The off-season will certainly be interesting for the Los Angeles Clippers.
The Clippers exited the playoffs with a whimper on Sunday, losing Game Seven of their highly-anticipated first-round series against the Utah Jazz, 104-91. Gordon Hayward scored 26 points for the Jazz in the elimination game victory.
All things considered, the Clippers-Jazz series was an entertaining back-and-forth battle with some unexpected twists between two fairly evenly matched franchises. Ultimately, however, the Jazz’s excellent defense and ability to control the pace were too much for the Clippers, who will now face some tough decisions in the off-season.
Changes Ahead After Clippers First-Round Playoff Exit
Bad news hit the Clippers early in the Jazz series. Power forward Blake Griffin suffered an injury to the plantar plate of his right big toe late in the second quarter of Game Three, and within 24 hours, it was confirmed that he would not make it through the NBA postseason for the second straight year. Yes, the “Clippers Curse” struck again.
Blake Griffin is out for the postseason and the Clippers curse continues. pic.twitter.com/pMk2xlPZaO
Although the Clippers did have relative success playing without Griffin over the last two seasons, his absence changed the course of the Jazz series. The Clippers struggled to find a consistent third scorer to join Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan, and Griffin’s size and athleticism were definitely missed on defense. Griffin was averaging 20.3 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 2.3 assists per game in the series before his injury.
Griffin underwent surgery on Monday in Charlotte, North Carolina, by foot and ankle specialist Dr. Robert Anderson.
Injury Update » Blake Griffin underwent a successful surgery today to repair an injury to the plantar plate of his right big toe. pic.twitter.com/nULVn6SwWS
Although no timetable for Griffin’s recovery has been announced, the Clippers believe he’ll be ready for the 2017 preseason, according to Bill Oram of the OC Register.
It’s unclear at this point what the future holds for Griffin and the Clippers. Griffin has an early termination clause in his contract, meaning he can become an unrestricted free agent this summer. However, per the L.A. Times: “The Clippers and Griffin hope to work out a maximum deal, according to NBA officials who were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.” Griffin has to inform the Clippers of his decision by June 28.
Jordan vs. Gobert
The matchup between Jordan and Rudy Gobert was highly anticipated coming into the series, but it ended up being fairly uneventful, at least as a one-on-one matchup. Gobert left Game One of the series just seconds into the first quarter after hyperextending his left knee and suffering a bone contusion. He missed the first three games of the series.
When Gobert returned for Game Four, his presence did make a noticeable difference. The Clippers scored only 36 points in the paint compared to Utah’s 58. The Jazz took that game 105-98. Gobert performed solidly in Games Five (11 points, 11 rebounds) and Six (15 points, nine rebounds), but had little impact in Game Seven (one point, four rebounds) due to foul trouble. Overall, it just felt like the “Battle of the Bigs” never came to fruition.
As for Jordan, he was the only player to record a double-double in all seven games of the series, averaging 15.4 points and 14.3 rebounds per game. However, don’t think that those numbers mean that he played particularly well. With Gobert out, Jordan should have dominated the interior and put up somewhere around 20 points and 20 boards per game. He did not. On top of that, Jordan had costly turnovers in Games Six and Seven. He could not finish at the rim, shot poorly from the foul line (22-for-56 in the series), and had difficulty catching the ball. It wasn’t a standout or All-Star performance by any means.
Utah’s X-Factor: Joe Johnson
In a surprising twist that few saw coming, the star of the series for the Jazz was none other than 16-year veteran Joe Johnson. The Clippers struggled to contain Johnson from the get-go, with “Iso Joe” scoring 21 points on 9-for-14 shooting and knocking down a buzzer-beating shot over defensively-challenged Jamal Crawford to win Game One. In Game Four, after Hayward’s early exit due to food poisoning, Johnson stepped up to carry the Jazz to victory, scoring or assisting on 22 of Utah’s final 25 points.
The seven-time All-Star used his size to take advantage of matchups with smaller players throughout the series, and he seemed to be able to score at will. Johnson averaged 15.7 points per game, a significant increase from his regular season average of just 9.2 PPG. Only Hayward (23.7) and George Hill (16.9) averaged more for the Jazz in the series.
Chris Paul’s Spectacular Series Ends on a Low Note
Paul had nothing short of a spectacular run in the Clippers-Jazz series, averaging 25.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, 9.9 assists, and 1.7 steals per game. In the first six games, he was nearly unstoppable, almost single-handedly keeping the Clippers alive. In Game Seven, however, the Jazz aggressively shrunk the court on Paul and effectively prevented him from getting to his sweet spots. Paul finished with only 13 points on 6-for-19 shooting, to go along with four rebounds and nine assists. Notably, Paul had only two points in the second half of the final loss, deferring to his teammates to take the big shots. Fans and pundits were quick to criticize Paul – unfairly, given his overall series performance – for not being “clutch” following the loss.
Like Griffin, Paul also has an early termination clause in his contract and could choose to play elsewhere next year. Per the L.A. Times, anonymous sources both inside and outside of the Clippers organization have said that the franchise hopes to re-sign Paul to a maximum deal. Paul must inform the Clippers of his decision by June 29.
Paul made a point of deflecting post-series questions regarding his future:
Chris Paul says he hasn't thought about upcoming contract option: "We just lost probably like 20 minutes ago" pic.twitter.com/v4lk1lj7W9
So what is to become of the Clippers? Ask 100 people and you’ll get 100 different opinions. Here are my thoughts:
- Time for a new general manager. Handling both GM and coaching duties is difficult, and of the few who do it, even fewer do it well. Doc Rivers is not one of those few.
- The coaching staff needs new blood. Rivers should stay, but assistant coaches who can retool L.A.’s offense are absolutely necessary. The Clippers’ sets are too predictable, and their heavy reliance on the high pick-and-roll and isolation plays does not maximize the talent of their roster.
- Sign a “closer.” The Clippers have a ton of talent but lack a true go-to player for crunch time. Paul has served the role and done so very well at times, but it is not a natural fit for him. He excels as a team player, pulling the strings and running the overall show. The closest thing to a clutch player the Clippers have is Crawford, a 39-year-old reserve, and given how streaky a shooter he is, that is a problem.
- Consider letting Paul go, for his own good and the good of the franchise. Signing Paul to a max contract would seal the Clippers’ fate for the near future. At 32, he may want to seek out an opportunity to get a ring, with a team that better fits his style of play. The San Antonio Spurs, perhaps? Griffin and Jordan are young (each is 28) and could afford to spend a couple more years in Los Angeles in an effort to build a championship squad. With smart off-season acquisitions and a revamped offense, achieving such a goal is certainly not out of the question.
- Resist the urge to re-sign J.J. Redick. There is no doubt that Redick is a solid catch-and-shoot player. However, he was a ghost for the majority of the Jazz series, averaging just 9.1 points per game, well under his regular season average of 15. His defensive skill-set is less than great, and he will be very expensive to keep. If forced to choose between keeping Redick or Austin Rivers, I’d choose Rivers. As streaky and temperamental as Rivers can be at times, I think he’s a better bet for the Clippers long-term.