Basketball

With Chris Paul out, Blake Griffin’s future with Clippers may depend on Celtics

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When Chris Paul joined Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan with the Los Angeles Clippers in 2011, it was supposed to the be the opening of a true championship-level window. Instead, they never got past the second round. There were untimely injuries and that whole Donald Sterling mess to partly blame, but in truth, they were just never quite good enough.

On Wednesday, Paul was traded to the Houston Rockets , officially ending the Lob City era in Los Angeles, and now the question becomes: What will become of what’s left of the Clippers? Griffin is a free agent who figures to have many suitors, and before Paul was moved the Clippers were reportedly shopping Jordan. Would they actually blow it all up and get rid of all three core pieces?

Well …

Jerry West, if you hadn’t heard, is now a special consultant for the Clippers and when West wants to do something with a team, it’s usually wise to listen. You may or may not remember that West, who served in a similar consultant role with Golden State for the past six years, was one of the strongest voices urging the Golden State Warriors to keep Klay Thompson when a deal for Kevin Love was on the table.

Now, West doesn’t have final say on these things, and his not being in favor of bringing the whole Clippers core back doesn’t mean he would be in favor of a complete rebuild. In fact, shortly after the Paul trade it was reported that the Clippers would be turning their attention to re-signing Griffin, who now has a very interesting decision to make: Go be a No. 2 or even No. 3 option on a championship-level team, or stay with L.A. and try to prove he’s a guy who can be built around.

The latter route, frankly, would be the tougher way. With Griffin back on a max deal, the Clippers would theoretically have room to add another max player if they maneuvered everything perfectly (assuming J.J. Redick is indeed set to move on), but who are they going to get? Paul George would be the obvious No. 1 option, even with the risk of him walking as a free agent in 2018, but a lot of teams are going after George, most with more attractive assets than the Clippers.  Paul Millsap is maybe a guy who could help, though you’d have to give him a max deal and he’s somewhat redundant with Griffin. Kyle Lowry might be an option, but all this would do is make the Clippers pretty much the same team they were with Paul, only a little worse.

A lot of this may hinge on Boston, which is reportedly looking at Griffin as something of a Plan B, with Plan A being one of Gordon Hayward or George, or both if everything breaks right. Let’s say the Boston Celtics get Hayward: Griffin would then make a lot of sense at the four spot. It would push Al Horford to the five, which isn’t his ideal position, but a presumed starting lineup of Isaiah Thomas , Avery Bradley , Gordon Hayward, Griffin and Horford would have to look pretty attractive next to what the Clippers will likely be putting on the floor next year.

Wherever Griffin ends up, you have to figure he’s the domino for the Clippers. If he goes, it’s blowup time, and the team wouldn’t even really have a say in it. Jordan would be the only All-Star left, and as great as he can be at what he does, you can’t build a team around him. If Griffin stays, that’s when things get interesting. The Clippers still wouldn’t be close to good enough to compete for a championship, but it would be harder to justify a rebuild with Griffin on board.

They could go looking for another star to replace Paul, of course, but if they struck out on that (and there’s a good chance they would) they would then be looking at the dead-man-walking existence that is the NBA‘s middle class, right there with teams like the Utah Jazz and the Blazers, the Toronto Raptors and the Washington Wizards , good enough to be out of the running for high-leverage draft picks but nowhere near good enough to compete for a title.

However it turns out, the Clippers as we’ve recently come to know them are dead. Paul was the life of that entire thing. Griffin will get his chance to take Paul’s place as the face of the franchise, if he wants it. Right now, that might be a big if.

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