After about half a decade together, the Clippers as we know them are consistent in many ways: They are perennially one of the top offenses; they win at least 50 regular-season games year in and year out; and, come the postseason, something terrible happens. They’ve yet to escape the second round of the playoffs in the Doc Rivers era, and, for the second year in a row, their chances of cruising past the first round have taken a hit because of injury. The Clippers announced Saturday morning that power forward Blake Griffin is out for the remainder of the postseason with an injury of the plantar plate of his right foot. Griffin got hurt in the second quarter of Game 3 while landing after a layup; he went to the sideline, slammed a chair, and reportedly said, “It is worse than I thought.”
The Clippers will be fine without Blake against the Jazz. They already have a 2–1 series lead, and the Jazz are similarly handicapped without Rudy Gobert, Utah’s best player. Chris Paul can turn on Point God Mode anytime he wants to. He did that Friday night in L.A.’s 111–106 win over Utah, dropping 34 points (on 54.5 percent shooting) and 10 assists. He can do it again. Blake’s injury doesn’t affect their potential second-round matchup, either: The Clippers are on a 10-game losing streak against the Warriors, dating back to 2015; their last win against Golden State occurred on Christmas 2014. Losing Griffin hurts, but not a lot changes this postseason, with or without him.
What is noteworthy is how this affects Blake’s future. Griffin has an early-termination option for the final year of his contract (worth $21.4 million in 2017–18). He could opt in and play out the final year of his deal with the hopes of staying healthy, being named to an All-NBA team, and then hopefully receiving the new collective bargaining agreement’s designated player veteran extension. There are no guarantees, though; even if you remove the injury risk, there are only six All-NBA slots for forwards, and he’s a face in a crowd of many deserving talents. Griffin could also opt out of the deal and test free agency. The maximum salary slot for next season is $30.3 million, so he’s due for a raise if he opts out, even if it’s a short-term deal.
But the list of teams interested in handing Griffin a long-term maximum contract might be shorter than you’d think considering his long list of injuries. First, to his left leg: sprained MCL, broken kneecap, meniscus tear, partially torn quadriceps, high ankle sprain, knee bone bruise, sprained knee, and strained hamstring. As for his right: He suffered torn cartilage in his right knee in college and underwent “minor” surgery on his right knee this season to remove “loose bodies.” Over the years, he’s suffered other miscellaneous injuries, like a back stress fracture, right-elbow staph infection, and broken right hand. We can now add bruised big right toe to the list.
This injury sucks. Griffin works so hard to be the best version of himself. He’s transformed from a power dunker into an elite all-around scorer. He’s added the threat of a 3-pointer, which has helped open the floor for his teammates. He’s added post moves, which have only enhanced his passing ability by allowing him to draw help defenders. Griffin is a stud. He’s a player whom kids watching basketball should admire. When healthy, he’s one of the league’s best players. He just hasn’t been healthy often enough, and that clouds his future, and the Clippers’.
L.A. has considered trading Griffin in the past. After he fractured his hand last year by punching a team equipment manager, the Clippers fielded offers from numerous teams, including the Celtics and Nuggets, according to reports. The Celtics revisited those talks again during the summer, as previously reported on The Ringer, but they were nothing more than casual, exploratory conversations. A trade was obviously on Rivers’s mind, but he couldn’t pull the trigger.
“Do you give up on a 50-win team that has proven that they’re really close (to winning it all), or do you hang in there and keep trying to maybe make changes around (the core)?” Rivers recently told USA Today, comparing his team’s run to the 1990s Utah Jazz, which fell short in the playoffs for years until breaking through to the Finals, when they lost to Michael Jordan’s Bulls. “They didn’t win it (all). But you know, that’s the pursuit. I just think it’s so easy to (say), ‘Hey, they should break up,’ from the outside. And I think that’s such an easy opinion.”
All opinions are easy. The hard part is backing them up. It’s easy to retain a 50-win team and run on the playoff treadmill. It’s hard to even manufacture an argument to tear it down, never mind to do it. But the writing was on the wall for this Clippers team going at least two years back after multiple playoff exits. They could’ve dealt Blake. Their production hasn’t suffered when he’s been removed from the equation by plugging in small-ball 4s like Luc Mbah a Moute, which increased floor spacing and defensive versatility. They’ve been fine as long as Chris Paul has played. Over the last four seasons, Griffin and Paul have missed their fair share of time. The Clippers still shine without Blake, outscoring teams by 10.6 points per 100 possessions when Paul is on the floor without Griffin. The team falters, getting outscored by 3.4 points per 100 possessions, when Griffin is on the floor without Paul. Even when they miss games, the Clippers are 49–24 (.671) when Paul plays and Blake doesn’t, and 20–16 (.556) in the inverse. If they had traded and received a significant return for Griffin, they conceivably could’ve had enough depth so that they wouldn’t be forced to rely on Paul Pierce and Raymond Felton in a playoff series.
The league evolved and left Rivers behind. He’s missed his chance. The Clippers’ window is probably closed. Now Rivers is about to enter a summer without control. Griffin controls his destiny with an early-termination option. Paul, too, can become an unrestricted free agent by opting out, and he likely will. “It’s free agency, you know. You get the ability to choose,” Paul told USA Today in July. “I remember I told [Kevin Durant], ‘man this is one of the only times in your career where you get to pick and choose where you want to play and where you want to live. Enjoy it.’”
Even for teams that already have a point guard, Paul is an upgrade almost anywhere, and teams should be lined up around the block for him. What’s stopping the Spurs from creating cap space, or what if a partnership with his Banana Boat buddy Dwyane Wade is more appealing than running it back with the Clippers? J.J. Redick is unrestricted, too, and will receive interest. Almost their entire bench will hit free agency as well, and they don’t have a pick in a strong draft.
The Clippers don’t have a clear future. If the band returns fully intact, more 50-win seasons will likely await them. But even great bands break up. Adversity is powerful, and so is the desire to prove oneself in a different environment. Kevin Durant saw that the grass was greener on the other side: If Griffin and Paul see it that way, it might not be long before the Clippers go right back to being the Clippers.