Lucas Hann proved to be either prescient or influential or just damn lucky today when he wrote about free agents that might be signed by the Los Angeles Clippers. Within a few hours, there was news linking three of the five he listed to impending deals with the team.
As a result, one could actually pencil in a full regular season roster for the Clippers for the upcoming season. I'm not saying that none of this will change -- it almost certainly will -- but I am saying that there's is a very high likelihood that these 13 players will be Clippers when the season opens. Beyond that, it's within the realm of possibility and one might even call it likely at this point that whether they fill one or two open roster spots beyond this, those players would be further down the depth chart. In other words, these might be the players that matter. Which raises the question -- is it enough?
|Point Guard||Chris Paul||Austin Rivers|
|Shooting Guard||J.J. Redick||Jamal Crawford||C.J. Wilcox|
|Small Forward||Paul Pierce||Lance Stephenson||Wesley Johnson|
|Power Forward||Blake Griffin||Glen Davis||Branden Dawson|
|Center||DeAndre Jordan||Cole Aldrich|
First of all, let's go through a few of these names. The ones in italics are not, as of the moment of this writing, actually signed. (Technically you could put Paul Pierce in that category as well.) However, reports indicate that they will sign with the Clippers sooner or later.
Rivers and Davis are of course familiar having already played for the team. There was never any doubt in my mind that Davis would be back. The Clippers own his early Bird rights and can pay him more than any one else would be willing to (even in this market) and he's worth more to the Clippers than he is to anyone else. Remember, life over the cap means that the Clippers have to work trades to make almost any changes, and trades need contracts. So don't think of it as overpaying for Glen Davis, think of it as matching some overpaid all stars salary at some point in the future.
As for Rivers, until 30 seconds into free agency when Al-Farouq Aminu signed with Portland, I thought there was no other team that would be willing to pay him the $3.1M the Clippers are allowed to offer him. Reports are indicating that he could get more elsewhere, but that he thinks he can sign a short term deal in L.A. and play his way into an even bigger deal in the near future. He may be right -- it worked for Darren Collison. By the way, if he signs a one year deal with the Clippers, then the Clippers will hold his Bird rights next off-season, which means they could once again sign him for more money without using an exception. A two year deal starting at $3.1M deal with an option in year 2 seems like a win-win for these parties.
Cole Aldrich is going to be signing for the minimum (which is all the Clippers have left to use at this point). His per minute averages last season in New York were very solid BUT he's exactly the type of center that the NBA is quickly making irrelevant. It's a decent signing at the min, but I don't expect to see much of him on the court this season, and I don't expect to see him at all in the playoffs. If your expectations are low enough, you can only be pleasantly surprised, right?
Branden Dawson is the Clippers second round pick from June. The Clippers had to purchase the pick, so they've already invested in Dawson. That is sunk cost of course, but teams are not good at letting go of that sort of thing. So even if he didn't look like a keeper, the tendency would be to give him a longer look than he might deserve. In this case, his summer league performance was outstanding, so all signs point to him being on the team. He'll certainly be in camp, but it will also be on a make good contract. If they have a better option, Dawson will be gone. I just don't expect them to have a better option.
Lester Hudson and Jordan Hamilton each finished the season with the team and they are currently under contract. However, neither has a guaranteed deal. They are more likely to be Clippers than some random name you might think of, but they are essentially irrelevant -- neither would be expected to make a contribution.
So where does that leave us? NBA teams can have up to 15 players under contract. Most teams carry 14, leaving a roster spot open for flexibility during the season. A few things will be different for the Clippers this season versus years past. Most importantly, they will not be hard-capped. For the past two years (the first two of Doc Rivers' regime) the Clippers triggered provisions in the CBA that forced them to remain under the hard cap. So even if they had wanted to cut bait on a player that wasn't producing and give someone else a look, they couldn't necessarily do it because at some point they would reach a point of no return on the hard cap. That's not the case now. If they want to cut Aldrich and sign someone else, it's just money.
Which is the other thing that's different: Ballmer's Billions. We don't actually know how free-spending new owner Steve Ballmer is going to be, since the team was hard-capped in his first season as owner. But if it means paying a million dollars to Cole Aldrich to try something else, we can assume he'll do it (provided that Doc tells him it will make a difference on the court). For what it's worth, a million dollars is about
0.05% 0.005% of Ballmer's worth and 0.5% 0.05% of what he paid for the team.
There are plenty of unanswered questions, the foremost being the types of players the Clippers might be able to sign at the minimum. In other words, even if they do fill the final two roster spots, where will they slot in the rotation? Should we assume that Wilcox and Aldrich and Dawson are the 11th, 12th and 13th men in the rotation, or 13th, 14th and 15th? For now I'm going to assume that any additional signees before the start of the season will be non-factors for team depth beyond injury insurance.
