The worst thing for a team to be in professional sports is mediocre. In the NBA, perennially landing in the late lottery is the kiss of death. You’re not contending, you’re not rebuilding towards something better – you’re just there. Barring a miracle, your fate is all but pre-determined when you frequently occupy the late lottery.
I’m a huge proponent of rebuilding in general, mainly because a good player on a rookie contract is the best value in the game. Going through the actual process of rebuilding, however, is not for those without Sam Cassell sized onions. As a General Manager, there’s much less risk involved if you hang around .500 and sell your fans on a mid-level signing that will “push you over the top.” Get rid of all your old, familiar talent and lose 60 games in the process, and all of the sudden it’s tough to sell anyone on anything – including the owner on letting you stick around. Rebuilding can most certainly pay off in the long run, but the person doing it doesn’t always get to see it to fruition.
And wouldn’t you know it? Even uttering the word “rebuilding” has suddenly become a serious no-no around Clippers headquarters. Neil Olshey has been pretty adamant over the offseason that the Clippers are completely finished with their rebuilding process, and that the time to win is most definitely now. Saying “we’re ready to win!” publicly is always a good idea, but it’s important to note that the old themes of building, developing, and all those other code words for “we’re going to suck in order to get better” have been tossed aside for the time being. What’s that mean on the court? That long leash the rookies got last season? Shorter. Much shorter.
With DeAndre Jordan’s contract expired, Eric Gordon’s coming up, and Blake Griffin’s further down the line, Olshey realizes that it’s time for the Clippers to make a run and make it as difficult as possible for his core guys to dash elsewhere. Olshey, like everyone else, doesn’t know what the next CBA will hold, and whether or not keeping his current players will become easier or tougher in the process. For now, he has to assume that fielding a winning team is the greatest retaining – and recruiting – method available to him.
And so when DeAndre Jordan eventually gets an offer sheet that makes everyone’s eyebrows rise as if they were The Rock, Olshey really has no option but to match. Whatever the number — 8, 9, 10 million a year — Olshey has to do it. Even if he doesn’t think Jordan is actually worth it, he has to do it.
Not signing Jordan would leave the Clippers with no center under contract in 2012-13. Not signing Jordan probably pisses off the one guy in the organization you can’t afford to piss off in Blake Griffin. Not signing Jordan wastes all the valuable hours spent developing him into a pretty good starting center.
Olshey simply has to match whatever offer crosses his desk, because he knows he can’t afford to take a step back at this point in the game. The clock is already ticking. Put Eric Gordon through another 25-win season and there’s no way he accepts an extension. Think about it. You really don’t think some team will throw all their cash at a 23-year old shooting guard who will already be able to legitimately lay claim to being a top 5 player at his position? And on that same token, do you think Gordon doesn’t forfeit a few million for the time being to get out from being the second banana on a losing team for a chance to sign a max deal elsewhere?
Olshey has options, but they’re fake options. Letting Jordan walk could potentially start a chain reaction he has no interest in seeing. Maybe if Gordon and Griffin weren’t such strong considerations and maybe if the Clippers weren’t the Clippers, you could let DeAndre walk and use the upcoming Minnesota pick on what’s shaping up to be one of the best big man classes in a long time. You can have DeAndre Jordan for 9 million a year…or maybe a potential future star like Anthony Davis or Andre Drummond on a rookie deal. But again, Olshey can’t afford to even consider that because of the ripple effect on the rest of the roster and the message it would send.
Don’t think for a second that other general managers around the league aren’t aware of the pickle that Olshey is in. A smart Western Conference team with money and a hole in the middle can make a huge offer and in a way, sort of call Olshey’s bluff. If the Clippers balk, that team gets a young starting center with gobs of athletic potential. If the Clippers match, they’re all-in with a guy that at this point is less than a sure thing.
This upcoming season – whenever it’s played – can be viewed as one of the most important in Clippers history. DeAndre Jordan is getting paid. Eric Gordon desperately craves to play for a winner. And Blake Griffin needs to know that a franchise with a history like the Clippers have is willing to do whatever it takes to compete.
The plan seems simple: Match DeAndre, go get a veteran small forward, and do your best to sneak into the playoffs while convincing Gordon to extend in the process.
It’s a firm step towards contending, but something like a Gordon injury (remember, he’s missed a combined 46 games the last two years) would likely send the Clippers to the hell that is NBA mediocrity.
The question all of the sudden becomes this: Is this the right core group of players to make the Clippers competitive?
We’ll know soon enough, because for Olshey and the Clippers, there’s no backing out now.