Many fans and analysts have become increasingly baffled by the moves that the Los Angeles Clippers have made over the past year. They lost Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan, but the front office decided not to tank and instead add veteran contributors to a roster that lacks a star player. The Clippers are following a very dangerous blueprint. They are not good enough to win a championship, nor bad enough to land a high lottery pick. Currently, their 2019 first-round pick will go to Boston, if the Clippers make the playoffs.
However, the team is seemingly constructed to fight for the seventh and eighth seeds in the loaded Western Conference. The front office is well aware of the risks they are taking. It is forming a viable strategy that we have not seen another team utilize. Also, no one should ever underestimate Jerry West‘s intuition.
The Los Angeles Clippers Future Plans
The Crossroads Last Off-Season
Last off-season, the Clippers were focusing on re-signing their star free agents, Paul and Griffin. The Lob City-era Clippers were the best team the franchise has ever had. Still, they were never able to become a serious championship contender during Paul’s six seasons with the team. The frustration from the locker room seemed apparent from the outside looking in. The team’s loss to the Utah Jazz in the first round of the 2017 playoffs only made matters worse.
It was clear that the team needed a change, but the front office did not seem to have many avenues to improve the roster. Three of their best players were free agents (Paul, Griffin, and J.J. Redick), and the team lacked cap space and assets. However, re-signing their players was not the clear-cut best decision. Paul is an injury-prone point guard, who would’ve been 37 years old at the end of a max contract. Griffin has struggled with injuries, as well.
The Chris Paul Trade
A few days before free agency even began, Paul informed the Clippers that he wanted to go to the Houston Rockets. The Clippers were, fortunately, able to trade Paul to Houston for a solid return. L.A. received Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Sam Dekker, Darrun Hilliard, DeAndre Liggins, Kyle Wiltjer, a first-round pick, and cash.
While it was not an amazing return, it was much better than letting Paul walk for nothing. Hilliard, Liggins, and Witjer were essentially just salary filler to make the deal work; the Clippers waived the three of them. Beverley was coming off of a season in which he was named to the All-Defensive First Team. Williams was expected to replace the departing Jamal Crawford in the sixth man role. Harrell and Dekker were viewed as throw-in prospects who might be able to crack the rotation.
Curiously, instead of flipping Beverley and Williams to try to acquire draft picks, the Clippers kept them and re-signed Griffin to a contract worth $171 million. Los Angeles flipped the first-round pick to unload Crawford’s contract. Using the freed up cap space, the Clippers signed Danilo Gallinari. They also signed Milos Teodosic to start alongside Beverley.
The 2017-18 Season
Things quickly changed for the Clippers during the season. Beverley played in only 11 games due to a knee injury. Gallinari played in only 21 games because of a hand injury. It was apparent that Gallinari was not healthy in many of those games. This trend continued throughout the season. Teodosic missed 37 games, Austin Rivers missed 21 games, and second-round pick Jawun Evans eventually had season-ending surgery. The team was forced to lean on many G-League players (namely, Jamil Wilson, Tyrone Wallace, and C.J. Williams) to start games and play significant minutes. Lou Williams exceeded expectations, averaging a scorching 25.2 points per game in December. He then averaged 28.2 points in January, including dropping 50 in a win over the Warriors.
The Blake Griffin Trade
Out of nowhere, the Clippers traded Griffin, who has missed significant time dealing with knee and head injuries in the past, along with Willie Reed and Brice Johnson, to the Detroit Pistons for Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovic, and a first-round pick. Offloading Griffin’s large contract gave the Clippers future flexibility, allowing them to rebuild their team in the long term. Amazingly, the Clippers ended up winning the trade in the short term, too. Harris averaged 19.3 points on 47.3 percent shooting after the trade, while Griffin averaged 19.8 points on 43.3 percent from the field. Harris established himself as an elite three-point shooter last season at 41.1 percent from deep, as well. His spacing helped open up the Clippers’ offense as a whole.
Even though Griffin was improving as a shooter, the offense typically functioned with two more traditional bigs in Griffin and Jordan. Suddenly, Harrell and Jordan had clearer paths to buckets. Bradley was only able to appear in six games with Los Angeles, continuing a disappointing trend of injuries for the season. Harrell developed into one the best bench players in the league. He was third in the NBA in field goal percentage at 63.5 percent and increased his scoring average every month last season. Harrell scored 16 points per game in April in only 25.2 minutes per game. Meanwhile, Williams did not slow down, leading the league in fourth quarter scoring; he recorded 22.6 points per game for the season. The Clippers missed the playoffs but still finished with a 42-40 record, despite being ravaged by injuries.
Heading into the off-season, the Clippers had the 12th and 13th overall picks in the NBA draft. They traded up to the 11th pick to take Kentucky’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who looked like a steal throughout the summer league. Then, they elected to take Jerome Robinson out of Boston College with the 13th pick, which was acquired in the Griffin trade. With a surplus of guards on the roster, the Clippers traded Austin Rivers to the Washington Wizards for Marcin Gortat. The longest-tenured Clipper, Jordan, signed with the Dallas Mavericks. L.A. was able to re-sign Bradley to a two-year contract that reportedly guarantees little money in the second year. The Clippers signed Luc Mbah a Moute and Mike Scott, as well.
The front office’s plan moving forward is apparent. With almost no guaranteed contracts on the books for the 2019-20 season, they can become major players during free agency next year. Lawrence Frank and Jerry West seem to be thinking big. There were reports that Kawhi Leonard would consider playing for the Clippers. Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving, and Klay Thompson are other stars who will be free agents next summer, and the front office positioned themselves to be able to afford at least two of these players. Re-signing the 25-year-old Harrell to a contract worth $6 million per season and extending Williams with a three-year deal worth $24 million allowed the Clippers to retain valuable contributors without breaking the bank.
The Clippers understand that simply having cap space does not make you a free agent destination. Remember, this team is coming off of a 42-40 season, despite injuries, and added Mbah a Moute, Gilgeous-Alexander, Robinson, Gortat, and Scott. Getting full seasons out of Bradley, Gallinari, Teodosic, and Beverley should help the team win more games, as well. The Clippers might have the deepest rotation in the league. Sure, the West is stacked, but the Clippers proved last season that they could have success in this conference.
L.A. will probably lose its first-round pick, but who wouldn’t want to go to a playoff team that can add two stars? Steve Ballmer is not afraid to spend and the Clippers will have the Bird Rights to most of their players. This means that if Leonard and Butler wanted to come to Los Angeles, the Clippers can theoretically surround them with this deep roster. The Clippers are taking massive gambles, but they are far from stuck. Who knows? They might be on the way to building a serious championship contender.
CHICAGO, USA – MARCH 13: Tobias Harris (34) of Los Angeles Clippers in action against David Nwaba (11) of Chicago Bulls during the NBA basketball match between Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Clippers at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois, United States on March 13, 2018. (Photo by Bilgin S. Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images