There were stories last summer about the possibility of blowing up the nucleus of the Los Angeles Clippers. When Blake Griffin was injured and the Clippers suddenly started playing better, the idea began to take root a bit more. Now that the Clippers have come up short of the Western Conference Finals again, the whispers will become a roar.
But there's at least one thing that I haven't quite figured out about this supposed strategy: why?
I mean, I get the whole "in five years with the Paul/Griffin/Jordan core the team has yet to make it past the second round, so it's time to try something different" premise.
What I don't get is why anyone thinks blowing it up would be better.
If the ultimate goal is a championship, it seems to make sense to look at prior champions and how they got there. None of them --- ZERO --- got there by blowing up an elite roster. At least they didn't get there in any sort of straight line progression. (I.E. you could argue that Golden State got there after blowing up a Baron Davis playoff team but it would be disingenuous in the extreme insofar as the Davis Warriors weren't really contenders and they hardly blew up that core as a considered strategy.)
On the other hand there are clear examples of teams that stayed the course with elite players and eventually got the breaks to make it to an NBA title. Did the Dallas Mavericks trade Dirk Nowitzki after four season in which they won a total of one playoff series following their trip to the 2006 NBA Finals? No. Instead, the continually tweaked the edges around the core, and won a title in 2011, when everything finally broke right for them. Then there's San Antonio. The Spurs are obviously an exception on almost every level, but it's worth noting that they went five years without a finals appearance, including three seasons that featured one playoff series win, all the while maintaining an aging core, before returning to the top of the league.
The transition from the Shaq-Kobe Lakers to the Pau-Kobe Lakers is an interesting case, and some would say the best argument for the "blow it up" crowd. But let's face it: the Shaq-less Lakers seemed much closer to ALSO losing Kobe (am I the only one who remembers this?) than they were to winning a title three years after Shaq was traded. Sure, they then traded for Pau Gasol and won three more titles after that.
But I guess what I'm saying is, any time you can trade Kwame Brown and Javaris Crittendon for Pau Gasol, you definitely should do that. That doesn't make it a sustainable strategy in the "break up the core" argument.
On a more basic level, this discussion is just silly. The question "Should the Clippers trade <fill in player name>?" does not have a yes or no answer as ESPN would have us believe. To use the most obvious example:
"Should the Clippers trade Blake Griffin for Kevin Durant?" Well, yes.
It's not out of the realm of possibility -- if Oklahoma City becomes convinced that they will lose Durant and the Clippers are the most attractive destination for KD personally, then the trade becomes a win-win. The Thunder get favorite son Griffin, a great player in his own right, when they stand to lose Durant outright, and the Clippers get the 2014 MVP. But should the Clippers trade Blake Griffin just for the sake of trading him? To shake things up? Because they haven't made it to the Conference Finals? Of course not.
There are countless other factors in this equation of course. Going back to Shaq and Kobe, those guys hated each other. One of them needed to be traded because the relationship had become toxic.
Compare the Clippers situation to that of the Houston Rockets. The Clippers will only move Griffin/Paul/Jordan/Redick for a true "Godfather" offer. But Dwight Howard is definitely gone. And yet it is the Rockets who actually made it to a Conference Final, which seems to be the missing summit that should be dictating that the Clippers make a move, according to some.
But it's really a whole slew of OTHER issues that indicate the Rockets will make a move, whereas the Clippers almost certainly will not. For instance, the Rockets were barely above .500 this year and only squeaked into the postseason as the eighth seed due more to the failures of Utah and New Orleans than to their own performance. It was an astoundingly mediocre season for the team. In addition to actual underachievement on the court, the Rockets' two stars really do despise each other, and Howard is a free agent. So yeah, the Rockets need to change things up.
None of those other factors happen to be true of the Clippers. They are the ONLY team in the NBA to have finished the regular season in the top four of their conference each of the last four seasons. (You read that correctly -- neither the Warriors nor the Spurs nor the Thunder have had home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs for four straight seasons, but the Clippers have, and they accomplished it this year while one of their top two stars missed most of the season.) All of the Clippers stars are signed for next season. And they all like each other and play well together, despite overhyped stories to the contrary. (All players will have conflicts with each other from time to time -- I think we can all agree that animosity on the level of Shaq-Kobe or Harden-Howard is far beyond anything even hinted at in Clipperville.)
Age, contracts, conflict -- there are plenty of reasons to break up a team's core. None of them apply to the Clippers. They remain, as they have been since Chris Paul arrived, an elite NBA team. They are still as constituted a few breaks away from an NBA title. Breaks, which coincidentally appeared to be going their way for about 24 hours on April 24th before circumstances reversed and went very, very much against the team.
The Clippers will watch the Durant situation closely. They'll answer the phone and listen politely when other teams call. And when all is said and done, the big four will almost certainly be back next season for another run. Because you don't break up an elite team for no reason.