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The LA Clippers pursuit of Championships may end with a rebuild

LA Clippers owner Steve Ballmer understood all of his options this summer. Off the back of another solid regular season and disappointing playoff exit, the rebuild road was open. The team could have recouped a stash of picks for Chris Paul.

They could have flipped Blake Griffin after Paul left for Houston and bottomed out entirely, setting out once more as the cellar dwellers of LA. Instead of choosing Griffin as their star piece, they might have kept Paul and built around him with selective free agents. They had one true offer for DeAndre Jordan - a free agent at the end of this season - which came from Houston and may have seen them land the younger Clint Capela.

None of these manifested. Paul was shipped to the Rockets for some young pieces and Griffin was the man the Clippers chose to center their team around. They added defensive stalwart and Chief of Inspiration Patrick Beverley, passing wizard Milos Teodosic from Russia and versatile yet overpriced Danilo Gallinari to maintain a steady dose of wins.

Ballmer, the former Microsoft CEO, worked hard to figure it all out. He bought the Clippers for $2bn in 2014 and is naturally part of the large band of people who believe losing is bad. He understands the city in which his team plays is a top destination for respective free agents, but only if said team is already flourishing.

This is why he went all in on Griffin, selling him on being a Clipper great who in later years would see his jersey retired in the Staples Center (or shiny new building near the airport) rafters. With the new pieces on board and head coach Doc Rivers no longer involved in basketball operations, a new brand of sharing and up-tempo basketball began. Front office hire Jerry West was brought in to see if he could pull off another Warriors-esque performance while enabling the franchise to remind everyone they are employing a guy who is on the NBA logo, and the team started out 4-0.

It has taken quite the turn since. Blake Griffin is out. So are Patrick Beverley, Milos Teodosic and Danilo Gallinari. That is the situation from which the Clippers work from today.

If you keep your ear to the ground - please, not literally - you’ll hear a lot of ‘let’s not underestimate how much the Clippers have won in recent years’ comments. Let me explain why that is on my list of pet peeves. The Clippers have won 51 games or more every year stretching back to 2011. To put that into context, this franchise had never in its existence reached the 50-win mark, dating all the way back to their debut season in 1970 when they were known as the Buffalo Braves.

Now it may not snow in LA as it does where the Braves once played, but this recent period of history has brought about different precipitation: inexcusable playoff defeats (Houston, cough, 2015, cough), iffy chemistry between Paul and the rest of the team, a turnstile of rotation players and an ongoing game sweeping the metropolitan area dubbed ‘Who is the Alpha?’

What I’m trying to say is, the Clippers were winners who won nothing. They’ve since instigated change, but for several reasons, mainly injuries, they are teetering on the edge of returning to square one. Ballmer does not like squares.

Like those glass ball decorations at Christmas that scatter snow when you give them a shake, so the Clippers needed this done to them too. The people inside the structure weren’t making the fans smile as you’d expect and though no customer was sure ridding themselves of one of the greatest point guards we’ve seen was a positive, the new directive was laid out and a 45 to 50 win team was suddenly in the offing. They weren’t great. But they were good.

The season began with wins over the Lakers, Suns, Jazz and Blazers, admittedly not the strongest quartet. Beverley acted as the immediate voice, no doubt energised by the beautiful weather, applying stability in a backcourt that needed it while they transitioned through the departure of Paul. Beverley directed plays, offered a perimeter shot and threw out the immediate plans of Lonzo Ball on Opening Night, but the better sign was everyone on the team knew Griffin was the alpha dog. We’ll get into his game shortly but as he began to play like the main cog should, he, along with Jordan who needs his steady dose of lobs, were supported admirably by Beverley and Teodosic.

Onto the latter. If you haven’t watched Teodosic pass the ball - sort of like an aged Ricky Rubio - please do. He is a master of his craft. As I enter full-on gush mode, this sadly encapsulates the injury bug currently going on in LA because you have to go back to the first two games of the season to watch Teodosic, and he won’t be back until after the festive period because of a plantar fascia issue (so glad I’m writing and not saying that).

