Rebuilds among 53-win teams are a rarity. Generally, that sort of record indicates contention. But 53-win teams usually don’t finish 20 wins behind their conference leader.
The Golden State anomaly changes the way teams have to think about roster construction. Not only did they just win 73 games, but their best player is only 28. Their two other All Stars, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, are both 26. If the Warriors play this right, they could be winning close to 70 games per year for the better part of a decade.
Barring an upset in the chase for Kevin Durant or the acquisition of a caliber of player the Clippers simply don’t have the means to obtain, this places the Clippers squarely out of contention. They’re older than the Warriors, they’re more injured than the Warriors, and most of all, they’re worse than the Warriors.
To most, the concept of “breaking up the Clippers” is fairly small-minded. It’s become league-speak for “trade Blake Griffin,” but what are the odds that an injury prone big man without three-point range is going to bring enough in return to catch a team that just won more games than any other in NBA history? What are the odds that any set of moves the Clippers could make with this general core can catch the Warriors?
If the Clippers were to admit to themselves that they could not keep up with Golden State, and that the best course of action would be to simply wait them out, they’d find themselves in a historically unique position. At most, teams tend not to have more than one superstar to trade when they decide to kick off a rebuild. But the Clippers have four, all in their primes, all under contract for reasonable salaries. What if, rather than trade one of them to reconfigure their roster, they moved all four to blow it up entirely?
No team has ever had that many assets to trade, so if the Clippers even got close to fair value, they could start a rebuild with more ammo than any team ever has. Consider the following trades, all formed roughly as concepts rather than with exact salaries to excuse for inexact cap projections:
- Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan to Boston for Brooklyn’s 2016, 2017 (via swap) and 2018 1st round picks, Dallas’ 2016 1st round pick, Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, James Young and R.J. Hunter. As I previously wrote, the Celtics should have the cap space to take in this sort of salary without huge dumps on their end, though their would probably be some filler heading to the Clippers as well. The Celtics would have a core of Paul, Jordan, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder and Isaiah Thomas. That’s easily enough to win the East and potentially a championship, plus they’d still have their own draft picks to dangle in trades for more depth.
- Blake Griffin to Phoenix for their 2016 1st Round pick and Alex Len. The Suns would finally get a superstar to build their roster around, and between Blake, their two point guards and Devin Booker might be able to field a pretty interesting team next season.
- J.J. Redick to Chicago for Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic. Chicago would finally have a consistent shooter to make life easier for Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose, and could then focus on building a front court that works with those three players.
All three trades, though enormous in scope, would likely be amenable to the other teams. They all fill obvious needs and are likely underpays in terms of overall value. But the raw return for the Clippers would be staggering. They would have two likely top-5 picks this season, another mid-first round pick, two more likely top-five picks from the Nets, and somewhere between four and seven promising young players depending on how those Celtic benchwarmers work out. Oh, and such trades would have a secondary benefit for the Clippers.
Though the Clippers have traded multiple first round picks of their own in the future, all of them are lottery-protected. Making trades like this would likely push the Clippers out of the playoffs and allow them to keep their picks for the next few seasons. In fact, on a 2016-17 roster led by Marcus Smart and several rookies, Los Angeles could theoretically wind up with one of the worst records in the league. That’s another stud young player to add to the mix. All in all, these trades net the Clippers a likely SIX top-five draft picks.
That’s more shots at a superstar than any team has ever had, including the current Philadelphia 76ers. By the time those picks develop and are ready to contend, the Warriors will likely be on the way down.
Of course, this path does offer a year-one eject button if the team really finds tanking so unpalatable. Without Paul, Jordan, Griffin and Redick on the roster, the Clippers would have virtually no salary on the books. Beyond all of the draft picks they’d be paying less than market value, their cap would be virtually free of commitments.
The summer of 2017 is absolutely loaded with star free agents. Most notable is Long Beach native Russell Westbrook. If the Clippers desperately wanted to compete again quickly, they could attempt to sell Westbrook on coming home and then use the vast assets they acquired trading off their last generation to surround him with veterans. Of course, they’d have so much cap space that they could afford to sign a second star with Russ before doing anything, but hey, having draft picks to trade is never a bad thing.
Now, is any of this going to happen? Almost assuredly not. This is a thought experiment, a path the Clippers could hypothetically take that no team ever has simply because no team has ever been in the position that the Clippers are right now: good enough to win a championship under normal terms, but with normal terms thrown out the window because of the existence of a super team. There is virtually no chance the Clippers decide to trade all four of their stars this summer, even if they all asked to be traded. But it’s fun to imagine, and if the Clippers had a more creative front office, might be a better long-term option than only making relatively minor roster adjustments.