The Los Angeles Clippers lost in the first round of the playoffs to the upstart Portland Trail Blazers. Though it is true that they were without the injured Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, it was their fifth straight season getting bounced before the Conference Finals. And then this offseason the Warriors picked up Kevin Durant, the Grizzlies signed Chandler Parsons, the Rockets got a new coach and a new direction, the Mavericks completely remade themselves, and the Spurs remained the Spurs.
So how did the Clippers—who weren’t good enough and then watched their rivals either improve or roll the dice—respond during free agency? By blowing $32 million to overpay and re-sign most of their bad bench, which already wasn’t good enough to get to the Conference Finals, or even provide a puncher’s chance at a championship.
They signed Luc Richard Mbah a Moute for an eminently reasonable two years, $4.5 million, and Wesley Johnson for three years and $18 million, which is about the going rate for a serviceable-at-best wing. And then they re-signed coach’s son Austin Rivers—who has improved but still doesn’t have any average basketball skills, and who also didn’t have much of a market for his services—for three years and $36 million, and bid against themselves to sign the old and inefficient Jamal Crawford for three years and $42 million.
The best thing you can say about the Clippers offseason is that, in a vacuum, the Johnson and Mbah a Moute signings are solid value moves. And really, that’s the point. While their rivals are making leaps or at least hopping, the Clippers spent a ton of money on their bench, dooming themselves to a 54 win season and another early playoff exit. It is also worth noting that, while bringing the bench back, they somehow failed to re-sign Cole Aldrich, who was fantastic in limited minutes.
The Clippers’ salary cap situation was a mess, giving them limited room to maneuver, though they did court Kevin Durant and felt confident they could clear room for his max salary. But just because the path forward was difficult doesn’t mean locking themselves in as the seventh best team in the league was the right thing to do. And since the deals include $31 million in guaranteed money during the 2017-18 season, the Clippers will either be capped out next year at this time, or watch Griffin and Paul utilize their early termination options and leave for greener pastures.
Three years ago the Clippers gave Doc Rivers dual coaching-GM power, and he is now example 1A (or maybe 1B, behind Rick Pitino) for why this is usually a bad idea. The history of Rivers’ tenure as GM has been a history of trading away decent assets for lesser ones, without ever addressing the fundamental problems that plague the team. Remember when he traded Jared Dudley and a first-round pick for Carlos Delfino and Miroslav Raduljica? Remember when he traded two useful-ish players for Lance Stephenson, and then after 43 games paid the Grizzlies a first round pick to get rid of him and become the millionth person to overvalue Jeff Green? Remember when he gave up three assets to acquire his son in the first place?
The Clippers either need two or three strong bench players, or to make an extremely difficult decision about their starting lineup and trade one of Griffin, Paul, and DeAndre Jordan. Instead, Rivers spent three seasons downgrading what marginal assets he did have in order to riff through the bottom of the deck for an ace that didn’t exist. It’s not that there is any shame in being a successful team that fails to break through, it’s just that you don’t need to pay Doc Rivers $50 million for that.
Five days ago, the Clippers promoted assistant Lawrence Frank to EVP of Basketball Operations. But this position is explicitly under Rivers’ authority, and their free agency moves show that Frank either doesn’t have any power, or is just as clueless as Rivers. For Clippers’ fans sake, let’s hope that changes sometime soon.