Clippers’ championship window may shut sooner than you think


After never winning more than 47 games in a season till 2012-13, the Los Angeles Clippers have now won at least 56 games for the last three years. Yet, it’s never resulted in a playoff run that has lasted past the second round. They’ve put the superstars in place and landed a first class coach with Doc Rivers, but it’s never been enough.

However, they’ve now made a host of signings to rebuild their bench and create the depth that could well give them their best shot at a championship in franchise history. When you look at their upcoming 2015-16 season campaign like that, it’s hard to see any negatives. Of course the new role players will need time to adapt, but that’s always going to be the case.

Another question that arises now, though, is whether their window to win a championship is actually smaller than you might think. Despite the fact that it seems to have only just opened.

The Clippers’ unbelievable collapse to the Houston Rockets after gaining a 3-1 series lead undid their triumphant first round defeat of the San Antonio Spurs in an instant. When Chris Paul was ruled out for the first two games of the second round, it was easy to think that the Clippers might start poorly and would have to fight their way back.

Then Blake Griffin suddenly exploded for 26 points, 14 rebounds and 13 assists to lead them to a 117-101 win in the series opener.

Everything looked ok. It looked like they might win. Who were we to doubt the other members of the Big 3? Especially when Griffin led the Clippers to victory again in game three with 34 points and 15 rebounds. Then, after their final victory in game four, their run towards the Conference Finals quickly unravelled.

It was because of a lack of mental composure, veteran leadership and depth. Three fundamental attributes that they now seem to possess after their remarkable rebuild over the offseason.

Jul 21, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers players pose with jerseys at press conference at Staples Center. From left: Branden Dawson (22), DeAndre Jordan (6), Austin Rivers (25), coach Doc Rivers and Josh Smith (5), Cole Aldrich (45), Paul Pierce (34) and Wesley Johnson (33). Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

From early additions such as Lance Stephenson, to the more recent signing of 38 year old point guard Pablo Prigioni, the Clippers had one of the most eventful summers out of any team in the NBA. And that’s without even remembering the whole DeAndre Jordan drama.

They’ve addressed their two key areas of weakness — defense (ranked 15th in defensive efficiency) and rebounding (ranked 16th in rebounding rate) — with their new backup big men Josh Smith and Cole Aldrich, whilst adding wing depth with Wesley Johnson and closing ability crossed with veteran swagger in the form of Paul Pierce. With all these additions, they finally have a deep enough bench with enough talent to support their superstar trio of Paul, Griffin and Jordan.

However, whilst their potential to make a genuine run towards the NBA Finals seems better than it ever has before, how long will their championship window actually last? It seems to have only just begun, which makes it seem even more ridiculous to suggest that it might be over before you know it. Although, that could be the case.

Well, it’s not like the Clippers only have a chance to make a run for a title this year. In fact, that’s completely far from the truth. As long as their Big 3 are around, Doc Rivers just needs to work on giving them the correct complimentary players to support them.

If he does that, the Clippers can be in the top of the Western Conference playoff picture for years.

Paul is definitely signed for the next two years with a player option the following year, whilst Griffin and Jordan are both signed for the next three years, with DeAndre having a player option for the 2018-19 season.

With those three in place, the question mark hovering over their future is what will happen to their supporting cast?

May 9, 2015; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Wizards forward Paul Pierce (34) celebrates while leaving the court after making the game-winning basket against the Atlanta Hawks as time expired in the fourth quarter in game three of the second round of the NBA Playoffs. at Verizon Center. The Wizards won 103-101. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Future

Here’s a quick look at the contract situations for some of the Clippers’ key players:

  • J.J. Redick is still under contract for the next two years, which means the Clippers still have their elite sharpshooter (43.7 three point percentage) to add some consistent diversity to the post-game of Griffin.
  • Jamal Crawford is only signed for the upcoming season, although with trade talks still continuing and all Doc Rivers’ new signings, his value and role have decreased significantly.
  • Lance Stephenson has signed a two-year deal, with a team option in the second year if it doesn’t work out for him in Los Angeles.
  • Josh Smith has the potential to be a vital part of this team due to his ability to guard multiple positions and excellent versatility, but he’s only signed a one-year deal.
  • Austin Rivers has had his struggles, but he’s still a viable backup point guard with potential. He’s under contract for the 2015-16 season with a player option in the following year.
  • Wesley Johnson adds solid wing depth, and is signed on a two-year deal with a player option in the second.
  • Cole Aldrich, like Johnson, is also on a two-year deal, with a second year player option.

