Tuesday May 19th, 2015

The Clippers could taste their first-ever trip to the conference finals during Game 6 against Houston. The artists formerly known as “Lob City” held a 19-point lead with 2:35 remaining in the third quarter. They led by 13 heading into the fourth and merely had to avoid being outscored by double digits in the final 12 minutes.

Regrettably, a disastrous final period in which Los Angeles surrendered a whopping 40 points while scoring just 15 of its own ensured an epic collapse. The Clips would go on to lose Game 7 and are still searching for the first conference finals visit in team history.

As criticism mounts in the aftermath of L.A. folding, it will be back to the drawing board for Doc Rivers, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and Co. They have the talent necessary to compete on the highest stage; they showed that fortitude by dispatching the reigning champion Spurs in Round 1. But what are the next steps the franchise must take to finally get over the hump?

Who Will Be the Interior Anchor?

The Clippers' two All-Stars—Paul and Griffin—will be returning next season and beyond. Meanwhile, athletic center DeAndre Jordan, the third piece of the team’s core, will be an unrestricted free agent.

The 26-year-old big man has improved statistically in each of his seven seasons. He’s evolved from an elite physical specimen with very raw skills to a rebounding machine who receives Defensive Player of the Year consideration. In addition to his defensive chops, Jordan ensured that the Clippers were a vastly superior offensive team when he was on the court.

With Jordan, the Clippers’ offensive rating was 117.6, which would have comfortably been the best in the league. Without him, that mark dropped all the way down to 101.2, which would have ranked No. 22 in the league.

All told, the 2014-15 season was his best by a wide margin, as his player efficiency rating hit a career-high.

Given all of the positives D.J. brings to the table, it seems like a no-brainer that the Clippers would prioritize bringing him back. As Bill Reiter of Fox Sports recently reported, though, a rift between Jordan and the team’s superstar point guard could ultimately become a factor that pushes L.A.’s interior anchor to a different franchise. If that potential outcome comes to fruition, the Clips will be forced to deviate quickly by targeting another center of similar caliber.

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Marc Gasol is an option, but early signs indicate he’ll be loyal enough to stay in Memphis. Greg Monroe will also be an unrestricted free agent, but he doesn’t bring anywhere close to the same defensive prowess as Jordan. An interesting under-the-radar target is veteran center Tyson Chandler. The former DPOY winner played with Paul for three seasons in New Orleans and knows what it takes to win a title, but he’ll be 33 years old in October.

In any case, if Jordan opts to sign with another team this summer, the Clippers can’t afford a downgrade if they’re going to have any hope of making the Western Conference finals next year.

Two Rivers

Back in January, head coach Doc Rivers convinced president of basketball operations Doc Rivers to trade for his son, Austin. The decision initially yielded mediocre results.

While the Duke product shot the ball better compared to his time in New Orleans, his marks of 42.7% from the field and 30.9% from three-point range still left a lot to be desired—especially since he was dishing out a career-low 1.7 assists per game.

In the playoffs, however, Rivers upped his production. He converted 40.7% of his three-pointers above the break and made 44.4% of his mid-range shots at the elbows. He knocked down 39.3% of his triples in the conference semis against Houston.

The 22-year-old will join Jordan and a handful of Clippers bench players on the open market this offseason. It’s difficult to envision a scenario in which Rivers won’t be back playing under his dad. Whether or not that’s the best move for building a championship-caliber roster remains to be seen, but Rivers did show promise during the postseason.

Building a Second Unit

The Achilles’ heel of the Clippers was and is the bench. Since the coaching staff couldn’t rely on the second unit to produce consistently, the starting five faced the heavy burden of logging huge minutes throughout the regular season and the playoffs. That lack of depth continues to hold L.A. back, and it’s a variable that must be addressed during the offseason.

Along with the aforementioned Rivers, Glen Davis, Hedo Turkoglu, Dahntay Jones and Ekpe Udoh will all be free agents. Frankly, Los Angeles could stand to move on and upgrade from all of those guys. That’s going to prove a tall order, though, given that the Clips need to pay Jordan (or another No. 3 guy to complement Paul/Griffin) and are set to shell out more than $11 million to Jamal Crawford and Spencer Hawes.

Los Angeles has always been an appealing destination for free agents, and that becomes doubly true when said players have the opportunity to play for a contender. If Doc can convince the right mix of talented veterans and young guys to overhaul the team’s bench, there’s no reason the Clips can’t compete for a title again in 2016.

Secondary to the future of Jordan, building up the bench has to be the Clippers’ biggest priority.

More from Ben Leibowitz:

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