By Samip Delhiwala
Published: May 3rd, 2017
The Los Angeles Clippers entered this season’s NBA playoffs knowing that another first or second round exit will likely result in a significant roster shakeup in the summer. Unfortunately, the Clippers’ superstar forward Blake Griffin suffered yet another season-ending injury during the playoffs—this time hurting the plantar plate of his toe—which contributed to a Game 7 semi-blowout and first round loss to the Utah Jazz on Sunday.
The team’s superstar point guard, Chris Paul, put LA on his back and averaged a career-high and team-high 25.3 points per game (ppg) in the playoffs on 49.6 percent shooting, to go along with 9.9 assists per game (apg). But the Clippers were unable to overcome Griffin’s injury from Game 3, and Paul’s performance was outmatched by the combined contributions of multiple Jazz players, which included Gordon Hayward’s team-high 23.7 ppg and Joe Johnson’s clutch heroics in Games 1 and 5.
The Clippers led the series 2-1 after a 111-106 win on the road in Salt Lake City, but blowing series leads has been a common occurrence for the team during the Paul, Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan-led Lob City era. In fact, they are the first team in NBA history to lose a series after holding a lead for five straight postseasons, all beginning with a 2-0 lead in the 2013 first round against the Memphis Grizzlies.
The most notorious failure for the Clippers came in the 2015 second round. After impressively knocking out the San Antonio Spurs in the first round in seven games, the Clippers held a 3-1 lead over the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference Semifinals and were poised to make their first Conference Finals in team history. But the Rockets fought back to win three games in a row, ending the Clippers’ season.
While the Jazz prepare for tomorrow’s Game 2 against the Golden State Warriors, the Clippers will enter a summer full of question marks. Both Paul and Griffin have player options for next season, meaning they can opt out of their current contracts and become free agents after the conclusion of this season. Although Paul has reportedly verbally committed to a long-term extension with the Clippers, Griffin has been flooded with trade rumors the past year, the most prominent of which have him going to the New York Knicks for Carmelo Anthony, or even to the Boston Celtics.
Players, management, and even fans have known for a while that Lob City would be coming to an end. Although the team—and mostly Griffin—has been hampered by injuries in recent years, the Clippers are also the first team in NBA history to post a 60 percent or better winning percentage for six straight regular seasons and not advance to the NBA Finals during that span.
Los Angeles can try to maintain both Paul and Griffin, but signing them both to extensions seems improbable considering the money both players might demand. If the team decides to keep Paul and trade Griffin, it can either get another superstar or a few high draft picks. Or, both players can opt out of their contracts and sign elsewhere. Griffin has been constantly linked to the Celtics, who need a scoring threat that isn’t named Isaiah Thomas, and the Oklahoma City Thunder, who need a player that can actually contribute in the playoffs asides from Russell Westbrook. Paul has been linked to his intercity rival, the Los Angeles Lakers, after David Stern infamously vetoed the trade that would have sent Paul to the Lakers instead of the Clippers. Paul can also choose to return to the team that drafted him in 2005, the New Orleans Pelicans (known as the Hornets in 2005), and team up with Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins.
But is a superstar overhaul really the solution? For the most part, Griffin and Paul have consistently given the team stellar performances to contribute to regular season success. They simply have not been surrounded by the role players necessary to bring playoff success. J.J. Redick and Austin Rivers have been admirable, and Jamal Crawford can heat up at will. But when players like Luc Mbah a Moute are in the starting lineup, or washed-up veterans like Paul Pierce and Raymond Felton play over 20 minutes a game, the team’s depth looks rather anemic and vulnerable.
You can blame the guy who is in charge of assembling his roster and then managing it on the sidelines too: Doc Rivers.
Rivers, who serves as both the President of Basketball Operations and head coach for the Clippers, hasn’t made any significant role player acquisition that can legitimately give the team the upper edge it needs to compete with the Spurs and Warriors. Pierce and Austin Rivers have certainly played well during their years in LA, but in today’s NBA, teams need role players that function as three-point threats that playmakers like Paul can pass to. The Cleveland Cavaliers have plenty in Kyle Korver, Channing Frye, J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Deron Williams, and Richard Jefferson. The Warriors have well-rounded reserves in Andre Iguodala, Ian Clark, and Shaun Livingston. The Clippers have Crawford, Redick, Rivers, but all have proved to be offensively inconsistent and defensively incompetent—especially Redick, who contributed a combined seven points on 1-9 shooting from the field in Games 6 and 7 and showed a very lackluster effort on defense.
Rivers’ coaching miscues also cost the Clippers the series against Utah. Mbah a Moute’s offensive weaknesses were exploited in Game 7, as Jazz defenders were easily able to leave him open and double team Paul instead. Mbah a Moute scored just two points on two free throws, and was 0-2 from the field. When he was on the floor for the Clippers, the team sported a paltry 62.8 offensive rating.
Rivers’ ineptitude flows into the NBA Draft as well, which the Clippers have been unable to take advantage of. All of his draft picks since arriving in LA have been incredibly disappointing. The team’s regular season success guarantees that it won’t select a superstar with a high draft pick, but well-chosen low end draft picks can transition into key role players. Rivers’ picks are either without a team or riding the bench on other teams, with the exception of Brice Johnson, who rides the Clippers’ bench. Reggie Bullock has been in and out of the D-League with the Detroit Pistons this season, C.J. Wilcox was waived by the Orlando Magic in April, and Cheick Diallo is on the New Orleans Pelicans. The Clippers were not even able to secure a draft pick in the 2015 NBA Draft.
The Clippers have inexplicably wasted Paul’s prime years; his .270 win shares per 48 minutes during his tenure in Los Angeles are more than LeBron James’ .258 in that same time period, yet the team still has not made it past the second round of the playoffs. At 31 years old, Paul doesn’t have too much time left to be considered a superstar and leader of a team. If the Clippers intend to keep both Paul and Griffin, they have to make changes to the supporting cast. The same formula has failed the past six years, and there’s no reason it won’t fail again. If Rivers is unwilling to change his philosophy and vision for the team, Clippers’ owner Steve Ballmer needs to find someone who is.