Obviously several of these players can be in L.A. for at least the next two years, and there’s no reason that they can’t be re-signed after their contract ends. But as is often the way in the NBA, teams don’t normally keep their entire bench together for years and years. Mainly because, at some point, a player may be unhappy with their salary or situation and wants to go elsewhere, or a team simply cannot keep everyone onboard due to the salary cap.

Meaning that in terms of players like Smith, Johnson and Aldrich, we can’t rule out the possibility that they might want to test free agency in a year or two.

And then there’s the issue of the Clippers’ two valuable veterans, Paul Pierce and Pablo Prigioni.

Jul 21, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers players Cole Aldrich (45), Paul Pierce (34) and Wesley Johnson (33) pose with jerseys at press conference at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Veterans

Pierce may have signed a three-year deal, but seeing as he’ll be 38 when the season starts, it seems unlikely that he’ll want to continue his career till he’s 41. In fact, one last shot at a championship with Doc seems like the perfect ride off into the sunset. So even if he somehow finds it in himself to produce another season at 39, this year could be his last.

As for Prigioni, he’s also 38 and only signed to a one-year deal. He’s by no means as important as Pierce, but his combination of shooting (with a 39.8 career three point percentage), pesky defense (2.4 steals per 36 minutes last season) and excellent basketball IQ is exactly what the Clippers needed from their third point guard. Not to mention, he can help educate the young Austin Rivers, too.

Essentially, if the Clippers want to be guaranteed to have the plethora of talent, veteran leadership and depth they have now, they must make this season count.

They have three players in Paul, Griffin and Jordan who will be making more than $20 million in 2016-17. Even with the upcoming increase to the salary cap in 2016, that’s still a lot of money on three guys. And as more and more players seem to be earning big contracts, the chance of Doc pulling off what he did this year — by signing Aldrich, Johnson and Smith on minimum contracts — might not happen to the same extent again.

It could do, and the Clippers might get lucky enough with a bigger salary cap to splash out on some role players again. But there’s no way they can be guaranteed to sign the same amount of talent they did this summer.

Jun 16, 2015; Cleveland, OH, USA; Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green (23) and guard Stephen Curry (30) celebrate after game six of the NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena. Warriors won 105-97. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The Competition

So, even with their Big 3 in place for a while, the Clippers’ road out of the Western Conference isn’t going to get easier any time soon. All you need to know to believe that is how the Golden State Warriors are set to make a run at a championship for years to come.

With star players Klay Thompson and Draymond Green signed for four and five seasons, respectively, Andrew Bogut, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston and reigning MVP Stephen Curry under contract for the next two years, the Warriors have a serious amount of championship winning talent locked up. And if they can manage to re-sign the likes of Harrison Barnes and Marreese Speights after the upcoming season, Steve Kerr’s frightening squad can continue to dominate.

For the Clippers to match up with the Warriors, there’s no way they can rely on their Big 3 again. It’s just not enough against a team as loaded as Golden State. Oh, and there’s also the new age San Antonio Spurs with LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard, and the Oklahoma City Thunder with the terrifying duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook (providing Durant doesn’t head home for the Washington Wizards as has been suggested).

And that’s not even mentioning the numerous other challenges in the West, from the gritty Memphis Grizzlies to the Houston Rockets, who are now officially on the Clippers’ hit list after their second round matchup.

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The bottom line is that whilst the Clippers have Doc Rivers and their Big 3 set in place, the future of their second unit is questionable. First, we need to see how they even perform. They may stay in L.A. for a few more seasons, in which case the Clippers can obviously add new pieces after Pierce and Prigioni retire, meaning their championship window won’t be closing for a long time. If players such as Smith, Aldrich and Stephenson are only around for this season, though, the Clippers’ opportunity as a genuine title threat (not just a top-three contender) against the forces of the West could dwindle for the time being before you know it.

If we do see some combination of the second unit leave in the next year or two, it would call for a similar kind of rebuild to what Doc had to pull off this summer. Of course, we haven’t seem how this bench will play together yet, but what he did with virtually no cap space is still incredible.

So, while they have everything from star power to veteran depth, the Clippers must make it count this season.

Next: Lance Stephenson has a perfect chance for redemption in L.A.