The former CSKA Moscow stud throws one-handed passes by curling the ball around his defender’s back, fires bounce passes to the corner and can shoot the skip pass over traffic. He has a flair to his game, not least when he palms the ball, brings his arm way back to the side and then releases a canon-like assist to whoever is open. He can shoot the deep ball from his hoppy catch or dribble and fire mechanics and sounded - because we haven’t really seen him in the NBA - a perfect fit with Paul gone.

Sadly, this is just the start of the missing regime. One week ago, Beverley was ruled out for the remainder of the season following knee surgery, and Gallinari has been sidelined for nearly three weeks with a glute injury with no timetable for his return. Disaster struck again in their latest win over the Lakers when Griffin got tangled with Lonzo Ball and teammate Austin Rivers and hurt his left knee. He has a sprained MCL and his recovery could take up to two months. How often do you add three new players to a team that aren’t that deep in the first place then lose all of them and your best player within 19 games? That’s the reality here.

One of the reasons this is so debilitating? The Clippers were trying to grasp a new identity. Running and sharing the ball were paramount, the whole roster given the green light to bring the ball up the floor minus Jordan and Willis Reed. Griffin could and still can run the pick and roll with anybody and is the catalyst for what this team achieves. Post-Paul, he had headspace to try new things. That has hit a dead end because of injury.

Let’s not even get started on the idea of ‘next man up’, a silly sports term when those next up are Wesley Johnson and Sindarius Thornwell, who granted is a scrappy defender with upside following four years in college. It is not the fault of Johnson or Thornwell that they can’t provide the same impact the outgoing individuals could, but it’s the reason the team is so bare.

The storylines within this building need Ballmer’s technology to decode.

If you pay Gallinari $20m a year, you cannot expect him to stay on the court. The Italian is reaching 30 and has played in 70 or more games just twice in a ten-year career. The Clippers have absolutely no way of utilizing draft picks in trades because, simply put, they don’t have any. In the next two years they have to give picks to Philadelphia, New York and Boston and it doesn’t get much better when it comes to their history of selections. Since the successful trio of Griffin, Jordan and Eric Gordon (now in Houston), LA has taken guys such as Brice Johnson, C.J. Wilcox and Reggie Bullock in the first round.

The idea of building around Griffin is still odd given he hasn’t played 70 games since 2014. We know of his injury history, especially in the playoffs, and if there was ever a time he couldn’t afford to go down, it was game 19 of this season. He signed a five-year, $173m contract this summer and has just hurt the same knee he broke before missing his entire rookie season in 2009. Surrounded by the exact problems Griffin has gone through countless times, the seven-year veteran is up to this point filling the role he was promised in those meetings back in the offseason.

In their recent victory over the Sacramento Kings, Griffin was a metaphor for LA’s targets this season. He mashed smaller bigs inside, drew switching centers onto him at the arc and steamrolled to the basket, clapped for Lou Williams to pass him the ball when he entered the transition phase earlier than everyone else, stood on the bench cheering his teammates’ success, communicated with Williams and Austin Rivers as they were setting up plays and hit the game-winning shot on a fadeaway, showcasing his new repertoire of offensive skills.

Griffin didn’t sit down for 48 minutes. He screamed louder than anyone when the team swung the ball a tonne before drawing a foul on an open shot - clear progress in his eyes - and was louder still when Jordan prevented Buddy Hield from tying the game at the end of regulation.

It was a game from which to build on, but one to ask the question: ‘what if we had all our guys?’

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When the team lost their ninth straight against the Knicks just over a week ago, Beverley was returning from injury and within the next 48 hours his season would end for good. He had no idea of what was to come but didn’t sell short on his comments regarding the team’s direction.

“We come in this game, we come on the court like people are supposed to back down because of the name on the back of our jerseys and that’s not the case”, he said.

