There was a time when the LA Clippers were laughable, playing ball as ugly as their current uniforms. Times have changed, though. After the controversy of Chris Paul’s aborted trade to the Lakers and subsequent trade to the Clippers, basketball in Los Angeles has been turned on its head. If you need a comparison, think of the situation between Manchester United and Manchester City in the football world.
The Clippers are now among the elite. Based around Chris Paul, who has a legitimate claim to be the best, all-round point guard in the NBA to this day, Blake Griffin, who was once a unanimous Rookie of the Year and is a consistent All-Star and DeAndre Jordan, whose awareness of his skillset gives him a contribution greater than said skillset, the Clips are strong. But this big-three has been around since 2011 and their fingers remain bare.
Why is that? CP3, Blake and DeAndre are all considered to be towards the best in their position and the Clippers also have sweet-shooting J.J. Redick, the ageless Jamaal Crawford among a good roster led by a championship-winning coach, Doc Rivers.
If LA’s second franchise (chronologically) cannot get it done, then they need to ask whether or not it is time to blow up their core and that time is approaching, with CP3 and Blake Griffin available in free agency this summer.
So, can the LA Clippers win a title or is it time for a rebuild?
Why haven’t the Clippers won a title yet?
The current Clippers core have been in LA since the 2011 CP3 trade, so they have had time to make their mark on the league. Yet, LA’s most recent championship was the Lakers’ success in 2010.
And while it’s not the only reason, one reason behind the Clippers’ struggles has to be the strength of the Western Conference. In the East, getting to the NBA Finals is all about LeBron James. There, his teams hold a hegemony over the other fourteen others. With the King, the Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers have often been able to assume their position in the final series instead of needing to work for it.
In the West, it’s very different. The Clippers have had to battle the Lakers, with Kobe and Dwight, Popovich’s timeless San Antonio Spurs, the Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets and now the Golden State Warriors. That’s not even mentioning the Dallas Mavericks, who of course won a ring in 2011, or the Memphis Grizzlies, who have been a grinding contender with Mike Conley and Marc Gasol leading the team.
In the East, the Clippers’ progression to at least the Conference Finals would be a trivial matter. As it is, though, there is no guarantee that they will win any of their series. Every postseason matchup in the West is a battle and the Clippers have consistently fallen short. In fact, they have only won three postseason series. Three! No matter how good the Clippers are, no matter how strong their roster is, there just always seems to be someone better.
And the West’s strength means that the Clippers must always be at their best, but that’s not always a choice. Last year, for example, Chris Paul was injured during the series against Portland, which let Damian Lillard and his team take advantage and progress to face the Warriors.
And that leads us to some other reasons why the LA Clippers fall short and that is because of injuries and a lack of depth. I put those together because, of course, depth becomes more important when a team sustains injuries. With Chris Paul injured, that puts the team under the leadership of Austin Rivers or maybe now, Raymond Felton.
At the five, the depth of Marreese Speights is a nice change of pace and gives the team a different option but the roster is weak elsewhere. Brandon Bass at the backup-four is not especially bad but he is perhaps not enough. Whereas the Cavs have sniper Channing Frye, Bass is no specialist.
And that leads us to the general weakness of the Clippers’ roster. Sure, CP3 is among the best players and best leaders in the league. Blake Griffin, when healthy and in the right frame of mind, a.k.a. not punching a member of staff, is a superstar. DeAndre Jordan is no superstar but he is more than a glorified role player with his restrained efficiency on offence and strength on defence. J.J. Redick too is a great sniper and Jamal Crawford is one of the league’s best scorers off the bench.
But there’s a starting position we have left out there, isn’t there? At small forward, the Clips have either Luc Mbah a Moute or Paul Pierce and, with all due respect, that is never going to be good enough with the three being as important as it now is.
Can they win it this year?
Well, yes. Yes, they can. Part of the beauty of basketball and of sport as a whole is that anything can happen. In a world where Leicester City can win a Premier League, the LA Clippers categorically can win the NBA title this year.
