Could this coming season be a step-back year? The team's cap issues this offseason are already the stuff of legend among Clippers fans, and they've been well-covered already by other writers on this blog. There's only so much room for improvement next year, barring some unexpected surprises.
With that in mind, could next year be a down year for the Clippers? They may match this year's team in terms of on-court success, but it's not difficult to foresee a scenario where their progress stagnates as the roster fails to improve and compete with other rising teams in the Western Conference rat race.
It's possible that the coming season is just a holding pattern before next offseason, when the cap explodes and many contracts on the Clippers' books (including Barnes and Crawford) expire. The 2016 offseason is likely the one where we see major changes made to this team, as members of the current supporting cast age out and become replaced with a new crop of role players, and a new incarnation of the team going forward.
This seems more likely when you consider the Clippers' relative injury luck this year, similar to last year's Portland Trail Blazers — although likely without the benefit of winning a lost-cause division, and falling backwards into the 4 seed the following season. Guys like Matt Barnes and Jamal Crawford may decline as they enter their late thirties, forcing them to shoulder a smaller burden without others to step up and take their place.
But the likelihood increased injuries don't have to be a death sentence for the Clippers; just consider the 2014 season, when one of the more injured teams in the NBA set a franchise record for season wins. And as much as things went right for the Clippers this year, there's also reasonable room for improvement too.
The bench has to be better, right? GM Doc is one of the easiest targets in the league right now (falling behind his son and Josh Smith in the postseason, and perhaps only trailing Rajon Rondo), but I've maintained that the problems of the bench go beyond him. Players with solid track records in the league became complete non-entities on the bench this year — guys like Spencer Hawes, Jordan Farmar, Chris Douglas-Roberts, and more (last year's Jared Dudley falls under this designation too). We forget that these signings were all widely praised when they happened.
Is it on the general manager when the depth on the roster collectively performs near career-worst levels? Some of that is likely on the players, some on bad luck, and perhpas a little more on Coach Doc and his assistants. Going into the season, it didn't seem crazy to call the Clippers one of the deeper teams in the league, although that all went up in smoke seemingly as soon as the regular season started.
By now we should know that being brutally miscast and underutilized hasn't done Spencer Hawes any favors. A full offseason with the team might be good for both him and the coaches, and I fully expect some sort of bounceback year from him coming. Although it's a statistical fallacy to think that last year's woefulness increases the likelihood of a regression to the mean, the bench just can't be this bad again, right? Right?
Potential trades this offseason: I don't think there's really any reason to move any of the top eight or nine players on this team, apart from Jamal Crawford. Although many fans want to dump Hawes ASAP, it'd be a terrible move to sell low on a young player on an undesirable contract. You trade high on players, not low, and even if the Clippers wanted to get rid of Hawes, they'd likely have to toss in another draft pick. Paying other teams to get rid of your free agent signings after one bad year doesn't send a good message to future potential free agents either.
Larson Ishii and Lucas Hann already clearly explained why DeAndre Jordan cannot be let go, and how the team has essentially zero cap flexibility even if they did let him walk. Like other cap-strapped teams, the CBA leaves the Clippers with few options beyond retaining their own talent. As mentioned above, the Clippers are most likely going to walk it back with the current roster one more season, before making major changes in the Wild West Summer of 2016.
Crawford's the only piece that makes sense to move (as again covered excellently by Larson), but the trade market for him isn't exactly booming either. The Clippers' best hope is to pull off a single-player swap for someone like Martell Webster, who does a much better job complementing the team's current needs.
The dream scenario would be for Paul Pierce to decide this summer he wants to ride it out one more time with Doc Rivers before disappearing into the great green yonder. If that came to pass, it wouldn't be unpalatable for the Wizards to move him for Jamal, who might be a good fit as instant offense on a heavily defensive team. But Washington's success this postseason and Pierce's role there as an agitator making every big shot makes this less likely than it might have been at the start of the playoffs.
Roster composition next year: Most fans agree on the two forward spots being the primary area of concern this offseason. While Glen Davis and Spencer Hawes are both capable individually, they don't complement each other well and pose challenges athletically and defensively when playing together. Yet at the same time, it's hard seeing either go — Hawes almost by default, and Baby due to his relationship with Doc and role as an energy player and fan favorite.
Others might disagree with me, but I think the team should keep both. In my opinion, they won't be playing together as much going forward anyways. The Clippers love playing smaller lineups, running out three-guard lineups or four-smalls with Blake Griffin or DeAndre Jordan in the middle. And this became more prominent in the postseason, as the Clippers ran into a pair of teams willing to go smaller and throw out a bevy of wings (and had they progressed, we'd see more of the same with Golden State).
