It was all looking so good for the Los Angeles Clippers. 2-1 ahead in the first round of this years' playoffs against an inferior Portland Trail Blazers team. Chris Paul was leading from the front and playing out of his mind.
The Golden State Warriors looked likely to be waiting in the next round, but had just lost the league MVP, Stephen Curry, to a knee injury. It was all coming together. It almost seemed too good to be true. Ultimately, it was.
In the space of just 24 hours, the stars went from aligning to falling from the sky. Both Paul and Blake Griffin went down with season-ending injuries in a game four loss to the Trail Blazers. The team's two best players were done for the year. The rest of the team were only four day behind.
Portland reeled off three games in succession to advance and put an end to Doc Rivers' team season. The Clippers have qualified for the last five NBA post-seasons. But have yet to even make a conference final despite their talented roster. Unlucky or not, 2016 proved to be the same old story for Lob City.
So where now for Rivers and the Clippers after another disappointing end to a campaign? Does the team still have unfinished business to attend to? Or is it time to move some of the pieces and change direction?
The temptation is there to continue with the same group. Given a bit of luck with injuries, maybe they can still win a championship? The team is yet to truly test it's absolute peak in the playoffs and see whether it's good enough or not. However, player contracts might have something to say about that.
Both Paul and Griffin have the option of opting out of their contracts in 2017. J.J. Redick will also be a free agent next summer. As for this offseason, Jeff Green, Jamal Crawford and Luc Mbah a Moute are all free agents. Austin Rivers, Wesley Johnson and Cole Aldrich all have player options and could leave, too. Whilst Paul Pierce is considering retirement.
There are a lot of questions marks that need an answer. Some role players are set to leave regardless. But the futures of Paul and Griffin are surely the most important. The two players with the most trade value combined with uncertain futures due to their contract situations.
With only one season remaining before both players then have the option to walk away, the Clippers need to decide just how much they believe in their star players' ability to bring the franchise a championship next season.
Do you believe in the team's title prospects enough to run the risk of losing your two best players for nothing next year? If not, then you have to deal at least one of them and gain something in return now. Realistically, this is the road to travel.
But just who is the best trade candidate?
Based off of this season, Paul would still seem a reliable choice to keep hold of. CP3 had a stellar year and had none of the off-court issues that Griffin did. Although, Paul is 31 years old now and has a history of knee issues.
But despite Paul being 31, you still know what you're getting with the veteran. He's still among the best point guards in the league and his IQ means that he should still be among the best for a few years yet.
More and more the point guard position is being fulfilled by athleticism and scoring over intelligence and playmaking. Paul exhibits more of the latter. He's the last of a dying breed in many ways.
And given Paul has never even played in a conference final, much less an NBA final, you know you'll be getting a motivated CP3 for both next season and, if you can convince him to stay longer term, beyond.
On the other hand, can you trust Griffin? Can you trust him to stay away from physical confrontations? Griffin is no stranger to altercations both on the court and off of it. Can you trust his health? The 27-year-old has had injury problems during his NBA career, dating all the way back to his first season as an NBA player when he missed the entire year through injury.
Griffin may have evolved his game by adding a respectable jump shot to his arsenal. But his defence hasn't dramatically improved since joining the league and his rebounding has actually declined. The Clippers performed better without Griffin whilst he was out injured this past season.
The debate surrounding whether the team is better without him or not was ludicrous - they're clearly not. But the team did function well as a cohesive unit and improve in certain areas without their star power forward. Which poses the question about whether trading Griffin may be the right choice given the circumstances?
DeAndre Jordan is the final member of the Clippers big three and another piece that could potentially be a tradable asset. An outstanding defensive player, Jordan is limited offensively. The Hack-A-Shaq rule is set to be amended this summer, however.
That could be a consideration if teams were suddenly unable to take advantage of the center's abysmal free throw shooting. Either way, Griffin and Paul should be the two main considerations when it comes to Clippers trade activity this summer. Mainly Griffin.
Yes, he is one of the best big men in the league. Yes, he has developed a mid-range jump shot to be respected. And yes, he is a great athlete. But he is often injured, too, and tends to walk a tightrope at times in terms of team discipline. Not to mention that he could decide to leave the club in the lurch next summer.
And for what? To win a championship in 2016-17? Are you sure about that? Unless you know your title chances to be very strong indeed, then be proactive and trade away, start rebuilding and get some assets in return while you still can.
Ultimately, the Clippers are likely going to have to rebuild somewhat in the near future anyway. Given the age, injury records and contract situations of their two best players.
They may as well start now.