It's time for another NBA Theme Day across the basketball blogs of SB Nation. The topic today is "Where do I see the Clippers 12 months from now?" These Theme Days are scheduled in August and September when there is generally very little else to write or talk about in the NBA. Coincidentally, this one happened to fall the day after some very big news in Clips Nation, the lang-awaited change of ownership finally took place. But while that means there's plenty for the citizenry to discuss, it also means we have a clearer vision of how the future might unfold.
It's impossible to know with any certainty how a team's fortunes might change over the course of a year. Injuries, trades, random unforeseeable events both positive and negative, can all intervene to significantly alter the future. There are however some characteristics of a team that is poised to remain a contender, a team that has a championship window wider than simply the current season, and the Clippers are clearly in that category.
You need superstars signed for the long term -- check. Both Blake Griffin and Chris Paul -- who are universally agreed upon as two of the top five or ten players in the league -- are signed through the next four seasons, far beyond the scope of this exercise. You need a quality coach -- check. Doc Rivers. one of just four active coaches in the league to have one a title, is starting his second season in L.A. and he's signed through next season as well. And you need an owner who is willing to spend the money necessary to add pieces moving forward -- and now the Clippers would appear to have that checkmark as well, with Steve Ballmer -- the single richest owner in all of North American professional sports -- the brand new owner of the team.
So the plan moving forward is simple -- keep the core of the team together while making adjustments around the edges to try to find the last pieces to the championship puzzle. But if the plan is simple, executing it is anything but, as that final piece or pieces can be the hardest part.
So where will the Clippers be 12 months from now? One distinct possibility is that they will be preparing to defend their first ever NBA Championship. That's the Hollywood ending that the close of the Sterling era just might deserve. The Clippers were among the three best teams in the league last season, and they arguably improved more than the two teams that were ahead of them, so they are clearly in the conversation.
If the title isn't exactly a sure thing, it does seem highly likely that this will be the most successful season in LAC history. The group that won a franchise high 57 games last season is back together with a couple of new role players, and it's Rivers' second season with the team. Some may have forgotten how terrible the Clippers' defense was early last season, as they struggled to implement brand new schemes. There will be no such learning curve this season, as nine players on the current roster were on the team last year.
We can project forward not just the success of the coming season, but also what happens with the roster, and the Clippers will have much more significant decisions to make next summer than they did this summer. If Griffin and Paul are clearly the "big two" the third most significant player on the team and the third highest paid player is center DeAndre Jordan, from whom even more will be required if indeed the team is ever going to win a ring. Jordan will be an unrestricted free agent next summer, and if nothing else, Ballmer's Billions can certainly be expected to keep him part of the Clippers' "big three" moving forward if that's what Rivers wants to do.
Since the team has Jordan's Bird rights, there will be no problem with re-signing him. But with Griffin and Paul both making maximum salaries and Jordan presumably making even more than he currently does, the Clippers will be heading deeper into the luxury tax moving forward. We are guessing that Ballmer will be fine with that -- but it does restrict what a team can do in terms of adding talent, so the task of improving the roster will get even tougher. As it happens, the Clippers also have an opportunity to remake some things over the next 12 months -- Matt Barnes is in the final guaranteed year of his deal, Jamal Crawford has only one more partially guaranteed season left after this one. Jared Dudley will be entering the final season of his deal. Those relatively expensive and certainly aging assets will all be easier to trade moving forward, giving Rivers better trade chips than he has had since he arrived in LA. And with four starting positions presumably set (with shooting guard J.J. Redick joining the big three) it will be the starting small forward which will need an upgrade.
There are plenty of things we can't predict. How will second year player Reggie Bullock and rookie C.J. Wilcox develop over the next 12 months? Who will the Clippers add in next June's draft? Perhaps most importantly, what veteran's might join the roster in February or March looking to chase a ring with a top team?
But the Clippers are a championship contender now, and they have everything in place to remain a contender for the next several seasons. So where will they be in 12 months? The same place they are now -- coming off their best season ever and preparing to enter the new season with an even better team. The fact that Ballmer brings more positive energy to ownership and more hope for the future certainly doesn't hurt.