Despite dealing with an overwhelming number of injuries this season, the Los Angeles Clippers still managed to remain competitive. They were in the playoff picture in the Western Conference up until the very last weekend of the regular season.
The Clippers are going to have some big and interesting decisions to make this summer. When they traded Blake Griffin at the trade deadline, yet held on to DeAndre Jordan and Lou Williams, it was clear they had no intention of tearing it down. Playoffs were the priority. Although they ended up falling short of their objective, there might still be some reason for optimism.
What Is Working
This has been arguably one of the best coaching performances of Doc Rivers’ career. He’s taken a roster that was missing key players all season long and turned them into a playoff contender in the Western Conference. For that alone, he should get a vote or two for Coach of the Year. When Rivers left the Boston Celtics, it was largely because he didn’t want to be part of an extended rebuild. It doesn’t appear that the Clippers are headed down that path, and Rivers should be kept.
The Clippers have been without their starting point guard (Patrick Beverley) and backup point guard (Milos Teodosic) for the majority of the season. Despite that, every player that Rivers has plugged in at point guard has contributed in a big way from Juwan Evans to C.J. Williams to Tyrone Wallace.
When the Clippers traded Chris Paul in the offseason to the Houston Rockets, the key pieces they were thought to have been getting in return were Beverly and Lou Williams. At the beginning of the season, it sure appeared to be that way as both Montrezl Harrell and Sam Dekker were buried on the bench. But when injuries hit, Rivers called upon the duo to play key minutes and they’ve been crucial pieces of the rotation since then.
The Clippers have also done a tremendous job with their G-League team. In their inaugural season, the Agua Caliente Clippers have proven to be a solid training ground for their NBA affiliate. Taking advantage of the new two-way contracts, the Clippers used their new roster spots on C.J. Williams and Jamil Wilson. They both started the season in the G-League but when injuries hit they came through for the Clippers. Williams has since been rewarded with a three-year standard NBA contract. Although they ended up cutting Wilson, he was a solid contributor for them. Tyrone Wallace, another key piece, ended up taking his spot.
What Needs To Change
The Clippers need to find a way to stay healthy. If the injury bug never hit, they likely would have been a playoff team. Instead, they looked more like the walking wounded. In addition to the aforementioned Beverly and Teodosic, the Clippers went without Austin Rivers, Danilo Gallinari, and Avery Bradley for long stretches of the season. Even ironman Jordan suffered an ankle injury that caused him to sit for five games back in January.
They could also stand to be a better defensive team. They’re currently 24th in the league in opponents points per game, giving up 108.8 and 18th in defensive rating at 110.2. This is something that can be partially cured with a healthy Beverley, who is one of the best on-ball defensive point guards in the league.
Focus Area: The Draft
The draft has been an area that the Clippers excelled with last summer. They went into draft night with no picks and ended up coming away with two second rounders they used on Juwan Evans and Sindarius Thornwell. Both players emerged as steals and key contributors as rookies.
The Clippers stand to have two lottery picks in this upcoming draft. They’ll have their own pick, as well as the Detroit Pistons, pick they got from the Griffin trade. Although both picks will likely be late lottery picks, it’s still an opportunity to grab a pair of talented players.
Each draft there are always players that drop a few spots from where they were projected to go, especially in the lottery. Barring any lottery luck, both the Clippers’ picks are going to be outside the top ten. If any of the projected top ten guys slip, it would be in the Clippers best interest to snatch them up. If not, one player that should be around when they select is Texas A&M’s Robert Williams.
Both Jordan and Harrell are set to hit free agency this summer. Williams is a big body with a high motor. He has a nice touch around the rim and can be a handful on the glass. Should the Clippers lose their big men to free agency, he’ll be a nice replacement. Kentucky’s Kevin Knox is another player the Clippers should consider with their other pick. He’ll probably be available late lottery. He has the skills to play either forward position and his improving outside shot allow him to be a stretch four.
Focus Area: Free Agency
Free agency is where the Clippers are going to have some big decisions to make. The first major issue to address is Jordan. At his best, he’s a borderline All-Star talent and one of the best defensive and rebounding big men in the league. Although his offense sometimes leaves a lot to be desired, he’s incredibly effective in the pick and roll as well as crashing the glass for second shot opportunities. If the Clippers truly want to continue to build a winning culture, re-signing Jordan is a must. Big men like him don’t come around very frequently.
They’ll also have to decide what to do if Austin Rivers and Milos Teodosic exercise their player options and hit the open market. Rivers, in particular, had a career year with a larger role in the offense. A bit of a late bloomer, he might be in line for a higher pay day this summer. He’s become quite an instrumental piece for the Clippers and it would hurt to lose him.
Avery Bradley is another question mark. An unrestricted free agent, Bradley hasn’t had the impact that was expected due to injury. When healthy, he’s one of the premier perimeter defenders in the NBA as well as a great three-point shooter. Unfortunately for him, he hasn’t been able to stay injury free over the past few years. If the Clippers can bring him back on a smaller scale contract, then they should do it. Otherwise, it might be in their best interest to let him walk. They have some younger guards on the roster who might be able to replace him.
Lastly, they need to re-sign Harrell. Harrell will hit restricted free agency, allowing the Clippers the right to match any offer he receives. It’s in their best interest to do so. Aside from Lou Williams, Harrell emerged as their next most dependable reserve. He plays with a lot of energy around the rim and his offense has come a long way. He’s developed a few nice post moves and he can step out and hit the midrange jumper as well. He also had a career year and will draw interest from other teams. The Clippers would be wise to lock him up early.
When it’s all said and done, the Clippers’ fortunes really hinge on their ability to stay healthy. There’s no doubt they’re a playoff team even in the Western Conference. Being a middle of the pack playoff team is often frowned upon, but this group plays an exciting brand of basketball. Tobias Harris thrived as the focal point of the offense the second half of the season, and with a full training camp under his belt, might make a run at an All-Star spot next year.
Steve Ballmer seems like an owner who is committed to winning and improving the team. With the logo Jerry West at his side, the Clippers should have reason to be optimistic about their future despite the disappointing end to the season.