30 Teams in 30 Days: Clippers bring back band for another try at title

Since the Cavaliers won their first NBA title back on June 19, NBA teams have undergone a number of changes over the long summer offseason. NBA.com’s Shaun Powell will evaluate the state of each franchise — from the team with the worst regular-season record in 2015-16 to the team with the best regular-season record — during the month of September as we look at 30 Teams in 30 Days. | Complete schedule

Today’s team: LA Clippers

2015-16 record: 53-29

Who’s gone: C Cole Aldrich, F Jeff Green, G Pablo Prigioni, G C.J. Wilcox

Who’s new: PF Brice Johnson, PG David Michineau, PF Diamond Stone (via Draft); G Alan Anderson, F Brandon Bass, G Raymond Felton, F/C Marreese Speights (via free agency); F Devyn Marble (via trade)

The lowdown: For the fifth straight season in the Chris Paul era the Clippers won 60 percent of their games but failed to reach the Western Conference finals.

This wasn’t the important, franchise-shaping summer for the Clippers. That happens next summer when Chris Paul and Blake Griffin become unrestricted free agents. The future direction of the team will be dictated by what happens starting next July 1, and it will have ramifications for all involved: Paul, Griffin, Doc Rivers and owner Steve Ballmer.

Let’s start at the top. Ballmer caused ripples in professional sports when he purchased the Clippers for $2 billion three summers ago. He was immediately toasted by his 29 fellow owners, who saw their franchise values soar as a result. It barely put a dent in Ballmer’s net worth, which has been estimated at $20 billion or so, and besides, what else is a middle-aged guy gonna do with all that cash? Still, that’s a lot of coin for a franchise that hadn’t won anything special, and still hasn’t.

Lots depends, therefore, on Ballmer’s patience limits, which haven’t been clearly defined. He’s new at this and so he doesn’t have a history of showing his hand. Based on what we’ve seen (so far), his job is writing checks and cheering from courtside and refusing to interfere with the basketball decisions. At some point, though, Ballmer will ask if he’s getting his money’s worth on the court; all owners do.

The man in charge is Rivers, recognized as a top coach, but with a spotty track record as an executive. The Clippers featured Griffin, Paul and DeAndre Jordanwhen Rivers arrived and that hasn’t changed. That’s the good news, and also the bad news. While the All-Star trio has made the Clippers a slam-dunk 50-game winner, Rivers hasn’t added significantly to the core, with the exception of JJ Redick. These core Clippers are mainly the work of former GM Neil Olshey, who put the trio and deluxe sixth man Jamal Crawford in place.

To be fair to Rivers, it’s hard to add assets to a perennial winner; those teams are always drafting low in the first round and because the stars command large salaries, the salary cap can be restrictive with regard to free agents and trades. As a result, Rivers has mostly gone the cheap route to pad the rotation, with Wes Johnson, an old Paul Pierce, taking chances on Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith, etc.

And when Rivers found a gem in Aldrich, who supplied quality minutes in reserve last season, the burly backup center took advantage of the inflated market and cashed in this summer in Minnesota, so go figure.

Rivers gave a healthy raise to his son Austin (three years, $35 million), which was market value for a backup point guard, but negotiations between the Clippers and Crawford dragged on a bit longer than expected. Crawford finally signed but not Green, a disappointment who cost a first-round pick last season.

What Rivers has refused to do is break up the core. He didn’t put Griffin on the market last season when the power forward broke his hand punching a low-level staffer. Griffin should have a bounce-back season, and if so, will command major dollars next summer. With a return to his hometown of Oklahoma City a possibility — OKC has a super-star vacancy, if you haven’t heard — he could also remain in LA if Ballmer and Rivers give their blessing.

A trickier decision could rest with Paul. There’s no denying his importance to the franchise or his level of play; both remain high going into this season. However, Paul will turn 32 next summer. The betting money says the Clippers will do whatever it takes to keep him and deal with any age issues later.

The Clippers had a mild free agent haul this summer. Speights owns a championship ring from the Warriors, and Mo Buckets also brings a reliable mid-range jumper, but his defensive lapses can be costly. Felton is a crafty playmaker and ideal as a veteran backup, and Bass can help in spot minutes.

The draft produced Brice Johnson, a hard worker who’s unlikely to see minutes, given the deep rotation.

Essentially, the Clippers remain unchanged from a year ago, the difference being good health for Paul and Griffin, who finished the season in street clothes. Another 50-win season seems assured, followed by a far more interesting offseason than this one.

Coming Next: Oklahoma City Thunder

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Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him onTwitter.

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