2018-19 Los Angeles Clippers
Projected Record: 29-53 (13th in West)
2016: 40-42 (10th in West)
- Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Pick #11)
- Jerome Robinson (Pick #13)
- Marcin Gortat (Trade)
- Jonathan Motley (Trade)
- Luc Mbah a Moute (Free Agency)
- Mike Scott (Free Agency)
- DeAndre Jordan
- Austin Rivers
- C.J. Williams
- Almost everyone can contribute at NBA level
- Valuable trade pieces for deadline
- No real top-end talent at present
- Significant injury concern throughout roster
Let us all take a moment of silence for Lob City, which, after an always-bizarre, never-boring seven year run, has finally come to its ultimate end.
Yes, the past calendar year saw the final dismantlement of the most interesting era in Clippers history. The first — and most important — domino to fall was the Point God himself, Chris Paul, who made his way to the Houston Rockets via sign-and-trade. Then it was arguably the most important draft pick in franchise history, Blake Griffin, shipped off to the Pistons before the trade deadline in a deal that landed Tobias Harris. Finally, this summer, DeAndre Jordan joined the exodus, fulfilling his basketball destiny and signing with the Dallas Mavericks.
And just like that, the longest-tenured Clipper is now Wesley Johnson. (Edit: Johnson has been traded. Welp!)
Now, the Clippers are team filled with interesting pieces, but “interesting” likely just won’t be enough to cut it in a deeper-than-ever Western Conference. Last year’s Clippers scrapped their way to a 40-42 record, but this one seems even lighter on true star power. Can a team whose best player is Lou Williams make the Western Conference playoffs when even the mighty San Antonio Spurs might be sweating a playoff berth? Doc Rivers and Co. seem to want to fight a rebuild, bringing in proven NBA rotation contributors like Marcin Gortat, Luc Mbah a Moute and Mike Scott this summer, but one might be coming their way anyways.
Few teams in the league come with as much potential variance as the Clippers. I can see them finishing with 40 wins almost as easily as I can see them finishing with 20. This roster has talent, rolling almost 15 deep in players that should excel in some aspect of NBA basketball this season, but nobody really rises much higher than “pretty good,” and many of them come with serious concerns about their ability to stay on the court. Danilo Gallinari, Avery Bradley, Patrick Beverley, Milos Teodosic and Mbah a Moute look like bad bets to stay healthy for a full campaign, Boban Marjanovic may never be quite conditioned enough to manage one, and while Gortat has been an iron man since signing on with the Wizards, he’ll turn 35 during the season. Without a combination of those players on the court, the Clippers will rely heavily on their stable of rookies and second-year players — which typically doesn’t contribute to winning basketball.
While I’m typically far from the kind of person to advocate a full-on rebuild at every opportunity, with the Clippers, it’s a course that merits serious consideration. The kids, headlined by top pick Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, are interesting, but look to be a few years off from putting in meaningful minutes at the NBA level, and while the Clippers’ veterans may not guide them to playoff contention, the trade deadline will no doubt bring teams willing to pony up for someone like Williams or Mbah a Moute to help with their own playoff aspirations. The opportunity to restock the cupboard with young prospects and draft picks is there, VP Lawrence Frank and GM Michael Winger just need to take it.
The obvious case against a full-on fire sale? Kawhi Leonard. The crown jewel of the 2019 NBA offseason has a well-known interest in playing basketball in Los Angeles, and the Clippers clearly intend to position themselves as players in his free agency. The expiring contracts of players like Harris, Gortat, and Johnson (among others) will open up nearly enough cap space for two max-level free agents this summer. It just so happens that the Clippers were on Jimmy Butler’s reported shortlist of preferred teams, too.
It’s a risky bet to make, however. The Raptors will have a full NBA season, likely featuring a whole lot of wins, to convince Leonard to stick around long-term, and the Clippers’ cross-town rivals have a compelling bargaining chip of their own: LeBron James. No one wants to be the team with cap space who doesn’t get the star, and if the Clippers whiff on Leonard, it will be no easier to convince a player like Butler or Klay Thompson to get on board.
Most Valuable Player: Lou Williams
Much to the surprise of the NBA world at large, the Clippers opted not to trade Sweet Lou at last year’s deadline, instead locking up the explosive sixth man to a three-year, $24 million contract extension. The deal signaled a commitment to the new Clippers core of Williams, Jordan and Tobias Harris, and at the time, the playoffs weren’t completely out of the question. Combined with a seemingly lukewarm trade market for Williams’ expiring deal and the reasonably cheap yearly value of the extension for a scorer of his level, and the reasons behind the decision made some sense.
Now, Jordan’s departure calls the Williams deal into question. Williams is a useful player, to be sure, but he’s also a flawed one; one of the worst defenders in the league. He’s the kind of player who the NBA’s best teams can scheme off the floor — and there are a lot of such teams in the Western Conference. He’s certainly not a player who should be your centerpiece, and he’ll turn 32 years old just a few weeks into the new season.
