If you take a gander at the Los Angeles Clippers’ numbers, you won’t be left impressed. They were pretty average, actually. Their 42-40 record was okay; their offensive rating and defensive rating was identical (107.7), giving them a net rating of zero. But once you dig further, you realize what made this team special.
There was no Chris Paul, thanks to the offseason trade with Houston. Blake Griffin was in and out of the lineup before eventually being traded. The Clippers’ big offseason acquisition, Danilo Gallinari, could never establish a rhythm due to the injuries he suffered. The injury situation got so bad, head coach Doc Rivers had to employ a rotation filled with G-League players, rookies, and under-the-radar role players.
And that team almost made the playoffs in a stacked Western Conference.
Lou Williams had a career-year. Tobias Harris continued to showcase just how good he is. Guys like Austin Rivers and Montrezl Harrell came into their own. This team was fast, scrappy, and just … a pure joy to watch. They were the embodiment of a team playing with house money — nobody really expected much, and they used that as motivation to shock the world.
The Clippers are now in their first summer of the Post-Blake era and it’s a crucial one. Last year’s team was a fun story, but it’s imperative they establish a direction so they won’t be stuck in the dreaded middle.
8. ND: It didn’t end in a playoff berth, but was this the most “fun” Clippers’ team you’ve covered?
I think the most fun Clippers team I covered was the 2014-2015 season, which was when I first started writing at Clips Nation. The Clippers had finally moved on from Donald Sterling and were bringing back a core of players that could compete for the NBA Finals. Sadly, this was the year they flamed out to Houston in the playoffs, ending what had been a fantastic season on a down note.
This year was close though, featuring Lou Williams’ All-Star campaign, Milos Teodosic’s ridiculous passing, Doc Rivers playing rookies, and the incredible arrival of Tobias Harris and Boban Marjanovic. In terms of how much fun the team itself had, I have no doubt this past season surpassed anything since the first year or two of the Lob City era.
7. How did you feel about the Blake Griffin trade when it happened, and how do you feel about it now?
My first reaction to the Blake Griffin trade was shock. Utter and total surprise. But within a few hours, I’d rationalized it and realized it was a very good trade for the Clippers. They just weren’t going anywhere with a Blake-led team and his expensive, lengthy contract was going to put a damper on flexibility for the next half decade.
Even though I liked the deal, I wasn’t nearly as high on it as I am now, as I didn’t realize how good Tobias Harris was at the time, and there was a possibility the Pistons’ pick would be quite a bit higher — some thought that the Pistons would make a playoff run with Blake. Now, with the 12th pick in the draft, a fringe All-Star player in Harris, and an incredibly entertaining (and useful) player in Boban, the trade looks like an absolute home run.
6. Was this Doc Rivers’ best coaching job?
As Clippers’ head coach? Absolutely.
He kept an injured young team fighting the entire length of the season and was masterful at getting the most out of his players. Doc played his young guys (and worked with them to improve), figured out the best roles for his veterans, and was somehow able to conjure up a top 10 offense even with all the injuries and lack of top-end offensive talent. Really, if the Clippers had a bit more gas down the stretch and sneaked into the eighth seed, I think he would have a real case for Coach of the Year. He was that good.
5. Do you build off this team, or do you actually blow it up?
That’s the question Clippers’ fans have been struggling with since the season ended, and even before then. If this team brought everyone back next season, had decent health, and added two first round picks that were solid for their positions in the draft, I think the Clippers are a certain playoff team. But Jerry West and co. don’t want to be heading a team that struggles into the playoffs.
I think their best path forward is to walk a tight line between the two extremes. The Clippers certainly have pieces to build with (Tobias Harris key among them), but they shouldn’t get attached to too many of the players on the fringes of the roster. Instead, they should focus on finding young players who fit with the Clippers’ best veterans (Harris, DeAndre Jordan if he stays, Lou Williams), and slowly trend towards a younger team while still retaining a semblance of competitive spirit and winning culture. All the while, they must monitor superstars to see if they have the assets to trade for one, or the right pieces to surround another.
