The Clippers -- the NBA's biggest underachievers -- have no easy way to get better

Deandre jordan blake griffinStephen Dunn/GettyDeAndre Jordan is an unrestricted free agent this summer.

The Los Angeles Clippers are just the ninth team in the NBA history to lose a series after leading 3-1.

The Houston Rockets rattled off three straight wins to complete the comeback, eliminating the Clippers from the playoffs just days after it seemed like a guarantee that Los Angles would reach the Western Conference Finals.

In four seasons together, the trio of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan have yet to make it out of the second round of the playoffs.

For the Clippers, this sets up an uncertain future, one in which there’s no easy way to significantly improve the roster.

The first hurdle the Clippers face this summer is Jordan’s free agency. Jordan has emerged as one of the best centres in the NBA — a nimble seven-footer that can finish and defend the rim at an elite rate. Jordan is bound to get a max contract this summer, and L.A. has the advantage there, with the ability to give Jordan a five-year deal with bigger year-over-year raises than any other team.

The Clippers will almost be forced to give Jordan a max offer. With over $US52 million dedicated to the core of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, J.J. Redick, and Jamal Crawford, and over $US69 million on their payroll for next season, the Clippers have no means to find a player of Jordan’s calibre if he leaves in the offseason.

Doc Rivers told USA Today’s Sam Amick after Game 7:

“We don’t talk about (free agency). DJ loves us, but you’ve always got to be concerned. DJ would be great. We’ve got to try to do whatever we can. He’s obviously a free agent, and he has earned that right to be free. I don’t want to say much on it, but we love him.”

The Clippers’ core is as good as there is in the league — they’d be foolish to think they need to break them up to get to the next level — but maxing out Jordan, who’d have a starting salary of about $US20 million, means the Clippers will be paying about $US72 million for five players.

And while the aforementioned Clippers’ core is excellent and doesn’t need tinkering, it’s the surrounding depth that’s troublesome. There was a broad assumption that the Clippers’ lack of depth would hurt them in the playoffs. While their collapse against the Rockets can’t be pinned on just one element, they were undoubtedly hurt by having to play their best players heavy minutes.

Doc Rivers has come under fire for building a poor bench, and now, they have very little flexibility to improve their depth. Not only are the Clippers above the salary cap, they only have one first-round draft pick in the next three years.

  • 2015 — Pick goes to Boston Celtics for trading Doc Rivers to the Clippers.
  • 2016 — Own
  • 2017 — Pick goes to Milwaukee Bucks (top-14 protected) from Jared Dudley trade.

Draft picks are more highly valued in today’s NBA than ever before. With only one first-round pick to call their own until 2018, the Clippers lose the ability to add cheap talent to their core.

Rivers is to blame for some of this. The Clippers have used first and second round picks to move players like Jared Dudley and acquire players like Austin Rivers. The Dudley trade has looked worse and worse throughout the season as the Clippers were forced to give up a first-round pick to get the Bucks to take Dudley’s contract while Dudley also re-emerged as a pivotal “three-and-D” wing for the Bucks.

Rivers hasn’t managed contracts well, either. This past offseason, he tied up nearly $US8 million in salary to Hedo Turkoglu, Glen Davis, and Spencer Hawes, the latter of whom is still under contract for over $US17 million for the next three seasons. The Clippers could look to ease their payroll by trading Redick, Crawford, or Hawes, but it would be tough to get equal value back. Redick is one of the NBA’s best shooters, Crawford is one of the NBA’s best bench scorers, and Hawes’ value has plummeted so much over the last season that it’d be tough to even unload him.

The Clippers are only a few pieces away from being legitimate title contenders. Their core six players of Paul, Griffin, Jordon, Redick, Crawford, and Matt Barnes all played well throughout the playoffs, and together, they’re a formidable rotation. What the Clippers need is a stronger supporting case, and they have almost no means to build one.

Without cap space or draft picks, the Clippers will have to rely on Rivers’ already spotty GM history to convince good players to come on team-friendly deals. It could happen — the Miami Heat made it work — but it’s not comforting for Clippers fans to think their team could be a perennial underachiever because they don’t have the flexibility to build a deep team without a few lucky bounces.

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