Almost a week after their embarrassing elimination from the NBA Playoffs, it’s time to start shifting our focus on what’s next for the LA Clippers. After a lackluster season that ended in undeniable disappointment, the franchise’s leadership will need to decide what course of action is necessary to avoid a repeat of this disastrous campaign next year.
As we get primed for breaking down the Clippers’ roster, options, and potential targets over the next few weeks, let’s take a broad look at what’s next for the LA Clippers.
What are the rules?
One of the trickiest aspects for front offices navigating the offseason in the COVID era is the lack of details about what’s to come. The NBA Draft has been postponed until November 18th, over a month after the Finals will conclude, and the league has yet to confirm when free agency will open.
The league also hasn’t confirmed when next season will start–and reports indicate it could be as early as Christmas or as late as March. And with a massive revenue shortfall coming as a result of the pandemic (even with the league able to salvage and televise the playoffs, not having gate revenue for a quarter of the regular season and entire postseason puts a massive dent in the books). The NBA has yet to officially decide how to handle that, but to avoid the cap plummeting and causing bizarre unintended consequences (like what happened when the cap spiked in 2016 and the Warriors were able to add Kevin Durant in free agency), it’s possible that they hold the cap flat or stick with the projections for next season.
In the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement with the players, the league and players split basketball-related income roughly 50-50–so the league could keep each team’s cap sheet constant while actually paying players less than their reported salary to maintain that balance. This approach spreads the losses instead of producing a wacky and uneven market. But until we know what plan the league is going to go with, it’s hard to predict what options the Clippers will have available to improve their roster.
Here’s what we know: the team will have the 57th overall pick, some cash to spend to buy another pick, bird rights on and Montrezl Harrell (and JaMychal Green, if he declines his $5M player option), and non-bird rights on Marcus Morris, Patrick Patterson, and Reggie Jackson. In free agency, they’ll be able to add at least one player via an exception, though we won’t know if it’s the full mid-level exception or taxpayer mid-level exception–or how much each exception is worth–until we know where the cap is going to be set at.
Upgrading the roster
With limited tools available to them to add players, it’s important that the Clippers keep their positive contributors–that means that Marcus Morris and JaMychal Green need to be brought back. In order for the Clippers to focus on adding another center who can contribute in the post-season and finding a distribution-minded point guard, they can’t afford to also be replacing one (or both) of their power forwards.
Keeping Harrell should be a non-starter, though a sign-and-trade–while unlikely–could help the team net a return of some kind. The possibility of such a move is dependent on which team Harrell agrees to terms with and whether or not they need the Clippers’ help to facilitate the transaction. Patrick Patterson and Reggie Jackson are both options to return if they accept cheap deals, though Patterson is a good option to provide depth on the roster as a pick-and-pop PF while Jackson is a poor fit with LAC’s primary backup guards, Lou Williams and Landry Shamet.
On the fringes, the team will probably end up waiving or trading Joakim Noah’s non-guaranteed deal for next year, keeping Amir Coffey on a two-way contract, and replacing Johnathan Motley (who is out of two-way eligibility) in the other two-way spot. LA will pick 57th in November’s draft, and could also purchase a pick to add another rookie (the team could keep a prospect in Europe or give them the remaining two-way contract to save a roster space, but there are luxury tax benefits to having the cheap rookie minimum deal of one of your own draftees on the roster).
After that, we get to the team’s two big needs: point guard and center.
Hunting for a guard upgrade
Of the two vacancies, guard is absolutely the hardest to figure out. It’s no secret that the Clippers were in need of guard depth all of last season, as Patrick Beverley’s inconsistent availability in the starting lineup and Lou Williams’ score-first mindset on the second unit left the team cycling through lackluster options, ultimately settling on Reggie Jackson.
The tricky part is finding a guard who is capable of starting in place of Beverley when he’s out and playing alongside Williams and Shamet–both poor and undersized defenders–on the second unit when Beverley is healthy. Jackson wasn’t great at either, to the point that Shamet started over him at point guard when Beverley was injured in the playoffs and Reggie found himself out of the rotation when Pat was back healthy.
Is there a guy out there who is a good enough distributor to start at point guard when Pat is hurt and a good enough defender to make a lineup that features Williams at the 2 and Shamet at the 3 serviceable on that end? Sure, there’s at least a couple, but their names are Ben Simmons and LeBron James–not exactly MLE guys. If the Clippers sign one of the available veteran point guards on the market, like Jeff Teague, he wouldn’t be able to coexist with Williams, and Lou is simply better than he is.
If the Clippers want to get a new point guard who will do more ball-handling, it’s hard to see it working out unless at least one of their current backcourt trio is sent out this summer via trade. While Beverley, Williams, and Shamet are all flawed in their own ways, they’re also all quite good. Making a change for the sake of making a change means risking a downgrade (like getting rid of Lou for the aforementioned Teague scenario). While LAC could certainly use another distributor, internal improvement could also help the team create easier looks. Another guard would help, but not solve, the team’s offensive stagnation. They also need a more sophisticated offensive system with off-ball actions that keep defenses engaged.
If a clear upgrade at guard–like free agent Goran Dragic, or potential trade targets Jrue Holiday or Ricky Rubio–becomes available, the Clippers should go for it, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of overlap between “available guards” and “guys that are a clear upgrade over what the Clippers have.” Their best bet might be to look for an emergency point guard who won’t be a normal rotation piece (think Derrick Walton Jr from last season), play a second unit that features the Williams-Shamet backcourt with a defensive wing (good thing Rodney McGruder is already on the roster), and hope for internal improvement from Shamet and Terance Mann.
