LOS ANGELES – With the conclusion of the deal that most resembled the Black Knight scene in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” – “I’m not dead yet!” – the Clippers acquired the top item on their to-do list on Tuesday.
Of the coaches available this offseason, Doc Rivers will give the team its best shot at a title in the three years remaining on his contract, and an unprotected draft pick in 2015 was hardly too much to pay for his services.
But Rivers and Rivers alone does not a championship team make.
Sure, the coach’s presence is the Clippers’ best bet at securing Chris Paul’s return, which now appears far more likely than not. But even with Paul, this is the same team that saw a slow decline as the season waned and lost four straight in the playoffs’ first round to Memphis. It will take more than just a coach to get the Clippers to where they want to be. Though the NBA vetoed the portion of the Rivers deal that would have sent DeAndre Jordan to Boston for Kevin Garnett, it’s impossible to imagine that roster moves won’t somehow accompany the coaching change.
The Clippers didn’t fall in the first round last spring solely because of Vinny Del Negro, and they won’t win simply because Rivers will now be perched on their bench.
The question, then, is where Donald Sterling and company go from here. They’ve given Rivers the title of senior vice president of basketball operations to go along with his coaching duty, so the coach’s reach likely will be far, but it remains to be seen how adept he’ll be in his front office role.
Assuming Paul returns, the team will return its most-used starting lineup from 2012-13 – Paul, Jordan, Blake Griffin, Willie Green and Caron Butler – under contract for next season. However, that’s not to say all will remain, or even that all should remain in the starting lineup. Rather, it simply shows that the team has a core to build around – or manipulate – as it chooses.
Beyond that lineup, the Clippers have two additional valuable assets under contract for 2013-14: Jamal Crawford and Eric Bledsoe. However, with Grant Hill’s retirement and Lamar Odom, Chauncey Billups, Ronny Turiaf, Matt Barnes and Ryan Hollins entering free agency, the team has a fair amount of holes to fill and limited cash resources to do so if Paul does re-sign.
Besides the obvious untouchable, Blake Griffin (no, Sterling is not going to flip him for Dwight Howard), it’s hard to imagine that the Clippers will part ways with Crawford, who was a legitimate sixth man of the year candidate last season and a valuable asset off the bench. Apart from Paul, those seem like the only players guaranteed unequivocally to remain, though it’s hard to imagine the team cutting ties with Willie Green, who proved a decent contributor last season and comes with an exceedingly affordable price tag of $1.4 million next season.
Even though the part of the Rivers deal that would have sent Jordan and likely another draft pick to the Celtics for Kevin Garnett proved illegal, the big man’s future with the Clippers is hardly set in stone. It’s reasonable to think the team could explore other avenues to shop Jordan, who’s still developing and will make $23 million over the final two years of his contract.
That said, throughout Del Negro’s tenure, there was widely held criticism that he was not the coach to develop Jordan, and the big man will be just 25 years old when the season begins next fall. There’s still time for him to mature and improve his game, and Rivers could be the coach to bring Jordan to the next level if the Clippers commit to him. At this point, it will be difficult for the Clippers and Celtics to pull off a deal involving Garnett that the NBA will approve, and with a dearth of talented big men available this offseason, the risk of investing more time and resources in Jordan is hardly high.
The other name that’s been mentioned as a possible trade chip is that of Bledsoe, who has the skills, many believe, to be a starting point guard in the league but likely will not get that chance with the Clippers. Dealing Bledsoe could bring the Clippers back an asset the likes of Orlando’s Arron Afflalo – one trade that’s been the source of some Internet speculation involves the team dumping Butler’s contract in that deal, as well – but with the hiring of Rivers, at least two versions of an alternative to that plan emerge.
In Boston, Rivers played Avery Bradley, who was initially envisioned as a backup point guard, alongside Rajon Rondo, and it’s not crazy to wonder whether a similar shift might work for Bledsoe. Even experimenting with the idea would be a viable option, and if it were to fail, the Clippers could still deal Bledsoe at the deadline for an asset of some worth.
The Clippers will have to look for affordable players in free agency, with Paul Pierce’s name the biggest among possible targets. When the Rivers deal was initially conceived of, it seemed that the whole thing hinged on the fact that Rivers, Garnett and Pierce were a package deal; however, even as the Garnett portion of the mess has proven a dead end, the Pierce idea still has legs. The only way for the 35-year-old forward to get to L.A. would be if the Celtics were exercise a buyout option before his deal becomes guaranteed on June 30. The Clippers would then be free, along with the rest of the league, to then sign him, but the NBA has ruled that the Clippers and Celtics cannot trade with each other until after the 2013-14 season.
That said, there’s been chatter on the trade market surrounding Pierce in recent days, and much of the Celtics’ decision will depend on whether they feel they can get a deal for him that would trump simply cutting him.
Apart from Pierce, the Clippers should be in the market for help at the wing and perhaps another big man. Some of that will depend on whom they draft at No. 25, and before the “but this is a terrible draft, they’ll get no one” narrative begins, consider this: The portion of the draft between about No. 15 and No. 35 is believed to be deep. So if the Clippers pick wisely, they could get a solid role player with a similar talent level to someone picked near the end of the lottery. He might not be an eventual starter or All-Star, but that’s not to say whomever the team picks on Thursday won’t fit into their system next season.
In addition, the team would be wise to explore retaining some of its free agents from last season. Matt Barnes and Ryan Hollins could be affordable second unit players.
The gist of it all
First and foremost, if Rivers is the factor that pushes Paul to re-sign, the Clippers have done the right thing. On top of that, they’ll have a solid core to build around next year, and their roster as it stands allows them some flexibility to build through trades, even if their options in free agency are limited.
All that said, Rivers brings more than just his coaching acumen; he’s the kind of guy for whom players want to play. He’s won a championship and come within striking distance twice more, and he’ll certainly pique the interest of more free agents than would Del Negro.
The Clippers have proven they’re willing to put their money behind their goals and that they realize the financial investment it takes to become contenders. From here, the dominoes will fall, and though it will entail what will certainly be tough roster decisions in the near and medium term, the first steps have been the right ones.