A Clipper Breakup Would Reverberate Across the League
There is good reason to think that this version of the Clippers will soon, and should soon, come to an end.
Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
The Los Angeles Clippers have had multiple opportunities to win a championship, but a collection of injuries, brain farts, and Josh Smith three pointers have held them back. After being eliminated in the first round on Sunday by the Utah Jazz, the Clippers are heading into the most significant offseason in their franchise's dismal history. Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, and J.J. Redick are all eligible to enter unrestricted free agency, and there is good reason to think that this version of the Clippers will soon, and should soon, come to an end. Not every team is meant to win a championship, even those that have had five solid cracks with three All-NBA talents and a coach, Doc Rivers, who already knows what it takes to raise a banner.
There's always the outside chance Los Angeles doubles down in a trade for Carmelo Anthony, but he's 33 years old and doesn't solve the organization's desperate need for youthful invigoration off the bench.
Paul, Griffin, and Redick should all have interesting options this offseason, assuming they want a fresh start. For these three, no option will be flawless, but they all make sense in one way or another.
Potential suitors: New Orleans Pelicans, Chicago Bulls, Philadelphia 76ers
Fitting Chris Paul into a new home is harder than it sounds. He's arguably the smartest point guard who ever lived, and is coming off the most efficient season of a first-ball Hall of Fame career in which he finished first (as in, better than everybody else) in Real Plus-Minus. But Paul is also entering his 13th season, which means he's pretty old and very expensive.
Paul would be sacrificing contract years and money if he left the Clippers. Per the collective bargaining agreement, Paul could only get fours years from a new team rather than the five years he could get by re-signing in Los Angeles. Also, he could at most get a five percent annual increase from a new team, as opposed to the eight percent raise he'd get from the Clippers.
We don't yet know what the exact salary cap is for next season, but the difference between staying and going will likely be upwards of $50 million in guaranteed money. That's a lot! But Paul can still earn about $150 million over four years if he signs with another team. That's also a lot! In both scenarios, the first year of his new contract will be worth about $35 million.
In narrowing the market, we need to weigh a variety of factors. Prospective teams need to have enough cap space to afford Paul, but also be situated in a timeline that makes sense to acquire a 32-year-old point guard. That means they have to either be near contention now, or positioned to immediately upgrade the surrounding talent.
The Philadelphia 76ers aren't close to winning a title, and it's hard to see Paul taking less money to join a worse team. But Philly's most glaring weakness is at point guard (yes, Ben Simmons may solve it, but until he does this remains a question mark). But, the Sixers are in the weaker Eastern Conference, have more cap space than anybody else, and own enough assets to swing a massive win-now trade while still maintaining one eye on the future.
Philly's official trade chips won't be crystallized until the lottery, but if things go right they may have enough to acquire Paul George or Jimmy Butler (assuming Joel Embiid is the only untouchable player) before pitching Paul. This all sounds wild—and it's not a certainty that this is what the Sixers SHOULD do—but aspects of it make sense for both sides.
The Chicago Bulls may be an even longer shot. If Dwyane Wade opts into his $23.8 million contract, money is already tight before they renounce all their other free agents (including Rajon Rondo and Nikola Mirotic). But Paul would stabilize a franchise that's stuck between a total rebuild and middling playoff contention. Are Paul and Butler enough to emerge from the East? Probably not. But the fit is reasonable enough to float it as a (very slight) possibility.
The New Orleans Pelicans would be neat, right? Paul returns home to where he started his career and gets to bark at DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis (arguably the two most talented teammates he's ever had) for 82 games. If any floor general can orchestrate a half-court offense with the deft touch that's necessary to make this duo work, it's Paul.
But even after they renounce all their cap holds (including Jrue Holiday), the Pelicans still don't have enough cap space to afford Paul. They can get there by trading E'Twaun Moore plus one of Omer Asik or Solomon Hill, but those latter two contracts are eye sores that New Orleans couldn't get rid of without handcuffing them to a first-round pick.
Is that even worth it? Or should they just re-sign the younger, cheaper Holiday and cease hemorrhaging their future with every other personnel decision they make? The upside is high, and New Orleans would trampoline close to title contention in that first season. But Paul will decline sooner than later, and Cousins can leave next summer. It's too risky to be anything more than a (very perfect) dream.
That leads us to the most popular and obvious alternative.
The decision: San Antonio Spurs
If the Spurs are ever going to seriously compete against the Golden State Warriors in a seven-game series, they need more reliable scoring options than Kawhi Leonard. Not only can Paul supply them efficiently by himself, but he also elevates teammates and would let Tony Parker age with more grace as a score-first sixth man.
The problem, though, resides on the financial side. If Pau Gasol picks up his $16.1 million player option then the Spurs have no shot to open enough space. If Gasol opts out, San Antonio still has to shed some salary in order to afford Paul's max contract. That means Danny Green is getting traded. Losing a cost-effective 3-and-D wing who slides between several positions on defense while shooting 40 percent from deep on the other end isn't great. But Green turns 30 in a couple months, and his overall impact on the game is a flickering candle to Paul's raging sun.
