If there was any solace to be taken in Stephen Curry’s untimely MCL sprain, it was that Chris Paul’s championship window had been re-opened. Justified or not, Paul’s playoff shortcomings have loomed over his incredible consistency and historically great run as a point guard.
His postseason woes reached their nadir after blowing a 3-1 series lead to Houston last season. He was once again locked out of the conference finals, a mountain he has never summited. And though he delivered an MVP-caliber performance this season, no serious (and unbiased) fan was picking the Clippers over the Warriors. That is, until Steph’s MRI sprain was announced. For a few fleeting hours, it seemed that Chris Paul had his greatest shot to break through to the conference finals, and possibly even beyond. There was at least a chance of a silver lining to Steph’s awful news.
Well, those dreams have been dashed. About 12 hours after news broke on Curry’s MRI sprain, Paul suffered a freak injury of his own. As he defended Gerald Henderson, he got his fingers lodged within Henderson’s jersey. A slight change of direction was all that was needed to fracture Paul’s third metacarpal, snatching away the Clippers’ playoff hopes in the process.
The surgery took place today. Paul underwent a procedure on his right hand that will sideline him at least 4-6 weeks, obviously ending his season. His absence alone would not necessarily be a death knell for the Clippers. He played only 49 total minutes in the first four games of the 2015 series with Houston, while Blake Griffin led the team to a 3-1 lead.
Now, he’s gone too. The team announced today that Blake will miss the remainder of what ought to be a short Clippers postseason, after aggravating his left quadriceps injury in Game 4. And plagued by a heel injury that saps his speed and shooting ability, JJ Redick may be the next starter to be ruled out.
Bereft of talent in a way only Memphis could empathize with, Los Angeles is down to a starting lineup of Austin Rivers - Redick - Luc Richard Mbah a Moute - Jeff Green - DeAndre Jordan, with Jamal Crawford, Wesley Johnson, Paul Pierce, and Cole Aldrich off the bench. Even with home court, they will to have a slim chance against a motivated Blazers team that can smell blood. And if they somehow eke out two of the next three, they will surely lose to Golden State.
So where does that leave the Clippers? It figured to be an intriguing offseason when the playoffs began, and an early exit will only be a catalyst for change. Beyond Paul (and perhaps Jordan), everyone on this roster could be shopped this summer. That includes Blake, who has long been the subject of trade rumors. Doc purportedly offered him to Denver at the deadline, but the two sides were far apart on what kind of return package the star forward merited.
Assuming Johnson and Aldrich decline their dirt-cheap player options, the Clippers will have between $8 and $11 million in cap space this summer. Green and Crawford are both expiring, and Los Angeles has full bird rights for both. That edge could prove to be a curse should Rivers lavish Green with an outsize multi-year contract, which would cripple Los Angeles even with the rising cap.
Since they do not need cap room to re-sign Green or Crawford, they could set their sights on landing a valuable role player before going after their own free agents. Their available funds will depend on Austin Rivers’ decision with his player option ($3.4 million for 2016), and whether they can dump Paul Pierce’s remaining salary (2 years - $7.2 million). And any chance of surplus room could be squashed if they decide to re-sign Aldrich and Johnson, both of whom would require cap space to do so.
Even if the Clippers maximize their cap room, it would top out at ~$13 million. And they would need to target a 5th starter, a backup center, and a backup point guard. Considering how contracts are set to skyrocket, it would be a struggle to find adequate value with such limited funds.
Someone like Kent Bazemore would be a perfect fit on the Clippers, but he will almost certainly garner upwards of $14 million per year this summer. As for the backup center types? Bismack Biyombo is the archetypal value player at the position, but like Bazemore, he is out of the $13 million price range. He’ll probably end up with $10 million as a starting figure in his next contract.
Unless Doc can convince players to take some serious discounts, the Clippers are capped out, and could even be stuck paying Jeff Green a disastrous contract. They have little flexibility unless they part with one of their core players. Which brings us back to Griffin.
His trade value could not be lower, that much is clear. He is dealing with an incessant quad injury, recently broke his hand on another guy’s face, and is an expiring contract after next season. Including the Portland series, he has played only 39 games this year, and just 9 since he returned from his hand and quad injuries/suspension. That latter portion of games has raised red flags for some, as Griffin’s lower body issues sapped his explosiveness. His late season struggles (40-101 from the field) could prove to be a preview for the future as his athleticism dwindles.
Still, he is a playmaking power forward who should be entering his prime (27 years 41 days old as I write this). One can argue that Doc never utilized Griffin to his full potential. He played nearly all his minutes alongside Paul, which limited his value as a ball handler. Of Griffin’s 35.2 MPG in 2014-2015, just 3.1 of those came without Paul. At the very least, Doc should have tried to stagger Griffin and Paul’s minutes to avoid the Clippers’ dreaded all-bench lineups.
