Despite having traded away Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, the Los Angeles Clippers find themselves firmly entrenched in the wide-open Western Conference playoff race.
What they lack in star power, they now boast in complementary contributions from their supporting cast.
Regardless of how they fare in their playoff chase, the Clippers face another difficult decision come July 1. If DeAndre Jordan declines his $24.1 million player option for 2018-19 to become an unrestricted free agent, they’ll have to decide whether to retain the last vestige of their Big Three era.
The answer to their quandary depends on Jordan’s asking price.
A dying brand of star big men
At this point in his career, DeAndre Jordan is who he is. He’s a high-efficiency, rebound-gobbling big man who the lacks shooting range and playmaking ability that is in vogue among big men these days. While Jordan led the NBA in shooting efficiency over each of the past five seasons, he juiced his field-goal percentage by attempting roughly three-quarters of his shots within three feet of the basket.
Heading into Saturday’s action, only four of Jordan’s 436 shot attempts had come outside of 10 feet from the basket—he went 1-of-4 from that range—and hadn’t attempted a single three-pointer.
Last year, all but three of his 577 field-goal attempts came within 10 feet of the hoop. As young unicorns like Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis and Myles Turner rise up the NBA ranks, big men with limited shooting range like Jordan threaten to go the way of the dinosaurs with each passing year.
For now, DeAndre Jordan has staved off NBA extinction with elite glass-cleaning ability. He ranks second this year behind Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond in both rebounds per game (15.2) and total rebound percentage (26.1). With Jordan on the floor, the Clippers grab 51.3 percent of all available rebounds, which would be tied for the league’s fifth-highest mark if stretched across the entire season. When he’s on the bench, they secure only 48.2 percent of all boards, the NBA’s fourth-worst mark.
That rebounding prowess hasn’t translated into making Jordan irreplaceable, however. In fact, the Clippers have been outscored by 0.2 points per 100 possessions with the Texas A&M product on the floor this season. When he’s riding the pine, they’ve been 3.5 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents.
DeAndre Jordan’s future in Los Angeles
Once the Clippers traded Griffin to the Detroit Pistons in late January, it appeared Jordan was next in line to be shipped out of town. His name circulated in trade rumors right up until the NBA’s Feb. 8 trade deadline. The Clippers reportedly “thought they were close to a deal” that would have sent Jordan to the Cleveland Cavaliers, according to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst. Instead, they stood pat at the deadline, keeping Jordan in place and signing likely Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams to a three-year contract extension.
Following the trade deadline, Jordan commented on his future in L.A., telling reporters he didn’t know whether he felt the Clippers wanted to keep him around long-term.
“I just want to be somewhere where I’m wanted,” he said. “And if it’s here, it’s here. If it’s not, then hey, it’s a business.”
A few weeks later, Jordan told Michael Lee of Yahoo Sports, “I’m here and that’s what I’m focused on. I’m excited. Like I told somebody the other day, I hope I can play another 10 years here. That’s what I’m focused on now.”
Are the Clippers likewise envisioning Jordan staying with the franchise throughout his entire career? Will they hold a fake jersey retirement ceremony for him, much as they did for Blake Griffin last summer? That’s doubtful. But their decision not to ship him out at the trade deadline does seemingly signal a willingness to re-sign him this summer.
Rock and a hard place
Granted, the Clippers might not have much choice in the matter. If Austin Rivers ($12.65 million), Milos Teodosic ($6.3 million) and Wesley Johnson ($6.1 million) pick up their respective player options for the 2018-19 season, the Clippers will have nearly $82.9 million in guaranteed salary on their books without factoring in Jordan, Patrick Beverley (who has a dirt-cheap team option of $5.0 million) or Montrezl Harrell, who is set to become a restricted free agent this summer.
Throw in their two mid-first-round draft picks, and the Clippers wouldn’t have enough cap space to sign an adequate Jordan replacement if he opts out and decides to vacate L.A. Instead, they’d only have the non-taxpayer mid-level exception (around $8.5 million) and the bi-annual exception (roughly $3.35 million) at their disposal.
How they proceed with Jordan may largely depend upon how willing team owner Steve Ballmer is to plunge into the luxury tax for a team without championship upside. As a 10-year veteran, Jordan is eligible to sign a contract with a starting salary worth up to 35 percent of the salary cap ($35.35 million based on the projected $101 million cap). Signing him to such a contract would all but certainly push the Clippers into the luxury-tax territory before they made any free-agent additions.
If Jordan refuses to re-sign with L.A. unless the Clippers offer him a five-year, $200-plus million max deal, that’s likely a deal-breaker. But if he’s willing to compromise on either the length or the starting salary of the contract, the Clippers should be open to that discussion.
Say Jordan is open to a three-year, $81 million deal (with a starting salary of $25 million in 2018-19) that contains a player option in 2020-21. The Clippers would still have the mid-level exception to add bench depth, along with a few minor traded player exceptions with which they could round out their roster. The core of Jordan, Williams, Rivers, Danilo Gallinari and Tobias Harris may not pose a legitimate threat to the Houston Rockets or Golden State Warriors, but it could find itself back in the playoff race next year if Ballmer isn’t yet willing to embrace a full-scale rebuild.
Jerry West’s options
Re-signing Jordan also doesn’t mean L.A. intends to keep him throughout the duration of his next contract. Much as the Clippers did with Griffin, they could re-up Jordan only to flip him six months later if their 2018-19 campaign takes a turn for the worse. A two- or a three-year non-max deal would be far more tradable than a five-year max pact, which makes it that much more paramount for the Clippers to exercise restraint during contract negotiations with Jordan.
The Clippers’ biggest threat for Jordan on the free-agent market may be their Staples Center neighbors, the Los Angeles Lakers. If the Lakers strike out on their Plan A of signing Paul George, LeBron James and/or DeMarcus Cousins, they’ll have upward of $60 million in cap space with few enticing targets left. Would they fancy themselves playoff contenders if they add Jordan to their young core of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart? Given their recent late-season surge, it isn’t necessarily unrealistic.
Cap space will be sparse across the league this summer, limiting Jordan’s free-agent options. Of the teams armed with enough space to offer him close to a max deal, only the Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers are anywhere near postseason contention, and the Sixers already have Joel Embiid manning the middle. That may make Jordan’s market a two-team race between the cohabitants of the Staples Center.
Given the Clippers’ lack of financial flexibility this summer, re-signing Jordan would be wise if he’s willing to settle for less than a five-year max deal. If the Lakers strike out on their top free-agent targets, though, they could thwart their intercity rivals from retaining their franchise big man.