When a team heavily favoured to win it all or at least compete in the NBA Finals misses out on the objective, the immediate aftermath usually goes like this. A full blown media backlash on what should have and what shouldn’t have happened, who is to take the most blame for the failure and what lies ahead with regard to who stays and who leaves so the team improves for another run all come next. Right on cue, the NBA media absolutely lost its mind when the prohibitive favourite Los Angeles Clippers failed to set up a mouthwatering clash with city rival Los Angeles Lakers.
The Lakers held up their end of the deal by easing past Houston Rockets to the team’s first Western Conference Final appearance since 2010. Worse was the way the Clippers missed out on competing in what would have been the team’s first Conference Finals appearance in half a century’s worth of team history. The Clippers gave their title naysayers more ammo as the team blew a 3-1 series lead to get ousted from the NBA Playoffs by the Denver Nuggets.
This wasn’t the first time the Clippers had suffered such an embarrassing exit from the postseason; in 2015, a surprise marksmanship burst from three point range from Josh Smith got Houston into the Conference at the expense of the other Los Angeles based NBA team. At the helm of the team was Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan who combined for reels and reels of highlight plays but failed to achieve the team’s objective of a Conference Finals appearance.
The intensity was ratcheted up when Billionaire Steve Ballmer bought the team with a clear aim to make the team an established outfit in the glamorous city. Changing the team’s stance with fans from an afterthought to serious contenders demands a competent roster and an arena as shown by Brooklyn Nets. While the Nets path to instant championship contention was doomed to fail after trading for old veterans in Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, the Clippers model was built to get the job done.
Unlike Brooklyn, Clippers signed and traded for two elite players under 30 years in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, resigned a multiple All NBA Defensive Team Member in Patrick Beverley and maintained two scoring spark plugs off the bench in Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell. That aside, shrewd signings topped the Clippers roster with veteran contributors like Marcus Morris, Reggie Jackson, JaMychal Green, Patrick Patterson and Joakim Noah. Long story short, Year One of the project failed so Year Two is the focus now but circumstances that led to built up wealth of talent for the title conversely leads to a timeline bomb waiting to detonate in the near future.
For starters, Leonard and Paul George are unrestricted free agents after next season concludes should they opt not to pick the player options in their contracts. George was traded for from Oklahoma City Thunder with two years and player option in the final year left on his contract. Leonard signed as a free agent for three seasons with a player option in the third year and that means the headline duo could abandon the team altogether should things go wrong again next season. That aside, one half of Clippers bench scoring threats, Lou Williams contract runs out after the 2020-2021 season comes to a close.
The other half, Harrell, is mere days away from an official announcement as an unrestricted free agent following his three year run with the team. Harrell could end up signing a bumper multiyear deal to return but after bagging the Sixth Man of the Year Award this season and a depleted free agency market coming up, Harrell would command top dollar which could be tough to get under the salary. However, Ballmer shouldn’t have any issues paying taxes as punishment for going above the salary cap so it is very feasible Harrell could stay longer with the team.
With a handful of players’ contract running out after this season, the Clippers would have space on their cap sheet to tuck in Harrell’s deal. Looking at the salaries of third scoring options in the league like Gary Harris, Domantas Sabonis, Serge Ibaka, Draymond Green and Eric Gordon, Montrezl could score a deal worth between $18 million and $25 million a year. Harrell has hired Rich Paul as his agent and the latter’s track record shows he gets his clients mouth watering deals; just ask John Wall, Draymond and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope about their new deals.
But judging by Montrezl’s comments in January and a heated argument with Paul George during the Denver series, it is clear his return to the Clippers hinges on matters beyond just getting a major payday which spells bad news for the Clippers.
Coupled with the dearth of assets of the team after gifting all to Oklahoma in the trade for Paul George, short term contracts and a Head Coach who has vastly underachieved, the Clippers new arena under construction in Inglewood, could stage its debut game in 2024 (most likely) without a single member of the present group on the roster and a title but have plenty of missed objectives and disappointments along the way.
By Yaw Adjei-Mintah
@YawMintYM on Twitter