Part of the thrill of free agency comes from watching plans—painstakingly developed months in advance—spoil in real time. Such as it went with the Clippers, who didn’t even have a chance to stage an official meeting to woo back Chris Paul before he had decided to move on. Their reported four-year offer was apparently not to his liking. So away Paul went to Houston, returning via trade a package of Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell, a first-round pick, and a handful of other fringe NBA players included for the purposes of matching salary.
This was an impressive haul under the circumstances, but in no way could the contributions of those players be stitched together to resemble anything close to what Paul provides. One of the best players in the league chose to leave one Western Conference team for another. That the Clippers were able to redeem value from an already decided loss is preferable to losing Paul outright, though it does little to change the realities of what’s happened. The Clippers as we knew them are no more.
What exactly that means for Blake Griffin is not so easily discerned. Griffin, like most stars playing alongside another, folded up portions of his game for the sake of fit. Alongside Paul, Griffin was a top-flight facilitator. Without him, those same skills and instincts were often applied more directly—and impressively. A fully unleashed Griffin is a sight to behold and a statistical marvel. Griffin knows this as well as anyone, perhaps to the point where he might be interested in returning to the Clippers for the sake of trying on a larger role in an otherwise familiar environment. This path—and the rationale of trying to keep at least one of the team’s two best players—is straightforward and self-explanatory. The alternative is where everything falls apart.
Griffin will hear from the Celtics, the Heat, the Thunder and more, as one would expect a high-scoring big with point-forward vision might. Choosing any team but the Clippers could unsettle the fresh foundation of one of the most ill-fated franchises in sports. Crack at the Clips’ playoff record if you will, but Paul’s tenure coincided with the greatest success in the club’s history. He, Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan were what called Doc Rivers to leave the Celtics for the Clippers in the first place. The success they built enticed Steve Ballmer—the kind of owner who sits screaming on the baseline with red-faced passion—to buy the Clippers in the wake of Donald Sterling’s expulsion. From Ballmer’s involvement came the approval for a new arena. These landmark moves can’t really be walked back if both Paul and Griffin depart. They mean something different, though, if the cause for the momentum that brought them is no longer a part of the franchise’s DNA.
Jordan is a fine player but terribly cast as a team’s best one. There is no part of his game yearning for greater usage; even Jordan himself got cold feet on the prospect of signing with Dallas to be a more featured player in 2015. There is an art to what Jordan does. Strong, sound picks should not go overlooked. The timing and angles of Jordan’s dives to the rim show a grasp of spacing nuance. It is not an indignity to say that Jordan would be in no position to lead the Clippers to competence without Paul and Griffin. We’ve seen how much Jordan can produce in the right circumstances and how he can make the lives of his teammates easier. Soon we might see how his game looks when so much of its vital support is stripped away.
In the event of Griffin’s departure, the Clippers would be stuck between worlds. Removing Griffin’s cap hold would open up almost $22 million in space, but to what end? That kind of money doesn’t stretch as far as it used to—not in a league where a rising cap affords max contracts to second- and third-tier players. A good contributor could be had between the appeal of the money, the market, and playing for Rivers, but they wouldn’t get the superstar-less Clippers anywhere near a winning record, much less 50 wins—the franchise’s standard for the past five years.
Even building with Jordan in mind could be a risky play considering that he can decline his option to become an unrestricted free agent in 2018. Next summer, the Clippers have something close to clean books: only a few player options (Jordan, Austin Rivers, Wesley Johnson) and a few partially guaranteed contracts (Beverley, Jamal Crawford). Every dollar committed beyond the coming season hampers what could be a historic amount of salary flexibility in the NBA’s unofficial center of business.
All of which is to say that the Clippers’ immediate future will likely be decided for them. Without Griffin, the only real play is to wait; there’s nothing wrong with whoever ends up in a Clipper uniform striving to play above their station, but cashing in any real chips to aid that effort would misunderstand just the kind of trouble the Clippers might soon be in. Once the stars have gone, the only way to orient a franchise is in the direction of the next. The summer of 2018 will be a golden opportunity in this way, but also a crucial one to maintaining any of the progress of the fading era.
It’s possible that Paul, Griffin, and Jordan could all be gone by that time with only minor assets to show for it. Rivers, who left Boston in part because he had no interest in rebuilding, might not have the stomach to coach lottery teams for season after season. Even a full-time retreat into his job as team president would change the complexion of the team, again erasing some part of the franchise’s corrected course. For the past five years, the Clippers have been competitive, proud, talented, and ever so slightly incomplete. They’ve also moved into a place where—in part due to the way the roster was managed—they are almost completely without continuity. Leaning into that void for the 2017–18 season might be the only real way out.