I'd rather the Clippers sign two wing players before attempting to make an upgrade with the bigs. There's a glaring lack of size, athleticism, and youth on the wings, and it'll only become more obvious with Barnes and Crawford accepting smaller roles as they age. It makes more sense to sign two small forwards, giving this team more versatility to deal with the wing-happy squads dominating the NBA today. And a bench lineup with Hawes surrounded by four smaller players fits better with his strengths too. If Pierce becomes a reality, this makes more sense (especially come playoffs), allowing him to play the smallball 4 role he's aged into.
Reasonable free-agent acqusitions: I've seen some commenters talking about the kind of player available with the $3M mini-MLE the Clippers can offer to free agents this year. Let me just make it clear that guys like Danny Green are going to be signing for a lot more than the Clippers can offer in a Jamal/Barnes S&T, let alone the mini-MLE. Similarly, no one's trading Wilson Chandler for Jamal either. And DeMarre Carroll is not signing for $3M a year, put that out of your mind right now.
That being said, even with mostly just minimum contracts to throw around, the Clippers can still accomplish a lot. Some wings I think will be Clippers targets: Wesley Johnson, Richard Jefferson(!), Tayshaun Prince, Luc Richard Mbah a Mouté, Alonzo Gee, Landry Fields, Rasual Butler. Ideally, the team signs one of these players, and then adds another SF at the mini-MLE (one unlikely example would be Al-Farouq Aminu, who might command a little more than the Clippers can offer). Or they might obtain Paul Pierce, allowing them to sign a young wing like Wesley Johnson before adding a replacement shooting guard (bring back Willie Green!). Maybe Jordan Hamilton grows into this role too.
Again, no need to focus too much on adding another big. Ideally, you find someone young and athletic that allows Baby to be an emergency fifth big, but it's not a huge loss if that happens. If they wanted, the Clippers could continue to reunite the old gang by bring Ryan Hollins back (as the fifth big), rather than pay more for someone like Ed Davis or Alexies Ajinca.
Another point guard doesn't worry me as much as it does others, either. The team has the playmaking already, what's far more important is adding size and athleticism on the wing, areas that have plagued them for the last two years. Defense there is far more important than at any other position at the moment. With that need filled, the Clippers can become the kind of hyper-versatile team they saw in the playoffs this year, with depth options to throw out at any matchup, regardless of whether they play more like Memphis or Golden State.
No need for drastic moves: As Doc Rivers sagely pointed out, this team was only a quarter (and some extremely unlikely shooting) away from making the Conference Finals, even if only as a completely exhausted sacrificial lamb to the Golden State Warriors. "So I don’t think we need to blow this thing up," he said, and he's completely right.
Contenders are built on chemistry and long-term continuity, and that becomes more of an advantage the longer this core remains together. Not every contending team knocks down the door like gangbusters from the start, like we saw with the Miami Heat or even the Nash-era Phoenix Suns, teams achieving appreciable success from the outset.
But the lack thereof for the Clippers isn't a condemnation of their future hopes, especially when you consider that many teams in the past have been on a similar path before finally succeeding. We know that the Clippers have been good enough to make a Conference Finals in each of the last two seasons (and had they beaten Memphis in 2013 rather than 2012, they might have done so then too), even in the ludicrously competitive Western Conference. Only a spate of bad luck, untimely injuries and errors, and other chance occurrences have prevented them from doing so already.
As far as comparisons go, here's one that might give fans a little hope...
The Bad Boy Pistons: Hear me out on this one, as crazy as it might sound.
Although these Clippers don't have the same playstyle as those Pistons (one of the great defensive teams of all-time), they share some similarities in their roster construction and growth curve. The Pistons were also led by a hyper-competitive point guard who wasn't above dirty play and finding every possible advantage in the margins of the game. They were also hated by many of their contemporaries, as well as by numerous fans.
And like the Clippers, they suffered years of heartbreak in the playoffs — 1984 to the New York Knicks, losing the deciding Game 5 on their home court in overtime; 1987 famously to the Boston Celtics in the ECF, and 1988 to the Los Angeles Lakers in the Finals. It took four years of playoff appearances before even making the Conference Finals, and multiple failures following that before they finally triumphed in back-to-back seasons.
I'm not saying the Clippers will win two titles in the next few years, but the Pistons present a hopeful case of what can be achieved even after years of perceived failure with a star PG. The last few seasons might have ended with horrible feelings in our collective stomachs, but that doesn't mean it has to stay that way going forward.