Perhaps the Los Angeles Clippers’ collapse in their 2nd round series against the Rockets was simply a breakdown in focus, effort, and execution at the worst possible time. But I don’t buy it. With a starting lineup headlined by Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan that outscored opponents by 17.7 points per 100 possessions during the regular season (the 3rd best lineup in the league per NBA.com), the team should have advanced past the second round of the playoffs. However, the team’s lack of depth dashed their lofty championship aspirations.
The Clippers gave significant minutes in the playoffs to replacement level talent. Austin Rivers received 18 minutes per game after a regular season in which he provided -0.4 Value Above Replacement Player (VORP), per Basketball-reference. They gave Glen (Big Baby) Davis, and his -0.1 VORP, 10 minutes per game. Hedo Turkoglu and Dahtay Jones each played 11 of the team’s 14 playoffs games. Even Jamal Crawford, the team’s super sub, doesn’t rate well by advanced metrics. As much as he has provided the spark off the bench offensively for the Clips, his atrocious defense cancels out much of that production.
While it’s easy to criticize in hindsight, the reasons for the Clippers lack of depth and the cause of their downfall can be summed up by a series of compounding mistakes in roster construction dating back to the beginning of Doc Rivers’s tenure as both Coach and President of Basketball Operations. When Doc took over during the summer of 2013, the Clippers had just come off a successful yet disappointing season under coach Vinny Del Negro. After losing in the first round of the playoffs to the Grizzlies, the Clips felt it was time for a change. They fired Del Negro and decided that adding Rivers would push the team to the next level, giving up a first round pick to get him. Expectations of Doc and the Clips were high.
In Rivers’ first big move as GM, he traded Eric Bledsoe, Caron Butler and a 2nd round pick for J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley in a 3-team trade with Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks. Bledsoe was in the last year of his rookie contract and while he had yet to entirely prove himself in the league, he was assuredly going to command a sizable contract in free agency because many saw a potential star. The Clips were worried about being unable (or unwilling) to pay enough to keep their young guard if the price became too steep. So they moved him for Redick, a free agent who the Clippers coveted but would have been unable to sign because they were above the salary cap, and Dudley, who was thought to be a surefire rotation player. While the team did extract some value for Bledsoe, by making this move Rivers immediately jumped into win-now mode, giving up the Clippers best trade asset not named Paul, Griffin or Jordan and exchanging youth and potential for known commodities.
During the 2013-14 season, Bledsoe emerged as a potential star, spending significant time playing alongside point guard Goran Dragic. He not only proved his worth as a valuable player in this league, earning a 5-year $70 million contract with the Suns after the season but also that he was comfortable playing alongside a ball-dominant guard offensively and capable of defending both guard positions using his elite combination of quickness and strength. Imagine him on this Clippers team starting alongside Paul, completing one of the better defensive backcourts in the league, playing off-the-ball with the first unit and taking over point guard duties with Paul out. It would have been difficult for the Clippers to manage a contract of the magnitude Bledsoe received from Phoenix, but it would have been possible if he were willing to stay in Los Angeles. However, Bled on this Clips team is but a pipe dream thanks to a short-sighted trade thought to provide a temporary upgrade that in reality, did not. Even if Los Angeles was sure it wouldn’t be able to retain Bledsoe long term, Jared Dudley and the right the pay Redick fair market value was not a large enough return for their young stud.
That season, the Clippers made it the conference semifinals but lost in 6 games to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Mired amidst the Donald Sterling scandal, LAC was thought to be capable of more; a talented unit that was brought down by a combination of distractions and a deadly OKC team. However, it was clear that upgrades were necessary, particularly at the backup big man spot, where the team had been forced to go small or use Ryan Hollins and Big Baby Davis in meaningful minutes.
The first moves of the 2014 offseason seemed to address their needs. In July, the team signed Spencer Hawes to a 4-year deal worth more than $22 million. He seemed to be a good fit, a floor-spacing big who could fit alongside Griffin or Jordan. This versatility would be especially valuable, or so the thinking went, in the playoffs, when rotations tighten and he would allow the team to use a 3 man rotation of bigs.
Rivers jumped into win-now mode, giving up the Clippers best trade asset not named Paul, Griffin or Jordan and exchanging youth and potential for known commodities.
Yet, it didn’t work out that way. Hawes lingered on the fringe of the Clippers rotation during the regular season. He even racked up 6 DNPs in the playoffs, where he was supposed to be at his most valuable. He lost time to Davis and a washed-up Turkoglu, both of whom played more playoff games than he did.
