The L.A. Clippers were a good basketball team last year. They won 42 games and scored a series of quality wins against teams like the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Boston Celtics, and Cleveland Cavaliers. If those four teams sound familiar, that’s because they’re the only four teams still playing as the NBA’s conference finalists. The Clippers, as currently constructed, don’t really have hopes of competing with those teams over the course of an 82-game season or 7-game series. But that doesn’t mean they can’t have a successful season by running it back. By re-signing DeAndre Jordan, Montrezl Harrell, and possibly Avery Bradley, and holding on to veterans like Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, and Danilo Gallinari, the Clippers would be an easy pick to be better next season as long as they can have improved health and add talent using their two first-round picks and the mid-level exception. This Clippers team can be good if they get some breaks, and we know that because last year they were good when everything went wrong.
Of course, being good wasn’t good enough. Despite overcoming injuries and exceeding expectations for much of the year while shorthanded, they ended up exactly where you don’t want to be in the NBA: not in the playoffs, and not with a top-10 pick. This season, that pain was slightly alleviated due to the Clippers getting Detroit’s draft pick in a trade: now, instead of having just the 13th pick, the Clippers will have the 12th and the 13th, meaning they can either take two shots in the late lottery or try to swing a trade to move into the top 10.
Next year, it’s not going to be as pretty. Instead of receiving an extra lottery pick, their only incoming draft pick will be a second rounder, likely Portland’s (it’s a convoluted series of trades and pick swaps). They’ll also have their own second rounder next year, something that has been pretty rare for the Clippers. If the Clippers opt to run it back with this group, but miss the playoffs, it will be a failed season, and they’ll be stuck in the late lottery again. Of course, barely making the playoffs might be even worse: at the 7 or 8 seed, they’re likely to be swept by the Rockets or Warriors in the first round, and the Clippers’ 2019 first round pick to Boston is only lottery-protected, meaning they’d lose their pick.
So, if the Clippers choose to “run it back,” they’ll put themselves in a really, really tough spot. I’m not in the camp that the only worthwhile thing for NBA teams to do is win championships: I think that consistently winning games and having exciting playoff performances is fine, and in fact can be a part of building a culture that is just as beneficial towards eventual championship success as high draft picks can be. But I also recognize when teams are putting themselves in positions where success will be nearly impossible.
There are roughly five tiers of teams (this is an inexact metric for the purpose of this article, not a part of my NBA philosophy):
- Championship contenders, who are the very best teams in the league.
- Good playoff teams, who you expect to see in the playoffs but would be surprised to see in the finals.
- Fringe playoff teams, who normally occupy some of the 7/8/9/10 slots in their respective conferences. You’d be surprised if they won a playoff series.
- Bad teams, who are either mismanaged and directionless, or in a transitional year.
- Tanking teams, who are bottoming out to get top-5 draft picks.
Let’s try to evaluate “running it back” as an option for the Clippers. If they keep the core rotation together, we can pretty safely eliminate tiers 1 and 5 as possibilities. A team whose leading scorers are Danilo Gallinari and Tobias Harris isn’t going to make a run past the second round in a conference with the Rockets and Warriors. At the same time, give those two the deep supporting cast that the Clippers can give them, and I’d be shocked to see them finish much worse than .500.
In order for the Clippers to enter tier 5, they’d have to sell off veteran talent for prospects and picks, which is the exact opposite of the “run it back” strategy. In order for them to enter tier 1, they’d have to acquire a superstar, which is the “home-run swing” that we talked about last week. Of course the Clippers would like to land a star, and landing a star provides obvious justification for re-signing and holding on to their veterans. But those opportunities are rare and may not be available this summer, so it’s important to examine the outlook for running it back if they don’t land a star.
Between tiers 2, 3, and 4, I think it’s obvious that 3 is the overwhelmingly most likely outcome. The Clippers have a good chance for internal improvement with better health and a few minor moves: they’ll play better basketball more consistently, and win more games. But when measured against the rest of the conference, I don’t think that will be enough to elevate them to that next tier as currently constructed. It’s possible, in the way that the 2014 Phoenix Suns winning 48 games was possible, where occasionally a team can come together to be much greater than the sum of its parts. But it’s not likely.
At the same time, I don’t see this Clippers team dropping off substantially. There are pretty much two ways for a team with the level of talent that they have to end up having a dumpster fire 30-52 season: massive injuries and/or never recovering from an early spell of bad play. Last season’s Clippers were one of the most-injured teams I can ever remember, and they slowly fought their way to recover from a 9-game early-season losing streak to finish above .500. While you can never predict with certainty, it seems as though this group of players is a pretty good bet to be able to overcome adversity.
It’s pretty obvious that the slim chance of totally falling apart would represent total failure for the 2018-19 season, but that’s not exactly revolutionary: every team carries that risk. What makes the Clippers’ situation so tough is that the median result, being a slightly-improved fringe playoff team, would also be a disaster for the franchise. If the Clippers are “successful” and make the playoffs, they’ll probably lose in 4 or 5 first-round games and have no first-round pick. If they “fail” and miss the playoffs, they’ll be in the late lottery and will have missed an opportunity to not only improve their pick but also to get value for some of their older players. Both of those outcomes are bad. The only good outcome under “running it back” is the dream scenario, which basically comes out to staying healthy, winning 50 games, and putting up a fight before losing in the second round.
I really enjoy this Clippers core and the individual players who it is comprised of, and I actually believe that there’s a chance that they could, as they did last season, come together to be much greater than the sum of their parts. But just because I believe it’s possible doesn’t make it likely. It would be much easier to get excited about that best-case scenario if anything short of a perfect season wouldn’t be such a disaster. Unfortunately, there will be no middle ground if the Clippers decide to run it back with this roster: anything short of the best-case scenario is abject failure.
And even if they realize that potential, what are we really getting when we take a step back? Another second-round loss.