(Almost) any center will do
The more gaping hole in the Clippers’ lineup is at center. While Ivica Zubac had a strong playoffs and figures to keep improving, the team was unable to find even passable minutes from anyone else when Zubac was sitting during the postseason. The team had a +17.7 net rating in Zu’s 320 playoff minutes, but fell to -8.3 in the 309 minutes he sat, a staggering differential.
If the Clippers are serious about doing better in the playoffs next year, they need to replace the guy who had the largest negative impact of any player on the team in both the 2019 playoffs and the 2020 playoffs: Montrezl Harrell. There are a bunch of guys on the free agent market who would be better, and frankly it’s hard to imagine who could be worse. The trick for LAC will be making up for Harrell’s regular-season production, where his volume scoring helped LA stay afloat through an injury-ridden year. Hopefully, a combination of improved availability for Paul George, a full season of Marcus Morris (remember, Morris 19.6 points on 44/44/82 splits for the Knicks last season), improvements from Shamet and Zubac, and contributions from new additions will combine to fill that void.
I’d look for the Clippers to target guys like Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol, Tristan Thompson, Aron Baynes, and Nerlens Noel in free agency.
Re-signing Harrell shouldn’t be in consideration for LAC. While they have his bird rights and could hope to keep him at a good price and trade him later, they need to get a new guy into a role splitting minutes with Zubac, and a sign-now, trade-later plan for Trez would require playing him his normal minutes in the meantime and hoping a deal materializes down the line. It’s not a risk the Clippers can afford.
A sign-and-trade, however, would be attractive for the Clippers, as it would see them net at least some return in a summer where they otherwise will have trouble acquiring players. But such a deal is hard to work in the modern NBA unless the team looking to sign Harrell didn’t have the cap space to do it without the Clippers’ help, and the base-year compensation rule would make trade match highly difficult if Trez is given a big raise.
Improving the team
Beyond improving the roster, the Clippers’ primary focus between now and the 2021 Playoffs needs to be improving the team. Not adding talent on paper, but improving the product on the court.
Watching the Conference Finals, particularly the East series between Boston and Miami, makes it clear that the Clippers simply never clicked in the way necessary to compete for a championship. These teams fly around defensively in a precise scheme with tight rotations. The Clippers, while talented, were disorganized defensively and never seemed to know what one another was going to do. These other teams play disciplined offense, moving constantly off the ball to create easy looks. Their execution is matched only by the stellar defense they’re up against. The Clippers normally just let their stars take turns running isolation while the other 4 players stood still and watched, allowing the defense to hone in on the ball.
Beyond scheme, these Clippers had a mindset problem. While Leonard’s load management doesn’t deserve challenging (he’s got a degenerative injury and this is what’s needed to keep him healthy), the team’s casual approach to playing good basketball on a nightly basis does. Whenever the Clippers lost in the regular season, it didn’t matter because they were just going through the motions until the playoffs. When poor rotations cost them two games against the Dallas Mavericks in the first round, it wasn’t concerning because the team was talented enough to advance without too much trouble. When they blew a huge lead in game 5 against Denver, the team was so unconcerned that they ran out the same exact gameplan in game 6 and blew another huge lead in the same exact way. What did Paul George say after that game 6 loss? “We’re still in the driver’s seat.” What did he say after the team was eliminated in game 7? That it was never a “championship or bust” season. Somewhere along the way, this team decided failure was acceptable, and as a result they were never driven to the level of intensity required to avoid it.
All of these are reasons to fire head coach Doc Rivers, the man ultimately responsible for the team’s rotations, offensive and defensive schemes, and identity. He failed majorly on all four counts. Even with the lackluster mindset and lack of cohesion on both ends of the floor, the Clippers were still talented enough to make the Western Conference Finals had Rivers gone away from Montrezl Harrell in the playoffs when his struggles were clearly and repeatedly costing the team games–but his stubbornness cost them.
With Rivers expected to return due to (among other reasons) his good relationship with star Kawhi Leonard, whose contract expires at the end of next season, the answer is that instead of finding someone else to do these things, the Clippers will need to find a way to do them with who they’ve got. That means a better coaching job from Rivers to follow what was likely his poorest performance since coming to Los Angeles, increased leadership and accountability up and down the roster, and fine-tuning the rest of the staff.
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Finalizing a staff
That leads us to our last point. While Rivers is likely to stay on the Clippers’ bench, his lead assistant, Tyronn Lue, seems almost certain to land one of the high-profile head coach openings around the league, perhaps in Philadelphia or Houston. Another assistant, Sam Cassell, has been named as a candidate in some searches, but he appears likely to stay put while Lue is almost certainly on his way out of LA.
To replace Lue, the team could look to former assistant Alvin Gentry, who was recently fired as head coach of the New Orleans Pelicans. When Gentry was the Clippers’ lead assistant in 2013-14, he designed the system that was the most efficient offense in the league both that season and the next year, after he left the team. After leaving the Clippers, he became the lead assistant for the Golden State Warriors under new head coach Steve Kerr. We all know how that went.
With over 1100 games as a head coach in the NBA and that track record assisting Rivers and winning with Golden State, it would appear that Gentry would be an ideal candidate to bring more championship experience and a breath of fresh air into LAC’s locker room and offensive scheme.