After a sizzling start, the Clippers season cooled somewhat. A 14-2 start was followed by a winter of injuries and difficulties but they still surged late to finish fourth in the West with a 51-31 record. They have a strong roster, an elite point guard and power forward and a coach in Doc Rivers who has won it all. So, yes, they can win the championship.
But will they? No. Probably not. However strong or weak you think the Clippers roster to be, the chances are that they will, again, fall short. Even if they progress to the latter reaches of the playoffs, the Clippers roster cannot match the Golden State ‘superteam’ or probably even the evergreen San Antonio Spurs. Perhaps even Mike D’Antoni’s ridiculously-paced Houston Rockets would disassemble Doc Rivers’ machine.
And in the first round, they face the Utah Jazz, a team of staunch team defence led by Rudy Gobert and a versatile offensive unit around Gordon Hayward. In terms of depth, the Jazz are stronger than the Clippers. With players like Joe Johnson and Alec Burks on the pine and Hayward, Gobert, George Hill and Rodney Hood on the hardwood, the Clippers are in for a tough series; one they might not even win.
Is it time to blow up the roster?
This question is all about whether the LA Clippers can still contend in the Western Conference and the NBA and win that ring that has so far eluded them. The answer to that is simple. Barring players jumping ship in free agency and a sudden degeneration of 31-year-old Chris Paul’s talents, the Clippers are still a team capable of contending. That time, though, is running out and LA’s window is closing, fast.
This summer, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are among the most notable names in free agency. There are no guarantees that both or even any of them return to LA. It would be a surprise to see them both leave but that is a possibility and the Clippers need to be aware of that. Chris Paul might decide to take a pay cut to move to a better team. If he does not try to join his friends Carmelo Anthony or LeBron James, then the San Antonio Spurs, for example, could be an intriguing option. There, he would replace the aging Tony Parker as a starter and work with MVP-candidate Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and the league’s finest coach in Gregg Popovich. As for Blake Griffin, well, he will have lucrative offers from all corners of the NBA. Max contracts will be rolling in and Blake may well decide to move on to greener pasture, away from a stagnating core and a team where he has had his fair share of controversy recently.
So, the Clippers brass have a decision to make and they may decide to make it before it is thrust upon them. As early as this summer, the Clippers could be disbanded and the team has no security for the future. Sure, the three stars might be close friends but two of them could choose to leave or the team could let them walk.
If the Clippers decide to keep pushing, then they need to throw all they can at their stars, hope CP3 takes a pay cut and chasing free agents for one final throw of the dice. Someone like Danilo Gallinari, for example, might give the Clippers that extra quality but their list will be a long one.
If they decide that the current core has had its time, then they might decide to simply let their stars walk. That would be an extreme decision but patience may well be running thin at the stagnating Clippers front office. It would be a brave decision, as two stars would leave without any kind of return but a rebuild is inevitable, they might just decide to speed things along.
Whatever they decide, the Clippers need to do so with certainty. Either keep pushing or don’t. Moving without a definite direction, pressing on with a half-hearted desire to contend puts you in the realms of the Atlanta Hawks, mired in the middle of the playoffs, never in danger of falling but never threatening to make any real noise. From the Hawks, you reach the realms of the Sacramento Kings, where everyone is sick of your lack of progression and half-hearted attempts and then finally to the Brooklyn Nets, where your attempts failed miserably and now the franchise is barren. The LA Clippers have already been a laughing stock, they don’t want to be one again.
For the LA Clippers, the window is closing. The current core has had little to no postseason success and their conference is stronger than ever. An NBA title this year is possible but not a realistic goal. CP3 is on the wrong side of thirty. Blake Griffin will be chased by any team that can afford him. So maybe it is time for the Clippers to reach out for that closing window and close it for good.
Either way, the Clippers are decaying, the window is closing and they need to decide upon their direction. They do not have long left with their current core. Do they continue to push or look to the future?