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NBA Off-Season 2016: Clippers Must Keep Crawford, Rivers, and Green

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Even if the fit and price of these three players are questionable, it's incredibly important for the Clippers to not let them walk.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Every summer, we talk about the Clippers' three main needs: backup point guard, small forward, and backup big man.  The team has had occasional success in filling each of these needs (think Darren Collison, Matt Barnes, and Cole Aldrich), but it's simply the nature of how the roster is constructed: the starting guards and bigs are where most of the money goes, and the small forward position and second unit are left to be filled with bargain players.

This year, the Clippers have the same needs.  They could really use a backup PG, to steady the tumultuous second unit headed by Austin Rivers and Jamal Crawford.  They could really use a reliable two-way SF, to beat out the underwhelming trio of Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Wesley Johnson, and Jeff Green.  They could really use a third big, someone who can fill in for and play alongside both Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.

And, as is the issue every year, the Clippers have those same needs with the same limited tools--bird rights on returning players, the mid-level exception, and minimum-salary guys from the bargain bin.

That is why it is absolutely crucial for the Clippers to use their bird rights to retain Austin Rivers, Jamal Crawford, and Jeff Green.

None of those three guys are perfect, and they happen to be quite polarizing amongst fans, but I think everyone can agree on one thing--they're NBA-caliber players.  All three of those guys are better than what you could get for the league minimum at the same positions.  That's why the Clippers have to keep them, regardless of their warts.

Right now, the Clippers are likely to have just six players under contract for next season (assuming Paul Pierce retires).  C.J. Wilcox and Branden Dawson aren't safe bets to return or be in the rotation, leaving the bare bones of a roster: Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan.  That leaves the Clippers needing a starting small forward and an entire second unit with only the mid-level exception, bi-annual exception, and minimum salaries to give out.  If the Clippers re-sign their three Bird free agents, they'll have the same limited tools to work with, but with a much smaller task to accomplish--depending on where you slot Green in, they'll need either a starting SF and two backups, or their entire backup frontcourt.

Undoubtedly, fans are daydreaming of a better supporting cast--I've seen posts and tweets about players such as Nicolas Batum, a guy who is really, really good and really, really unattainable for the Clippers.  Consider your normal mid-level exception player, and now consider that given the salary cap's jump, the mid-level's relative value will only be about two-thirds of what we're used to.  The type of players that this level of money historically brings in are solid but flawed guys, like Thabo Sefolosha, Mo Williams, Chris Copeland, and Anthony Morrow, among others.  Whoever the Clippers bring in with this tool will be an important rotation piece, but it's hard to imagine them finding a sure upgrade over Rivers, Crawford, or Green with this tool.  In fact, even if the Clippers could secure a marginal upgrade at one of those players' positions, they'd suffer the opportunity cost of not being able to use the mid-level to get a solid player at one of their other open positions.

Once you examine the Clippers' situation through this logic, it's fairly obvious that no matter how disenchanted some fans may be with the guys that the Clippers have Bird rights for, it simply makes too much sense to re-sign them, even if it requires overpaying them.  Without them, the Clippers will struggle to field a team of NBA-caliber role players.

Now, the one hypothetical that you can dive into is the potential for the Clippers to ship one or more of these guys out in a sign-and-trade deal.  If another team wants to sign Rivers, Crawford, or Green, but either doesn't have the space or is better served by sending a contract back in a trade, the Clippers can get something out of these players' bird rights other than these three players themselves.  Given the circumstances surrounding this off-season, it's not particularly likely that we'll see many sign-and-trade deals, simply because so many teams have so much space.

However, I'm sure there are some situations where it makes sense.  Here's what to look for: teams that don't have cap space and need to make salaries match in a trade to get the player they want, and teams that have cap space but want to send salary back to the Clippers--either to preserve as much room as possible for other free agents, or to dump an unwanted player or contract.  In either situation, the Clippers would have to be able to find treasure in the other team's trash.

One thing is for sure--as the Clippers look to shape their roster this summer, the bird rights they hold on Rivers, Crawford, and Green are likely their three most valuable assets, and losing any of those bird rights for nothing would drastically set back the Clippers' plans.  Priorities 1, 2, and 3 have to be securing contracts or sign-and-trade deals for those players.