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Is Lob City Getting Restructured, or Is It Getting Bulldozed?

Shockingly, trading away Chris Paul provides more questions than answers for the Clippers and where they stand

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The dust is still settling on the trade between the Rockets and Clippers that will send Chris Paul to Houston, and the cash is still being considered by 28 other teams seemingly happy to facilitate Houston’s ambitions as a superteam. Our Kevin O’Connor looked at the union of James Harden and CP3 earlier. But what the hell are the Clippers doing? Here are two thoughts:

Wind Blake Griffin Up and Let Him Go

The Clippers have been given carte blanche with this Chris Paul deal, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have to enter the season a tabula rasa. The blueprint for the next iteration of Lob City had been hidden — flattened under CP3’s incessant ball-pounding — and it’s just been unearthed. The Clippers may not have gotten an overwhelming haul for their best player, but they got a lot of interesting pieces to make building around Blake Griffin much easier than it would’ve been otherwise.

Patrick Beverley is the quintessential low-maintenance 3-and-D off-guard, a career 37.5 percent 3-point shooter and one of the few perimeter defenders whose reputation actually matches his production; Lou Williams is one of the premier pick-and-roll scorers we have, but actually shoots 3s at a higher clip (37.4 percent) in catch-and-shoot situations compared to pull-ups (36.1). Those two will join Jamal Crawford, who one day will be the only Clipper to have his jersey retired, and Austin Rivers, a much-improved perimeter shooter who spent more time at the 3 than he did at the 1 last season, in an interchangeable rotation of combo guards at Griffin’s disposal. (The Clippers also received Sam Dekker, a modern 4 who would probably have a bigger impact than Wesley Johnson at that spot, and Montrezl Harrell, a bruising, high-energy big who stepped up in Clint Capela’s absence. Unfortunately, both players are only 23, which means they might as well be towel boys to Doc Rivers.)

With the court spaced out in ways that J.J. Redick wasn’t able to all by his lonesome, Griffin would be able to invert the court full time, creating out of the pick-and-roll from the top of the arc. We here at The Ringer are Point Blake zealots, because we like thought experiments and we like new concepts coming to fruition. A team built upon the starter dough of a Blake Griffin–DeAndre Jordan pick-and-roll isn’t better than the team the Clippers ran back for six straight seasons — I’ll always be partial to the rigid synergy of the CP3-Redick–[Insert Fatally Flawed 3 Here]–Griffin-Jordan lineup, if only for how perfectly it captured 2012–15 as modernity in flux — but it’ll be a whole lot more flexible. If owner Steve Ballmer wants to revamp the team without tearing out its motherboard, there are worse options than building around your two longest-tenured talents.

(This is not necessarily relevant to the future of the Clippers, but I’m awfully excited for Jordan lobs now that Paul won’t be his main supplier. CP3 has done a lot in turning the point guard position to high art, but his lob passes were always sterile — too precise, too on-the-money. Which is too bad, considering Jordan’s ungodly catch radius. Bad lobs are actually good lobs — it’s right there in the name: alley-oops. DeAndre’s going to have to work for his spectacular plays now, and all the better for us viewers.)

Wind Jerry West Up and Let Him Go

It’s still unclear whether this trade makes it more or less likely that Griffin will stay, or whether the Clippers want to retain his services. Planning around a multidimensional big man with an endless scroll of injuries is just about the riskiest team-building proposition in the NBA. The Knicks were able to luxuriate in the hope that Amar’e Stoudemire provided the franchise for exactly 78 games before everything went awry. As much as all of us here are rooting for a team to take a chance on Griffin as an offensive fulcrum, there’s no guarantee that any club is willing to bet its future on that working out.

I don’t know where that leaves the Clippers should they lose Paul, Griffin, and Redick in the same offseason. The Banana Boat pipe dream has set sail for Houston, and without the hope of landing LeBron James in the team’s periphery, are the Clippers headed for a complete rebuild? If they are, I’d hope Jerry West has the green light to go full Svengali on the Clippers’ front office. Landing talented, NBA-ready prospects in Jawun Evans and Sindarius Thornwell in a draft where the Clippers had zero picks had West’s fingerprints all over it. But the Clippers can go wide-screen with West’s influence — they can go deeper. Whatever he has envisioned would almost certainly be better than Rivers’s concept of the team going forward.

There have been signs that Doc bit off more than he could chew with the dual coach-president role, but perhaps the most damning example of this was a report from ESPN’s Michael Eaves via his Facebook page on Wednesday in the aftermath of the Chris Paul trade:

A team president who would turn down a trade that most NBA teams would accept 95 times out of 100 is not the right shepherd for the Clippers. If West is committed to this being his last NBA job, let him cook. Of course, the cupboard is bare: Losing Griffin and Redick wouldn’t clear enough space to land a major star in their stead. Rebuilding with some of the second-tier stars in the free-agency pool (perhaps Kyle Lowry or Paul Millsap) would require additional moves, and while the Clippers are fans of Danilo Gallinari, his acquisition would register as a negative on the Richter scale.

Or maybe the plan is to go dormant. The Clippers have lost their last 10 games to the Warriors in the regular season or the playoffs since 2014. Maybe the best move is to let the NBA’s arms race play itself out and sit in a bunker for the next few years. Unfortunately, this is the Clippers we’re talking about. Should they plummet to those depths again, there are no guarantees they’ll ever make it back to the surface.

The Clippers have been one of the winningest franchises of the past five years, and yet the only hope for the team is an employee hired less than two weeks ago with no defined role in the organization. But West’s track record is unimpeachable. He’s been here before; he can be the guiding light.

"Here I am on the last adventure of my life," West said at his introductory press conference with the Clippers in June. "And I like to call it an adventure."

Earlier on Wednesday, TMZ caught up with West in a Beverly Hills parking lot. "It’s not my responsibility," he said when asked if he had any thoughts on Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. "I’m just an adviser," he added later.

As he got into his car, there was one last question: Any chance of LeBron James signing with the Clippers next year?

"I don’t even know what you’re talking about," West said.

What an adventure this will be.