That is to say, whether it's Ekpe Udoh and Lester Hudson or John Lucas and Jordan Hamilton or whatever, we're probably talking about players who will not play provided other players are healthy. If instead the Clippers can land a Darrell Arthur at the minimum and he moves ahead of Dawson or even Big Baby, so much the better. Don't ask me about Josh Smith -- I have no idea what that's about.
There's also the question of Jamal Crawford. Crawford has been shopped fairly heavily this summer. He's in the final year of his contract, he plays a position where the Clippers suddenly look to be a bit deeper, he probably doesn't mesh well with Lance Stephenson, and he's been a major disappointment in consecutive postseasons. I'm going to assume that Crawford will start the season with the Clippers -- but I doubt that he'll end the season here. There's no reason to think that he can fetch more now than he can fetch at the trade deadline, so ultimately it makes sense to wait and see what shakes out. Maybe he can play with Stephenson. At any rate, he still has value to the Clippers, so they're not going to trade him for the sake of trading him.
So let's say that's it, those are your 2015-16 LA Clippers. Are they better than last year's model?
Four of the five starters are the same. The top three bench contributors from the postseason are the same. There's little reason to factor in major increases or decreases in productivity from this group. Chris Paul is now 30, but his game is not built around athleticism, so it's reasonable to expect him to be more or less the same player. J.J. Redick is 31, but shooters tend to age pretty well. (Redick is coming off a career year, so there could be some regression.) On the other hand, you could argue that Griffin and Jordan still have headroom, but let's assume they are who they are, players in their prime who were very good last season and figure to be very good this season. Austin Rivers could really find his game (that's what he's hoping with the contract he's signing); or he could revert to the ultra low efficiency player he seemed to be when he came into the league.
Overall, I think the only player where you might expect a significant change is Crawford, who is 35. It won't be a change for the better, but then again, as we've pointed out already, it's not as if he was any good in the postseason (the only season that really matters).
So that leaves us with the personnel changes to scrutinize: small forward Matt Barnes will be replaced by veteran Paul Pierce in the starting lineup, with Stephenson adding wing depth in the second unit.
Is that an upgrade? It almost certainly is, but that comes with plenty of caveats. It's an upgrade partly because Barnes was so mediocre. He was the fifth best starter on a team with four great starters -- if you just replaced him with Jordan Hamilton, it wouldn't move the needle that much. He's just not a big loss. He was terrific in his role, he played hard, he shot threes and slashed to the basket which is exactly what you want from that spot on this team, but he was below average in productivity for small forwards league wide and only passable on defense. He was fine, and lots of guys can give you fine.
Will Pierce and Stephenson give the Clippers fine or maybe better? Probably, but not without risk. The risk with Pierce is obvious: dude will be 38 years old before he plays a game for the Clippers. He was still quite productive last season (more so than Barnes, who is 35 himself) but at some point his game is going to simply go away because of age. We just don't know exactly when that is.
Stephenson is sort of the opposite of Pierce. He's young and he was quite good in Indiana two seasons ago -- but he was gawd-awful in Charlotte last season. The Clippers have to hope he can find some focus (and find the basket from time to time with his jump shot). Still, he's athletic and long and will almost certainly be the best wing defender the team has seen since Quinton Ross.
You may have noticed up above that I do not expect Aldrich to be in the 10 man rotation at this point -- certainly not in the postseason. Even before the prospect of losing DeAndre had us contemplating being forced to play small, I had embraced the idea of Griffin at the five when Jordan is on the bench. The NBA is going that direction, and there's little question in my mind that a Griffin-Pierce front court in a small ball lineup is better than Aldrich-Griffin. As of now, I'd say that Davis is the third big, and Pierce will play small ball four -- but the rest of the Clippers wings are very small, so it will be a small "small ball" lineup with wings who are 6'5 or smaller (as opposed to the Warriors who are loaded with 6'8 guys). There's also the problem of Pierce's minutes: can he start at the three AND be the small ball four? Not for long stretches of either. But remember that the regular season could look very different than the postseason.
Health is the final factor and the Clippers were pretty healthy last season. Yes, Griffin missed 15 games, but the rest of the starters were essentially healthy all season. Can they remain as healthy again? This is always a wild card for any team, and long term injuries to Paul or Griffin or Jordan would be devastating to the Clippers. It is what it is: may the FSM protect them from harm with his noodly appendage.
Here's why I'm optimistic: the Clippers beat the 2014 NBA champs in 2015 and they beat the 2015 NBA champs in 2014. Yes, those were different years, but neither of those teams were significantly different than the one that won the title. (Don't forget that Draymond Green started four games and averaged 33 minutes per game against the Clippers in the 2014 postseason.)
Plenty of people will argue differently, but it's clear to me that the Clippers have been an elite team two consecutive years, a team that was a few breaks, a few mental lapses, away from possibly playing for a title.
If you have an elite team, you don't start over -- you make some changes around the edges and try again, hoping that this time around will be your year and you'll get the breaks. That's exactly what the Clippers have done already. If they can manage to add a useful player or two (and I do expect them to do so, if not now then by the trade deadline) then so much the better.