The Clippers are a team of the future. Understood.
But what does that really mean, other than the fact that Neil Olshey has the team financially prepared to strike at the likes of Dwight Howard, Deron Williams and Chris Paul in the summer of 2012, assuming they opt out of their respective contracts?
For one, those of you bright-eyed fellows and ladies out there that believe the Clippers can make the playoffs next season might need to lower your expectations a bit. Without a major upgrade at the small forward position the team likely won’t sniff the playoffs in a still-strong Western Conference. As well, we still don’t know exactly what’s going to happen as far as a back-up power forward (though as I said in my last post, I think it’s possible that either Craig Smith or Ike Diogu will be brought back on a one year, and the Clippers can also sign their incoming rookies to fill up roster space).
On the other hand, if Olshey wants the team to look more appealing to a potential big-time free agent in the summer of 2012, we could see a reasonably big move made at some point this season that could see the team competing at a higher level than expected. Besides Chris Kaman’s movable expiring deal, the Clippers can likely afford to acquire a sub-$8 million dollar a year-type player (not accounting for a change in the cap) to fill the small forward gap. We’re talking guys like:
Shane Battier, who is aging, but can hit from range and is still a capable team defender, despite losing a step.
Tayshaun Prince, who is a pretty solid pick-up if the Clippers don’t overpay him.
Caron Butler, whose price may be too high depending on the market, but he could be a perfect fit if he comes back strong from injury.
Andrei Kirilenko, another multitasker who has struggled with injuries.
The problem with many of these (and other) available players is that they’re aging, have had chronic injury issues and are likely to demand too much money or too many years. That isn’t a good recipe for smart, long-term commitment, especially when Olshey wants as little money on the books going into the 2012-13 season as possible.
On the other end of the spectrum, Olshey could look to just fill out the roster with 1-year contracts while allowing Kaman to expire, thus continuing to steer the team on course to having only 7 players under contract by the summer of 2012 (assuming the team re-signs DeAndre Jordan, who is currently restricted, to a multi-year deal). That would allow the team to target a max contract free agent, re-sign Eric Gordon (who will be a restricted free agent after this season) and look to fill out the rest of the roster with lesser available free agents. Blake Griffin’s qualifying offer will be up after the 2013-14 season, after all of this theoretically happens, so the team should also have the money to re-sign him. I would highly, highly support this course of action, if only to avoid overpaying one of those old guys I listed above. It’s also pretty important to make sure the Clippers are able to keep their young guys under contract when they become restricted free agents.
The danger with this course of action is that it depends on the health and steady production of the team’s two budding, but potentially injury-prone stars. Along with that, the Clippers will need this past season’s lottery picks and/or their upcoming lottery picks to pan out and be able to contribute, if only to allow the team to build some depth without having to depend on overpaying mid-level players.
Besides the question of “To sign or not to sign,” any trade involving Kaman requires a lot of thought. For instance, the rumored deal of Kaman for Andre Iguodala leaves the Clippers with Andre Iguodala (good), but this also sticks the team with more money on the books in the summer of 2012 (less good). The Clippers would owe Iguodala $13.5 million dollars in the 2011-12 season escalating to a $15.9 million early termination option in 2013-14.
Of course, you still get two years of prime Iguodala, but now you’re looking at over $50 million in committed salary after DeAndre gets paid at the end of the lockout, EJ’s next deal is negotiated in the summer of 2012, and first-round pick/roster filler contracts (outside of veteran minimum deals). Using the 2010-11 seasons’ CBA numbers, the Clippers would go over the cap if they signed a max player.
Now, usually this would not be an unmanageable problem, because the current collective bargaining agreement offers assorted exceptions allowing for soft cap overage (leading to luxury tax). But who knows what kind of flexibility a new CBA will afford a team like the Clippers to re-sign, say, a dynamic, maximum-salary power forward when his rookie contract expires.
We probably haven’t come close to covering the full range of thought that goes into trying to turn the Clippers into a perennial playoff team. There are countless things that could go wrong no matter what the Clippers attempt to do in continuing to build this team.
It’s extremely easy to talk about just making a big move and going for broke whenever youget the chance, but it isn’t close to that easy. When you go for broke in the NBA, you end up overpaying Rashard Lewis, or Antawn Jamison, or Gilbert Arenas, or Ben Gordon or Baron Davis. Or you end up dishing an extremely valuable lottery pick for peanuts. If you play it too safe, you end up getting criticized for being unable to lure a superstar, something that has dogged the Rockets recently.
And sometimes, you do everything right and end up getting hit with wave after wave of injury, like the Trail Blazers. What if the Clippers somehow miss out on all of the big names Olshey planned on getting in the summer of 2012? Or what if Blake and EJ can’t stay healthy even if Clippers get their guy?
When you’re building an NBA team, the what-ifs are almost endless. The key to being a successful GM in the NBA is controlling what you can — minimizing risk on contracts, stockpiling assets and, above all, striking the perfect balance between boldness and patience.