Since the 2011-2012 season when point guard extraordinaire Chris Paul arrived in Los Angeles, expectations were high that the Clippers, once dubbed by Sports Illustrated as “worst franchise in professional sports history,” would finally turn the corner and start winning championships. With Paul, All-Star forward Blake Griffin, and center DeAndre Jordan as the core, the Clippers have made steady progress as a title contender but it is likely that these playoffs may be the end of the line.
In the past five years, the Clippers have reached the playoffs but every time they have fallen short, never reaching the Western Conference Finals. Injuries to key players are mostly to blame during the post-season but so are bench depth issues. Last year, for instance, Paul and Griffin suffered injuries in the first round, and the Clippers eventually lost to the Portland Trailblazers.
Currently, the Clippers are behind 2-3 in their best of seven series versus the upstart Utah Jazz. The Clippers will unlikely survive without Blake Griffin who will miss the remainder of the playoffs with a foot injury. This is the latest misfortune for the struggling franchise.
What’s worse is that it comes at a time when the team is in a precarious situation. Both Griffin and Paul can become free agents after the playoffs. Guard J.J. Redick also becomes an unrestricted free agent. The Clippers will likely break-up especially if they have another early playoff exit.
The window for title contention for Chris Paul is becoming smaller. The multi-awarded guard will turn 32 in May and there is pressure for him to join a team that can win a title now. Even at the wrong side of his peak, Paul continues to be among the best point guards in the league averaging 18.1 points, 9.1 assists, and 5 rebounds in the regular season. He is arguably one of the best players of his generation who never reached the Conference Finals.
Griffin, meanwhile, is among the league’s premier power forwards and will command much interest if he opts out of his contract in June. Many teams like the Boston Celtics and the Miami Heat have enough cap space to make a bid for the dominant Griffin. Griffin stands to earn another $21 million if he opts in and the Clippers can renegotiate a contract as much as 5 years in the range of $180 million. Other teams can only give him 4 years under the current salary structure.
To be sure, the Clippers will have to think very hard to re-sign Griffin to a max contract given his history of injuries. I don’t think it is sensible to bring back the same team and get hit by a big luxury tax knowing that the same team never made it deep into the playoffs.
Regardless if the Clippers win the series or not, they look vulnerable and have pretty much reached their zenith a couple of years ago as a team. Change is definitely coming.