It was fitting that the only Game 7 in the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs was this one. The Clippers and Jazz, the middle seeds in the West. One has been firmly entrenched around this spot and stagnated, the other worked its way up to here from well below. Both have uncertain futures that the result of this Game 7 could skew wildly in either direction. Utah moving on and the Clippers once again falling short doesn’t guarantee what will happen on either side, but it gives us a pretty good idea.
What’s probably the right move here is easily the most difficult one: breaking up the gang. There are multiple ways to go about this, and for the Clippers front office it could be voluntary or involuntary. Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and J.J. Redick are all unrestricted free agents. They can go wherever they please. Even if they truly want everyone to return, it’s not a given the players want the same thing.
Perhaps Griffin doesn’t see where he fits on this team after extended injuries where the team has chugged along without him (Game 7 was a solid counter-argument to that). Another organization would love to make him their centerpiece. Maybe Redick is tired of running through 37 screens to get open for a three and would like to stand in the corner for a different contender. Paul may be tired of yelling at this group of teammates and would like another set to always be berating and belittling. (Don’t click on that at work.) And most unlikely, but this is the Clippers so you can’t really count anything out, there are rumors of Doc Rivers jumping ship as well.
But even if they’d all like to give it another go, money is an issue. It always is with these guys, sure. But this is the most critical salary cap decision since this core’s creation. The cost for all three will be at least $80 million for at least the next three seasons. That locks the Clippers into the cycle they’ve already stuck themselves in the last three seasons. Find a mid-level guy that we can plug into the starting 3 position, round out the back end of the rotation with cheap aging talent, and continue never having any flexibility and trading away draft picks for aforementioned players.
It can’t be fun knowing you can’t make any medium-size changes that move the needle. For years, Los Angeles could only make tiny, inconsequential ones (which they did plenty of) or massive, team-altering ones (which they did not). Locking this same team in with new contracts makes it even harder to give the team meaningful change. But having them under contract would ensure (talking about Griffin here) that they would get talent back if they eventually wanted to trade one.
It’s all a guessing game. Would the team be better off without Griffin but with a less dynamic but sharp shooting 4 and 3? Could they find a cheaper shooter than Redick and use the savings to plug holes elsewhere? How could they possibly replace Paul? Could they even entice any of those possible replacements to come to a situation that has been maligned by so many? Could they even entice their own players to stay? Deep down, do they really want to?
The team has won 60% of their games every year this core has been together. It seems obvious you’d want to keep trying with what you’ve got. But there’s also this:
The Clippers are the first team in NBA history to blow a series lead in five straight postseasons. pic.twitter.com/erZVz2RXRP
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) April 30, 2017
Do you want to keep putting yourself through that?
There’s less to unpack with the Jazz. One, there’s a lot less history and a lot less baggage. Two, they’re still in the playoffs, and what continues to happen could still shape what is to come. If they’re violently swept by Golden State maybe they’re more willing to make a change. A close, well-fought series may make them think differently.
The big thing here: Gordon Hayward can leave. There are rumors of a reunion with Brad Stevens with Boston. Many others would love a meeting with him. The success and potential of Utah has already made the case for staying, one would assume. They just outlasted Chris Paul in a Game 7 on his home court. This team is for real. Officially. If he leaves now, he probably decided he would long ago. But after the Kevin Durant sweepstakes, we can’t be sure of anything anymore.
But let’s go ahead and assume he stays. That creates a money situation for the Jazz as well. They’d like to pay everyone they have, but just can’t. Essentially, it comes down to paying either Derrick Favors or George Hill. Favors co-anchors the defensive front line with Rudy Gobert that has befuddled many a team. But Hill is basically Utah’s version of Chris Paul. As good as Favors is, trading him as a rental next season after paying Hill could be the best bet. Again, that’s even if Hill wants to stay.
FIlling out the rest of the roster may be just as hard. Lots of guys are important to the team, but it’s also possible they’re replaceable for cheaper. Who knows: Boris Diaw, Rodney Hood, Dante Exum, Joe Ingles. Role players on good teams get paid, that’s just how it goes. Consider these playoffs a month-long test for each of them to prove their worth. Not just to Utah, but the rest of the league as well. If anyone else likes one of them enough to offer a fat contract, the Jazz will have hard to decisions to make.
Lucky for them, they don’t have to yet. They won Game 7, and they get to put off free agency for another fortnight. A lot still rides on Utah’s performance against the Warriors. But after a successful postseason run that has proved the team’s worth, the organization may be more motivated to throw money at their guys.
We can’t be sure any of this will happen, or if this Game 7 actually cemented the moves that will eventually happen or not happen. But it’s certain that things would be wildly different in both LA and Utah if Sunday afternoon went differently. Now we can only wait and see.