I like Lou Williams. He plays a brand of basketball that is objectively fun to watch, and he has the ability to single-handedly win you a half or even an entire game. That said, this time around, I think it’s unlikely he stays in Los Angeles past the trade deadline.
X Factor: Miloš Teodosić
Last season was not particularly kind to Miloš Teodosić, one of the most decorated EuroLeague players in recent memory. The Serbian star made his NBA debut in Los Angeles, anointed (probably unfairly) the successor to the great Chris Paul at the point guard position.
It was a surprise to see the cap space-hungry Clippers opt to retain Teodosić this offseason, but of course, the jury is far from out on him after one injury-marred NBA season. He’s a superlative passer and a knockdown three-point shooter, a highlight machine who can elevate an up-tempo offense to another level. Assuming a clean bill of health for the upcoming year, it doesn’t feel like a reach to expect that he’ll look more like his EuroLeague self once again, and that’s a worthy player to take another chance on.
But how many minutes do the Clippers intend to give him? After Williams and Avery Bradley, the Clippers’ guard rotation is riddled with interesting young prospects like Gilgeous-Alexander, Jerome Robinson and Jawun Evans whose development could benefit from consistent rotation minutes. Those players will have much more significance to the long-term future of the Los Angeles Clippers than one season of a 31-year-old Teodosić, but if he doesn’t see the court for significant minutes, it might be difficult to convince another team to take a look at him at the trade deadline.
Don’t Forget About: Sindarius Thornwell
You may remember Sindarius Thornwell from his leading role in the South Carolina’s improbable run to the Final Four in the 2017 NCAA Tournament. Thornwell was the reigning SEC Player of the Year, pacing the Gamecocks with a 21-7-3-2 season stat line while knocking down nearly 40% of his three-point attempts.
There’s just always a spot in the NBA for guys like Thornwell, who is an athletic, versatile defender who can create turnovers, knock down threes, and create a little with the ball in his hands. In his limited minutes in the big leagues last year, we saw flashes of all those skills: he knocked down 23 of his 61 three-point attempts (37.7%) and racked up 1.5 steals per 36 minutes and making a respectable 53.6% of his shots when he took three or more dribbles in a possession.
Because of his four-year career for South Carolina, Thornwell (soon to be 24 years old) is a little old for an NBA sophomore, and his ceiling likely isn’t incredibly high. There’s nothing wrong with settling in as a productive role player, though, and if the Clippers can clean up their guard rotation by the trade deadline, don’t be surprised to see Thornwell become exactly that.
Robert Flom, Clips Nation + Blazer’s Edge (@RichHomieFlom)
The Clippers probably have one of the widest variety of outcomes of any team in the 2018-2019 NBA season. They have a veteran-laden roster, one of the deepest in the league, but lack star power. This means they are constantly in trade rumors for available stars (see Butler, Jimmy), and are never far away from a blockbuster move that could completely shift their roster. The other possibility, of course, is that some of those veterans get traded away because they are underperforming, or the team looks like its going to miss the playoffs.
Right now, that second possibility seems unlikely. The Clippers’ moves this summer all indicate that they badly want to make the postseason this year. At media day today, the mood from players was similar: they felt they should have made the playoffs last year, and expect to do so this season, even though they know it will be tough. The Clippers might not have the superstar presences of Lob City, but they are tough, confident, and believe that with better injury luck they will be a force in the Western Conference.
The Clippers probably need some luck to bounce their own way to make the playoffs this year. They are a talented group, and will absolutely have one of the strongest benches in the NBA. However, while they might suffer less injuries than last season, their team is unfortunately composed of some injury-prone players. Additionally, many of the Clippers’ rotation players are in their primes or already past their peak, making injuries somewhat more common than they might be for young bucks. This also lowers the upside of the team somewhat. Most of the roster are who they are at this point.
The Clippers, do, however, have some very interesting young players. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the 11th pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, looked tremendous in summer league, and is a fantastic fit on the Clippers’ roster. His playmaking, defending, and scoring abilities present an overall combination that contrasts sharply with more limited players like Avery Bradley and Milos Teodosic. While rookies are rarely positive NBA players, Shai seems like he could be an exception. If he is, he not only unlocks the Clippers’ future, but also makes them a far more dangerous team this season. Fellow rookie Jerome Robinson is not quite as well-rounded, but his scoring and shooting abilities are legit, and he too could help the Clips this season.
The push and pull Doc Rivers will face, then, is that playing his young guys might lead to a higher upside team, and a more attractive free agent destination this summer. But it’s also hard to justify for a team that wants to make the playoffs, and needs competent play at all times to make up for that lack of firepower.