If the Spurs think they can get Paul, Green is gone. But with Leonard still only 25 years old, this model franchise is in no real rush to go all in and make a serious attempt to dethrone the Warriors next season. Their books are all but clear two years from now, when they can reface their roster around Leonard's all-around greatness as they please.
But if winning a title—or even just getting to the Western Conference Finals—is Paul's top priority, San Antonio is far and away the smartest choice.
Potential suitors: Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls, Minnesota Timberwolves
For all the blemishes associated with Blake Griffin—his unfashionable skill-set, increasingly questionable health, and declining athleticism—he just turned 28 and remains one of the world's 20 best basketball players.
Almost every team that can afford Griffin wants Griffin, even if it's on a four-year deal worth around $130 million. He's not the smoothest fit in most offensive systems, and has never been one of the 10 best defenders at his position. But Griffin remains one of the better playmaking bigs in the league. He can run a pick-and-roll and is just now starting to flash some legitimate three-point range.
The sun might've already set on days that saw him draw automatic double teams in the post, but Griffin still gets buckets with his back to the basket. The Miami Heat need/want to tether themselves to a star, and Griffin could be even better with the ball in his hands more frequently in a fast-paced environment.
Almost everything written about the Bulls in regards to Paul also applies to Griffin. Griffin on the Timberwolves would be aesthetically stunning. But in order to make it happen Tom Thibodeau would first have to find someone willing to take Gorgui Dieng off his hands (the Brooklyn Nets are on line one), and contemplate what their defensive ceiling would be with a Griffin-Towns frontcourt.
The decision: Boston Celtics
Boston's primary target this summer is Utah Jazz wing Gordon Hayward. If they don't get him, Griffin will do just fine as a consolation prize. The Celtics get their second (third?) star without having to forfeit any assets in a trade for Paul George or Jimmy Butler. They'd be capped out and headed straight towards the luxury tax with Isaiah Thomas due a massive payday next summer, but they would also get to keep whoever they pick in the 2017 and 2018 drafts. It'd be a monstrous win for them, and, after finishing in first place without Griffin, their ceiling with him inside Brad Stevens' ball-hopping system shoots straight into the NBA's stratosphere.
For Griffin, he gets to compete for a championship without any intense pressure to perform. Thomas will still be Boston's primary offensive option, and Stevens will experiment with Griffin at the five more often than Doc Rivers did. He'll have fun on a winning team that still has several avenues to improve (via trade or the draft). Everybody wins!
Potential suitors: Nearly every team that has at least $15 million of cap space
Redick's 2016-17 postseason was sad. Sporting a 5.0 PER (10 points below league average), the sharpshooting off guard never got it going. He was slow off screens and was swallowed whole by Utah's collection of like-sized wings, most notably Joe Ingles.
Redick's turnover percentage was higher than his usage rate, a shocking development for a player who's rarely in position to cough up the ball at all. He attempted less than half as many shots per 36 minutes compared to last year's playoffs, and shot 38 percent from the floor. One series doesn't make or break any player, but Redick turns 33 in June and he isn't getting any quicker. He's undersized and was, for the first time in recent memory, an outright defensive liability against the Jazz.
It was hard to watch for Clippers fans, but potentially even more miserable for Redick's agent. He'll still have a robust market—elite shooting forever rules the day—but the annual dollar amount may not be as high as it was before the world watched Utah snuff Redick out.
Unlike Paul or Griffin, Redick isn't a foundation-shifting talent capable of pushing a very good team toward greatness. He needs the right environment to thrive, the correct package of plays, and teammates who can feed him the ball. But any team that needs to space the floor for their primary shot makers would welcome Redick with open arms. That includes: the Bulls, Pelicans, Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Lakers, and Memphis Grizzlies. A few of those teams don't have the cap space and/or openings in their depth chart to fit Redick in, but it just shows how in demand his skill-set still is.
Redick is also the type of free agent addition who can enhance a growing culture. Think about Redick on the Brooklyn Nets or in Philadelphia. He'll help on the floor, sure. But he'd also make a bunch of money as the veteran presence in a locker room that may need another voice. He probably views this an an undesirable role, but things could get interesting if those teams are willing to pay more than anybody else.
The decision: Nearly every team that has at least $15 million of cap space
Apologies for the cop out, but Redick has too many suitors, each with their own pros and cons, to narrow down and choose just one.
If Redick doesn't want to surrender the urbane lifestyle he enjoys in Southern California, the Lakers are convenient enough. If he wants to be part of a steadily developing movement, he can go to the Timberwolves—a perfect basketball fit that would signal that Zach LaVine is not long for Minnesota. If he wants to help elevate a playoff team in desperate need of spacing, he can join the Bulls.
There are so many variables to sort through, but Redick should have his fair share of options. Great shooting is so hard to find. Even if it's fleeting.
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