DeAndre Jordan left the Clippers today, amidst a flurry of insane promises from the Dallas Mavericks, including promising to make him their #1 offensive option. This to a guy who has taken 82% of his career shots from inside 3 feet... yeah.
Anyway, in the wake of the news, the Clippers are left having to scramble to fill the hole, as reports indicated a high level of confidence from the front office regarding retaining Jordan. Fortunately, it's not going to come down to a minimum signing starting at center--the Clippers have options here. If they can a get trade exception worth $11.4 million in a DeAndre Jordan sign-and-trade, they can attempt to use it to sign-and-trade another team's free agent. They can attempt to work a three-way trade for any number of high-salaried centers around the league, or they can trade Jamal Crawford in a normal trade or a sign-and-trade. They'll also have the rest of their mid-level exception, and they could attempt to orchestrate a sign-and-trade to acquire Paul Pierce, freeing up the whole mid-level.
There's options. The Clippers will be fine. But, given the new opening on the roster, there's a new level of flexibility than before: the flexibility to re-vamp the roster's style, producing a more fluid, versatile on-court product. They're already part of the way there, with players like Austin Rivers, Lance Stephenson, Paul Pierce, and Blake Griffin, who are all sure to see significant minutes at at least two positions in 2016. Now, by adding more players with similar versatility, Doc Rivers could potentially enter the season with a massive variety of possible lineup variations.
In a league where small-ball is growing more and more popular, there's no need to conform. However, it's not a bad idea to consider adding that element to your arsenal. With two maximum contract big men, it's hard to add versatility to a roster to allow yourself to effectively play small ball--after all, you're committing almost all of your minutes at PF and C to those two guys, and then any backups who are good enough to be sufficient injury insurance will demand some regular minutes too. The Clippers still need a center, don't get me wrong, but if they can lock someone up in the $6-$8 million range who is solid, then when the cap jumps they will maintain tons of flexibility to sign versatile wings and forwards.
I'd like for the Clippers, should they acquire a new free agent center in a sign-and-trade, to look for a 4-year contract worth between $24 million and $32 million. Next summer, when the cap jumps to about $89 million, $8 million for a starter will be a bargain, and it will leave the Clippers with space to go after someone like Kevin Durant, and when that pipe dream fails for 29 of the 30 teams, other versatile players like Nic Batum will be free agents.
For now, the Clippers' situation will be a little harder to manage. They have limited tools, and will still need to add more of these flexible players in order to have a roster that can manage to play both small and large. In order to really pull it off successfully, I think that the Clippers could use four more players: a legit starting center with size (think Kosta Koufos or Roy Hibbert), an athletic backup big who could function at either position (think Bismack Biyombo), a player who can play either wing position (think Alonzo Gee), and a player who can play either forward position (think Omri Casspi). Consider the possibility that a Hibbert trade is worked, and the Clippers manage to find players in these molds using a combination of trade exceptions, Jamal Crawford's contract, and minimum deals:
Point guard: Paul, Rivers
Shooting guard: Redick, Stephenson, Rivers, Gee
Small Forward: Gee, Casspi, Pierce, Stephenson
Power Forward: Griffin, Pierce, Casspi, Biyombo
Center: Hibbert, Biyombo, Griffin
Think about the lineup versatility there: you can go with Paul, Redick, Casspi, Pierce, and Griffin, putting four shooters who were at least 39% from deep last year around one of the best pick-and-roll and post players in the league. You can play Rivers-Stephenson-Gee-Biyombo-Hibbert, with tons and tons of length and athleticism, wreaking havoc defensively. Who's playing well in a given game? There's so many options of lineups to play at the end of games, with the length and height to be intimidating defensively against grindhouse teams like Memphis, and the athleticism and shooting to pick up the tempo against any of the new-wave small-ball teams in the league.
DeAndre Jordan at $20 million limits the versatility of this roster going forward. It would have been nice to sign him, and run it back with the same philosophy and core that the team has had for several years now. But this? It's upsetting, of course, but it's a bit refreshing. A new start. A new philosophy, a new identity for a changed team with more options than before. It's scary, too--this play style could crash and burn, the players could underwhelm, the defense could be irreparable without it's longtime anchor.
Let's embrace the possibility of this new era and style of Clipper basketball--even if the experiment fails and the team is not as successful as in years past, it will be an exciting year exploring new boundaries. And there's a chance, an actual decent one, that this somewhat drastic change (as long as the front office can put together the talent to fill these roles without DJ) could be exactly what is needed to push the Paul-Griffin Clippers out of the mud and into the Conference Finals and beyond.
It's not a given, and losing Jordan is far from "addition by subtraction". As Jack Donaghy once told us in an episode of 30 Rock, "Sometimes the way back up is down. Let me tell you a story. It's 1994. I went ice climbing, and I fell into a crevasse. I hurt my leg, and I couldn't climb back up. So fighting every natural instinct, doing the thing that seemed most awful to me, I climbed down into the darkness. And that's how I got out. When I got back to base camp, I went and found my fellow climber, the one who had cut me loose after I fell. And I said, ''Connie Chung, you did the right thing.''
Jordan leaving is the descent into the crevasse. The Clippers are deep down in the darkness now, looking for a new way out. It might be for the best--even if the new pathway can't guide them to camp, it was beginning to seem as though remaining where they were would have just ended with freezing to death.