Having watched Paul flourish in Griffin’s absence this season, Doc’s decision to not stagger lineups looks even more indefensible. While the units with Paul/Griffin/Jordan were among the league’s best in 2014-2015, they were not without schematic flaws. Paul limits Griffin’s offense by dominating the ball, and Griffin in turn struggles to provide the requisite spacing for pick and roll actions involving Paul.
Despite making huge strides on his midrange game, Griffin’s shot chart from 2014-2015 shows symptoms of his imperfect fit. While he is slightly above league average on midrange shots, that does not condone him shooting the most inefficient shot at a blisteringly high rate. He also refused to take threes of any kind, even from the deep corner. He attempted just 7 of those all year.
When making Paul’s case for a 4th-place MVP vote, I chronicled his success without Blake this year. He managed to keep the offense humming along, finishing 6th in offensive rating. Much of his success was derived from the pick and roll, often with DeAndre. Per Synergy research, Paul used a possession as the ball handler in P+R’s 749 times this season, 4th most in the league. His volume was not without efficiency. His PPP was 0.94, highest of any player with over 600 used possessions.
Consequently, the Clippers’ centers feasted as the roll men alongside paul. DeAndre used 181 possessions in these actions, and posted an exceptional 1.40 PPP. Of any player with over 70 used possessions, DeAndre scored most efficiently. Higher frequency guys like Karl Towns and Anthony Davis did not come close to DeAndre’s level efficiency, posting a 0.95 and 1.06 PPP respectively.
Schematically and financially, it makes a lot of sense to trade Griffin this summer. Any team that trades for him would acquire his bird rights, and the carrot of a fifth year on a max deal to offer him come the 2017 offseason.
It’s pretty hard to gauge the market for Griffin. On one hand, he is a uniquely talented offensive player who has yet to play in an ideal system. He could prosper given increased freedom within an offense, and no one would be surprised (see his 3 triple doubles in the 2015 postseason). Yet at the same time he is coming off a debilitating quad injury, will be 28 years old seeking a 5 year max within a year, and has never turned his athleticism into tangible value on defense.
Most potential trades for Griffin around the deadline involved either Denver or Boston, two darlings of the trade machine. When constructing deals for Blake, I prioritized depth, positional versatility, and shooting for the Clippers. They may have found success with the Paul - DeAndre P+R, but it could be enhanced if Doc could flank his stars with elite shooters.
As for the teams coveting Blake, I tried to factor in how much they would weigh his impending free agency. That obviously matters a lot more to a small market than a big one, even if we have no precedent of Griffin eschewing those teams in favor of a large city.
Blake to Denver
Los Angeles Receives: Will Barton, Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried
Denver Receives: Blake Griffin, Paul Pierce, CJ Wilcox, 2016 2nd Round Pick from Brooklyn
Note: Los Angeles has swap rights with Brooklyn, would convey pick outside confines of this deal because teams cannot actually trade swap rights
Blake to Boston
Los Angeles Receives: Amir Johnson, Avery Bradley, Terry Rozier, Jonas Jerebko, 2016 1st Round pick (16th overall) via Dallas,
Another note: Teams should be allowed to add protections to future picks they have acquired in trades
Boston Receives: Blake Griffin, Paul Pierce, Branden Dawson, 2017 2nd round pick from LA Clippers
Blake to Philadelphia
Los Angeles Receives: Robert Covington, Nik Stauskas, Dario Saric, 2016 1st Round pick (24th overall) from OKC via Denver and Cleveland, 2016 1st Round pick (26th overall) from Miami via Cleveland, 2017 1st Round pick from Philadelphia (top-5 protected, rolls over until it is unprotected in 2020)
Philly Receives: Blake Griffin, CJ Wilcox, 2016 2nd Round pick via Brooklyn (see Denver section for briefing on swap rights and their involvement in trades)
Some of these trades are based on assets that may pay off in the future, some focus on immediate value for Blake. Obviously, the Clippers would never trade Blake if it meant jeopardizing their championship hopes. For this reason, the Philly trade is highly unrealistic, but nonetheless makes for an interesting juxtaposition with Denver’s and Boston’s fake packages.
Change has to come for the Clippers. Whether that change manifests itself as Coach Doc staggering the lineups, or as GM Doc dealing away Griffin. Both his words and actions have proven that of any “Big 3” member, Blake is the one he would most readily part with. The stats and on-court product tell the same story. Los Angeles will never reach its ultimate potential by keeping Blake in his current role and maintaining status quo heading into 2016-2017.
Time is running out for Chris Paul. It’s unfathomable to think that the best pure point guard of his generation – possibly of all time – may retire without ever having reached a conference finals in his prime. But after yet another unlucky break in the playoffs, that narrative is becoming increasingly likely.