first round, the San Antonio Spurs, as a model for how to reinvent your roster around an aging core rather than tear it apart after an emotional loss.
2. Will the Clippers offer DeAndre Jordan a five-year max contract this summer?
Hell yes. There are always going to be those who don't feel comfortable giving a five-year, $108.7 million contract to a guy who can't shoot free throws and oftentimes has to come out of important games because of it. But if there's one thing we've learned in the new NBA, it's that you don't let talent leave without getting anything in return.
That's why you saw Phoenix risk its flickering playoff hopes by trading Goran Dragic to Miami at the deadline once it became clear he was serious about not re-signing this summer.
If the Clippers need a cautionary tale of what happens when a franchise loses talent to free agency, they need only to look down the hallway at Staples Center where the Lakers are still trying to find someone to take the money they were left with after Dwight Howard departed in 2013 and Pau Gasol left in 2014.
No, the Clippers won't mess around here. They'll offer Jordan a five-year max as soon as they possibly can on July 1.
"Our first priority is DJ," Rivers said after the Game 7 loss. "That's obvious. I don't know how much I can say there. Can you tamper with your own guy? If that's true I'm going to go tamper right now."
3. If Jordan were to leave, where would he go?
Jordan has been telling people for months that he plans to visit with other teams and listen to pitches. He enjoyed free agency the last time around -- when he signed a four-year, $43 million offer sheet with the Golden State Warriors in 2011, that the Clippers subsequently matched -- and wants to gauge how other teams view him as a player. As much as he loves being in Los Angeles and is perfectly suited to play alongside Griffin and Paul, he has longed for a larger stage and role. Not making the All-Star team or winning a defensive player of the year award has frustrated him. So does losing in the second round, year after year.
The Dallas Mavericks are expected to make a strong push for Jordan, who would essentially be a younger version of the Mavs' current defensive anchor Tyson Chandler. The Lakers would likewise love to steal Jordan away from their Staples Center rival. Portland has enough cap space to re-sign LaMarcus Aldridge and make a max offer to Jordan -- who has a similar but far superior skill set to Robin Lopez -- but he'd just be trading one third-fiddle spot for another in that scenario.
No other team can offer Jordan more than four years, $80.7 million. But the 26-year-old center could also decide to sign a two-year deal with a player option on the second year to take advantage of the ballooning salary-cap in 2016. If he were to opt out after that first season, then re-sign for five more seasons, Jordan could make $162.6 million over the next six seasons.
4. What can the Clippers really do to improve?
Not much, according to ESPN salary cap expert Larry Coon. The team is on the hook for $66.8 million next season without Jordan, and the cap is expected to be $67.1 million. In other words, they have no cap room. They will have their mid-level exception with or without Jordan leaving, but won't have their bi-annual (they used it this year on Jordan Farmar). If Jordan leaves, there might be some wiggle room with the non-guarantees of Matt Barnes, Jamal Crawford, Jordan Hamilton and Lester Hudson. Crawford has only $1.5 million guaranteed if they waive him prior to June 30. Barnes is guaranteed only $1 million if they waive him by July 1. But both of those players have key roles for the Clippers and there aren't exactly replacements for them who would be willing to play for the veteran's minimum.
The Clippers' needs are obvious: more depth at small forward, a better backup big man for Griffin and Jordan, youth, athleticism and defense. It's going to be hard to meaningfully address all those needs with only minimum contracts to offer. The Clippers have interest in Lakers swingman Wes Johnson, according to sources. They also have last year's first-round pick -- shooting guard C.J. Wilcox -- on their bench. Not exactly needle-moving moves.
5. What about Kevin Durant?
Yeah, that's right. Kevin Durant. At this point, the Durant option is one of those things agents, rival GMs and sports talk radio hosts spitball about when they try to solve two burning questions with the same answer.
The thinking goes something like this: If OKC is genuinely worried Durant will leave in 2016, they have to look to get something in return for him this year. Blake Griffin is from Oklahoma City. The Clippers keep topping out in the second round and might be willing to shake things up. It's a nice theory. Juicy, too. But neither team has ever seriously discussed it. And Clippers owner Steve Ballmer has made it clear to the entire organization that he wants Griffin to be a part of the franchise for his entire career.
As Rivers said, you can never say never to major changes. But that's not the plan right now.
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