To make a long story short, the Clippers will probably trend more towards blowing it up, but the full rebuild won’t start this summer.
4. Excluding Tobias Harris, who was your favorite young newcomer?
Ooohhh this is tough. One of my favorite players to watch this season was rookie point guard Jawun Evans. He’s real speedster and his ability to pressure teams the full length of the court on both sides of the ball is just so fun. If he can get an average three-point shot and slow the game down a bit, I think he’ll be a good NBA player.
But the answer to this question can’t be anything other than Montrezl Harrell.
Initially, Trez was behind Willie Reed on the depth chart but he passed him sometime in early December due to his incredible activity and energy. He was just incredible this season, an unstoppable force off the bench, especially when paired with Lou Williams in the pick and roll. Instead of tiring as the season went along, Trez just got better and better, probably by feasting on the souls of his victims. This all culminated in a March, where he averaged 13.8 points in 17.6 minutes on a 69.6 percent True Shooting efficiency, putting together one of the most dominating months of basketball I’ve ever seen from a bench player. He dunked everything in sight and, when that failed, utilized a seemingly unguardable hook shot.
Watching Montrezl lead fast breaks, dribbling with his head down and chugging along like a runaway train, was one of the great joys of this season. He was not talked about enough as one of the best bench players in the NBA.
3. Do you want the Clippers to use both of their lottery picks, or would you rather package them to move up?
I think I’d rather them use both their lottery picks unless someone unexpected falls to just a few picks below them, or one of the teams much higher up in the draft is willing to trade down for not much more than just the two picks together. Getting two bites at the apple instead of one is a sound strategy unless that single bite is a far superior one. In this draft, which is confusing even by NBA draft standards, the risks of moving up are real, as nobody really knows who will pan out in this draft. The one player the Clippers should absolutely move up for if available is Luka Doncic. After that, it becomes much more of a toss-up.
2. If you stand pat with the picks, who would you like to see the Clippers target?
I’d honestly be happy with most of the players who are in range for the Clippers at 12-13. I would like to see them target either of the Bridges (Miles or Mikal) if they fall, as I think they are both top 10 prospects in this draft. If neither of them is available, my next-best options would be Shai-Gilgeous Alexander and Zhaire Smith. I’m not a huge fan of any of the big men who are likely to be in the Clippers’ range—I’d prefer to see them draft guards and wings instead. I also wouldn’t mind the Clippers taking a shot on Troy Brown or De’Anthony Melton, even though they are projected somewhat lower than 13.
1. Who are some free agents you’d like to see the Clippers go after?
LeBron James. But seriously, Jerry West is after big fish. The Clippers can free up money for top free agents if they need to, and have an appealing mix of prospects, young veterans, and experienced team leaders. Between that mix of players and their two draft picks, they also have enough assets to swing a massive deal for a disgruntled superstar (Kawhi Leonard immediately comes to mind). Expect the Clippers to try to nab at least one of James, Kawhi, or Paul George, and be in talks with all three if all goes well.
It’s unlikely that the Clippers land such immense targets, but Los Angeles is a draw, they have Jerry West as a spokesperson, and Doc Rivers remains one of the most respected coaches in the NBA. However, free agency is not entirely within the Clippers’ hands, as three key players have player options which could make them unrestricted free agents: DeAndre Jordan, Austin Rivers, and Milos Teodosic. If those guys opt out, the Clippers will have far harder decisions to make on who to keep, and what price they are willing to pay to do so. I suspect at least two of those three opt-in, and it’s quite possible all three of them do.
If that happens, and if the Clippers strike out on all the big free agents, I expect a relatively quiet summer, with the Clippers mostly re-signing their own free agents (Montrezl), and maybe unloading a contract or two to clear some roster space. The name of the game for the Clippers is flexibility, and they aren’t about to tie down their cap space for next summer and its stacked free agent class on second-tier players this summer.