Perhaps unintentionally, Beverley then summarised the historical woes of this franchise, a fate they’re trying to avoid this year. “The only thing people are looking at is the name on the front of our jersey.”

Clips fans can’t even duck this because they do not have a sponsor logo on their uniforms. Beverley was worried about the attitude of his teammates, losing their way and perhaps forming an expectation the franchise was now going down the pan. In that moment it was nice to imagine what LA could have done in the Big Three era had it had Beverley blowing steam up their you-know-what’s every night.

At the time of the comments, Teodosic and Gallinari were out and Beverley had missed a handful of games. People were questioning Jordan’s commitment and through a barrage of unexpected losses a nasty undertone was building.

Interestingly, at the end of the Kings victory, Griffin said in his on-court postgame interview a very similar thing: “We were playing too cool in the first half. Way too relaxed.”

Clearly influenced by Beverley, he and Jordan got on his teammates at the half, trying to inspire and get things on track. They were able to here. Speaking of wins over Atlanta and then this one, he said: “Our offense and defense have been great. It’s not anything I’m doing, but as a team we’ve been better.”

The Clippers are not alone in the West; San Antonio still haven’t fielded Kawhi Leonard, Utah are missing Rudy Gobert and Joe Johnson and Denver are without Paul Millsap for three months. The latter two teams are very similar in that they’re coming off summers where they either added or lost multiple players and are trying to create new and successful environments.

Despite all that, the Clippers just feel different.

They’re in LA, which is always a factor. They’re in year five of the window of opportunity to overtake the Lakers. They’ve done so in the standings and youngsters around the city love Griffin and Jordan, but they’re still 16 championships behind. They don’t have a hot talent waiting in the wings, nor are they likely to be able to get one in the draft.

So what should they do?

It’s all pointing to free agency, while the futures of DeAndre Jordan and Doc Rivers are up for debate. The former has already been mentioned in trade rumours with Cleveland, but the Clippers should not consider Tristan Thompson’s whopping contract if they can’t get the Nets pick in the deal. Plenty of teams are a better center away from really contending so the interest will keep coming - especially as Jordan feels less involved - and Griffin’s absence weakens his effectiveness further.

One of the big discussion points during Griffin’s meetings with the team was the future of Jordan, and that will play out during what is a season’s worth of tests to see if they are compatible without that glue guy making it all fit. Rivers believes the team can win a title building behind these bruisers, despite the league going away from big men. That is all up in the air now. Jordan would command $25m-a-year or more this summer, putting the Clippers close to $70m for one player who is ravaged by injury and another entering his 30’s. They would need to shift salaries in order to make room for anyone else and Austin Rivers and Beverley are long-term decisions, too. Building a contender around Griffin and Jordan depends on the center’s salary but more crucially, health. Jordan might be traded before we find out.

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Meanwhile, Doc Rivers has already walked away from one rebuild in Boston and could do so again here. Although some in basketball circles believe he is an overrated coach who was about to get shipped by the Celtics before they acquired all of their talent and won in 2008, you won’t do much better in this situation with a replacement. Wins are still wins in the NBA, no matter that he’s missed on fringe players and chucked away so many picks.

If the Clippers bide their time and wait to see what happens when healthy, that could be the best bet to a competitive team. It might also be the slowest route and Beverley’s absence, coupled with the news of Griffin’s latest injury, makes this reality difficult. While the swirl of Jordan rumors begin and the Clippers explore how they may become better without him, it’s important to note these quotes from Doc Rivers and Griffin to ESPN earlier in the season.

“I love the chemistry”, Rivers said. “When everyone touches the ball, everyone feels better about themselves.”

“It feels fresh”, Griffin said. “We have so many new guys. It was time to shake things up.”

A new philosophy has been established in Clipperville and guys are doing their best to maintain it. Unfortunately, the number of bodies available for the job are dwindling.

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