River’s other big offseason signing was bringing in backup point guard Jordan Farmar for 2 years and $4.2 million. The position needed to be addressed following the departure of Darren Collison. But despite the seemingly good fit, he struggled and eventually was let go mid-season.
After the signings, the team had already accumulated about $80 million in salary on 12 players. This was a problem. Between using the full mid-level exception to sign Hawes/the bi-annual exception to sign Farmar, the Clips were hard-capped at $81 million. As such, LAC was left in an untenable situation with no room to operate. The team would need to sign a 13th player per NBA rules AND garner some flexibility to sign players in case of injuries, nearly impossible in the position Rivers had put them in with his offseason additions.
In August, in an attempt to remedy the situation, Rivers gave up a first round pick to dump Dudley (who was part of the Bledsoe return!) and the 2 years and $9.5 million left on his contract. He had struggled with injuries through much of his tenure with the Clippers—stating later that when he went to Rivers asking for time to rest what would later be diagnosed as a fractured knee, Rivers told him to play through it (per ESPN). The trade returned a 2nd rounder plus Carlos Delfino and Miroslav Reduljica from the Milwaukee Bucks. Both players were immediately waived via the stretch provision, opening up more than $3 million in flexibility under the hard cap.
However, as a result of using the stretch provision to lessen the 2014-15 cap hit of the acquired players, the team created a combined $950,000 cap hit on the books until 2019. Rivers and the Clippers traded temporary relief from a difficult situation, mind you one they created for themselves, at the cost of future cap flexibility. In addition, the team had to part with a first round pick to make it happen, ever so valuable in an era with a fast rising salary cap but scaled rookie contracts essentially locked into bargain rates.
Ultimately, to get Hawes, a big man who failed to establish his role on team and didn’t crack the playoff rotation, and Farmar, a guard who struggled so mightily he was eventually waived (again via the stretch provision, putting an additional 500,000 cap hit on the books until 2018), the team had to give up Dudley, a 1st round pick, plus the future dead weight cap hits. What’s worse, finally healthy, Dudley reemerged as a solid rotation player for the Bucks, capable of guarding both forward spots and spacing the floor on offense to the tune of 39% from 3-point range.
The mistakes made in the offseason were further exacerbated by the mid-season trade for Austin Rivers. In search of a backup point guard upgrade after Farmar didn’t live up to expectations, the team traded Reggie Bullock and a 2nd round pick in exchange for Rivers in a 3-team trade with the Celtics and Suns.
The real culprit was the one who decided to give up a first round pick for Rivers and then give him power over personnel decisions
In his second year, Bullock was starting to look like a viable rotation player on the wing, a position where the Clippers had little depth (further exposed by Matt Barnes‘s shooting struggles in the playoffs). Nevertheless, giving up on him is reflective of a grander theme surrounding the Clippers’ personnel decision making: a rushed process lacking the patience to see things through.
Rivers and the Clippers front office have taken a rabid, sporadic approach to team building, eschewing collection of assets and maintenance of flexibility in their hunt for experienced veterans, and getting worse in the process. It’s a mentality reflective of having a coach as the lead personnel decision maker. Coaches tend to think about what they can do to upgrade their team, what would help them THIS year, at the expense of a grander vision. It’s simply a different focus, the anti-Daryl Morey. It’s almost fate that the Clippers fell to the Rockets in the second round, a high-stakes clash of dialectic team building strategies.
And yet, it wasn’t as if the Rockets were pre-determined to win the series because of the way their front office operates. The Clippers had a 3-1 lead in the series and a 19 point lead late in the 3rd quarter of game 6. Despite all of their team building mistakes, the Clippers should have advanced to the conference finals. But if we could explain the reason they didn’t advance, it has to be the lack of depth created by continual short-sighted personnel decisions made by a coach unqualified for his role as GM. The team was left bereft of talent outside of their stars, costing them when the odds were highest. Ultimately, the real culprit was the one who decided to give up a first round pick for Rivers and give him power over personnel decisions.
Going forward, the Clippers are left with 2 stars under contract, 1 that might bolt to greener pastures, a couple decent rotation pieces, 2 missing draft picks, and a $1.5 million dead cap hit for years to come. There isn’t much wiggle room, but I’m sure Rivers will find a way to make it a bit worse.
Net Outcome of Doc playing Doc… er, GM.:
- Eric Bledsoe
- Reggie Bullock
- 1st Round Pick
- 2nd Round Pick
- J.J. Redick
- $1.5 cap hit until 2018 (only $950,000 in 2019)
- Spencer Hawes
- Austin Rivers