The Big Clipper Questions
Last year, the Los Angeles Clippers defeated the Memphis Grizzlies in a hard-fought seven-game series. Despite the team’s best regular season in franchise history (56-26), on Friday the Clippers fell to the Grizzlies in Memphis, losing in the first round in six games.
Now the team hits the offseason with the crucial question: Is the Chris Paul era already over? Can they get their All-Star point guard to re-sign in July?
The advantage the Clippers have, in addition to the city of Los Angeles, is the five-year, $107.3 million contract they have to offer.
A number of teams are expected to have cap room this summer, including the Atlanta Hawks, Dallas Mavericks, Phoenix Suns and Houston Rockets. None can offer Paul more than $79.9 million.
The extra year of guaranteed money certainly favors the Clippers, especially after a season that saw stars like Derrick Rose, Kobe Bryant and Russell Westbrook struggle with injuries.
Until Paul signs, the Clippers are vulnerable. If he leaves, L.A. will have about $12 million in cap room; room they want nothing to do with.
The Clippers also have a number of free agents to think about including Lamar Odom, Matt Barnes, Chauncey Billups and Ronny Turiaf. Willie Green, Maalik Wayns and DaJuan Summers are all under contract but with non-guaranteed money.
The tax threshold is projected to fall at $72 million next season. With Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Caron Butler, Jamal Crawford, Grant Hill, Eric Bledsoe and Paul, the Clippers are already at $64 million with just seven players.
If they want to stay under the tax, they’ll have just under $8 million to spend on six additional players.
Given that keeping Paul is the top priority, he’ll have some say in who is the team’s next coach. While it might be overstating to say the All-Star point guard will pick the next coach, it’s understating to say he won’t have a significant influence on the team’s decision.
Coach Vinny Del Negro’s contract expires after June. The Clippers can try to re-sign him or let him go in order to pursue another hire. The decision on Del Negro’s fate will come soon.
It wouldn’t be surprising if the team goes in another direction despite the success he’s had with the organization.
As far as replacements, Phil Jackson isn’t believed to be on that list. Instead, the team has been linked to Byron Scott (formerly with the Cleveland Cavaliers, but Paul’s head coach in New Orleans), Golden State Warriors assistant Mike Malone and a number of other possibilities.
Del Negro had little trust in DeAndre Jordan. With two years left on his deal at $22.4 million, a number of teams would be interested in Jordan in trade.
If Paul does re-sign, Eric Bledsoe is another key piece the team can dangle (making $2.6 million).
The Clippers could use a more-experienced, versatile big to pair with Griffin in the front court. Names like Kevin Garnett and Anderson Varejao make a lot of sense.
The Clippers may also be open to moving forward Caron Butler who is going into the final year of his deal at $8 million. Grant Hill, who is on the books for $2 million next season, may consider retirement.
If the Boston Celtics are ready to blow up their veteran core, both Paul Pierce and Garnett would change the complexion of the Clippers significantly. Garnett, armed with a no-trade clause, would have to approve a deal.
A package built around Jordan, Butler, Hill and filler adds up financially. Of course the Celtics probably have interest in Bledsoe, which might give L.A. pause, giving up two young players for a pair of older veterans.
Barnes’ big year will probably come with a pay hike but he should be retained if it’s not excessive. Paul is a big fan of Billups. Keeping the latter might help the team retain the former.
Predicting trades can be daunting, but how would a Byron Scott team do with a starting lineup of Paul, Billups, Pierce, Griffin and Garnett with Crawford and Barnes off the bench?
Is that worth giving up Bledsoe? Can they get that done without using their top trade asset?
Veteran forward Lamar Odom didn’t have a great year but when he played well, the team tended to win. If the Clippers can’t find a better option (and he’s cheap enough), he might be worth retaining ,but certainly not anywhere near the $8.2 million he made this past season.
If the Clippers do go over the luxury tax threshold (by $4 million), they would see their full Mid-Level Exception dip to the taxpayer level. They would also lose the ability to bring in a player via sign and trade.
The current team underachieved in the playoffs but Griffin was playing hurt. There’s an argument to be made in returning the same roster with Del Negro. Then again, perhaps a successor to Del Negro can get more out of players like Jordan.
The future for the Clippers isn’t clear, outside of their goal to keep Paul – but that’s up to him.
Look for the Clippers to be an active team this summer as they strive to improve upon a team that “should” be challenging the Oklahoma City Thunder (playing without Russell Westbrook) instead of the Grizzlies.
The tandem of Paul and Griffin, along with the right coach and role players, could help keep the Clippers a relevant contender for years to come. The key to that is getting Paul to stay another five years.
He might re-sign, but until he doesthe Clippers are in serious limbo.