The Los Angeles Clippers are prepared to do whatever it takes to keep Chris Paul and Blake Griffin around, according to ESPN's Ramona Shelburne. The two stars are expected to exercise their early-termination options to become free agents next July, and Clippers owner Steve Ballmer is reportedly "committed to keeping both Paul and Griffin long term, no matter what it costs."
Money shouldn't be an issue -- Paul Griffin are two of the best players in the game, and if the Clippers are not willing to offer them maximum contracts, other teams will do so. The bigger questions here are whether the two of them want to stay, and whether the front office would consider breaking up their Big Three -- Paul, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan -- via trade.
Do both want to stay? That's impossible to predict nine months out from free agency. But it's hard to imagine either finding as good of a setup as they have in Los Angeles. Both have firmly planted roots in L.A., with deep ties to the business and entertainment worlds. Paul has essentially become a CEO-in-training, befriending executives he does business with and those who frequent Clippers games; Griffin is a superstar pitchman and budding comic.
As for the idea they'd make a blockbuster trade, consider this: The only way the Clippers get a decent return is if Paul and/or Griffin agreed to waive their player option for next season, or guaranteed they'd re-sign long term in the city they were traded. There's no compelling reason for either of them to do that after the infusion of television rights' money spikes the salary cap up to more than $100 million next summer.
Rivers has already publicly said the team isn't trading Griffin at least a dozen times now. It's heresy to even bring up trading Paul. Jordan has turned into the best defensive center in the game, and he's locked up on a very reasonable contract for two more seasons.
Translation: There are a bunch of reasons why it would make sense for the Clippers to make no major moves, instead bringing back the same (excellent) core next season and beyond. This team has come up short the last few years, suffering heartbreaking playoff losses, but the players believe that they are capable of beating anybody in a seven-game series if healthy. Remember when they defeated the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the 2014-15 playoffs? They looked like a special team then, and some pegged them as title favorites heading into last season.
It might not be wise, though, to dismiss the idea of the Clippers doing something drastic. A few things to consider:
- It's not all about Paul and Griffin. Ballmer better be ready to pay up for J.J. Redick, too. The sharpshooter will be a free agent next summer, and he'll command the biggest contract of his career at 33 years old. There is risk involved in giving him an enormous deal at that age, but he is essential to Los Angeles' success and there's no simple way to replace him in free agency because...
- The Clippers lack flexibility. They've been able to sign guys like Marreese Speights, Brandon Bass, Alan Anderson, Raymond Felton and Dorell Wright for the minimum, and they deserve credit for that. It's difficult to do that every year, though, and their situation isn't about to change after re-signing Jamal Crawford, Austin Rivers and Wesley Johnson this offseason. If the front office wants to balance the roster and add pieces who will stick around, the best bet might be trading a star for a package of players signed to long-term deals.
- While Griffin and Jordan work well enough together, there's ample evidence over the last few years that, when one is injured, the Clippers can get by with the other playing a bigger role. Even though they have chemistry, perhaps Los Angeles' best use of resources is trading one of them and finally acquiring a true difference-maker on the wing and/or a big man who can stretch the floor.
- Doc Rivers, Los Angeles' president and coach, is on the record saying that a group of great players can have an expiration date. "We're right on the borderline," Rivers told Zach Lowe, then of Grantland, before last season started. "I have no problem saying that. I'm a believer that teams can get stale. After a while, you don't win. It just doesn't work. We're right at the edge. Oklahoma City is on the edge. Memphis, too. We just have to accept it." If the Clippers were at the edge 12 months ago, then where will they be if their season ends in disappointment again?
For now, it appears that the Clippers are committed to Paul, Griffin and Jordan. Continuity matters in the NBA, and if they finally get some luck in the postseason, they could be in a position to make a run at a championship. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that nothing can break this trio up. A lot can change in between now and July.