LOS ANGELES — With a hard-fought victory over the Dallas Mavericks in hand, LA Clippers head coach Doc Rivers walked to the scorer’s table and grabbed a microphone with 9.4 seconds remaining, imploring fans to applaud 21-year NBA veteran Dirk Nowitzki.
It was a nice moment as Clippers fans showered the Dallas legend with love, but it wasn’t the only thing Clippers fans had to cheer.
Rivers’ team continues to grind its way toward a playoff spot, as the 121-112 win over the Mavs on Monday night moved them into seventh place in the Western Conference.
The Clippers, just two seasons removed from the breakup of Lob City, have somehow accomplished something many rebuilding teams would love to do: manage to retool, not rebuild. The Clippers went from a six-year playoff run with a big three of Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan to turning those pieces into valuable first-round picks and creating significant cap flexibility to pursue max free agents, all while remaining competitive and in playoff contention.
Over the past two trade deadlines, the Clippers dealt their leading scorer (Griffin in January 2018, Tobias Harris in February 2019) to give themselves as much flexibility as possible to land a star or two in free agency. But while moves like that typically signify waving the white flag on any thought of a postseason berth, Rivers’ team is just half a game out of the sixth seed and one full game ahead of the eighth seed.
Make no mistake: The Clippers have every intention of making the postseason — or at the very least, impacting the Western Conference playoff race. So, the San Antonio Spurs, Sacramento Kings and Minnesota Timberwolves are among the teams desperately chasing the Clippers, a team no one expected to be in this position, even before they traded leading scorer and rebounder Harris to the Philadelphia 76ers.
“It’s hard to do,” Rivers said of an organization in competitive transition. “Fortunately, because of that big three, we were able to get enough out of that to pretty much stay competitive, and because of those guys, we were able to get things.”
Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle offered his take on the Clippers’ approach.
“It’s very challenging,” Carlisle said. “The Clippers are doing a good job of it. We hung in there for a few years and then did a — undergone more of a massive retooling.”
In September 2017, the Clippers began holding a series of brainstorming sessions that ultimately challenged the organization to answer hard questions about such things as the direction of the team and the likelihood of outcomes for the franchise.
But out of those meetings, the Clippers debated whether the team could be a competitive top-four seed for a four- to six-year period. The Clippers management team of president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank, newly hired general manager Michael Winger and consultant Jerry West concluded that the team as constituted would not be able to sustain that level of competitiveness.
The Clippers’ window to contend had not only closed but was sealed shut. First, they had to admit that to themselves. Then they had to figure out a way to reopen it.
The club had just signed Griffin to a five-year, $173 million contract months earlier. Paul had been traded to the Houston Rockets. And the Clippers did not think they could add the necessary layers around Griffin and Jordan to contend for another four- to six-year stretch. The Clippers needed to position themselves to pounce if an unforeseen opportunity to sign a star in his prime came about in the future.
Most general managers have trepidation about trying to execute a full reboot, fearing that they might not be around to see that process through (see Sam Hinkie). Frank, Winger and West opted not to go down that route, uncertain whether that path would yield the results they were looking for.
With owner Steve Ballmer feeling a sense of loyalty and wanting to remain competitive for the franchise’s small fan base, the Clippers decided to try to create cap flexibility, accumulate assets and young players and add hard-playing and low-ego veterans that Rivers could still compete with in the meantime.
Initially, the Clippers management did not have the summer of 2019 in mind during those September meetings two years ago.
Then Jimmy Butler wanted to be traded, with SoCal again on his radar.
And speculation over where Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving could end up this summer and whether or not Los Angeles could be a possibility certainly was more than enough reason for the Clippers to do everything in their power to put themselves in a position to lure a star or two.
The Paul trade in the 2017 offseason brought the Clippers hard-working and low-maintenance veterans Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell and Patrick Beverley, while allowing the team to acquire Danilo Gallinari in free agency.
The Griffin trade basically brought in a haul that has become rookies Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Landry Shamet, two first-round picks that include the Miami Heat‘s 2021 unprotected pick, two second-round picks, Ivica Zubac and veterans such as injured forward Wilson Chandler, JaMychal Green and Garrett Temple.
The trades of Paul, Griffin and Harris keep Rivers’ roster competitive and deep for this season’s playoff run. It’s a roster that features:
A two-time winner and current favorite of the Sixth Man of the Year Award (Williams).
An injury-prone forward who has only played 70 or more games twice in his nine years but is having a career year as a shooter and rebounder (Gallinari).
A 6-foot-6 rookie point guard who was the team’s only representative at All-Star Weekend (Gilgeous-Alexander).
An undersized and energetic big man who earlier this season only got one play ever called for him during games (Harrell).
“You think about the Blake trade,” Rivers said. “If you add up what that all brought us from four draft picks to Shai to Zub to Sham, if you just think about what that did and then it gave us flexibility at the same time. CP, we end up with ‘Trezl and flexibility.”
Lou Williams places a perfect pass between his legs to Montrezl Harrell, who spins around his defender and delivers a monstrous jam.
The Clippers’ front office could be armed with $54 million to $75 million to play with in free agency this summer, depending on any additional roster moves they make, according to ESPN’s front-office insider Bobby Marks.
If the Clippers miss the playoffs this season, they also will get to keep their own first-round pick to add to the roster. Making the postseason means sending that pick to the Boston Celtics and relying solely on that cap space to bolster the roster.
The Clippers, though, are all on the same page as far as what they want to do. They want to make the playoffs, even if it means a quick first-round exit.
The way Rivers sees it, this playoff push is giving his young players such as starting point guard Gilgeous-Alexander invaluable experience.
“Learning how to play, learning importance of possession, learning how to be a pro,” Rivers said of what the Clippers’ young prospects can gain by making the postseason. “Learning how to prepare for a single game.”
“I think they are learning,” Rivers added later. “[Sunday night’s loss at the Denver Nuggets] was a great example. You could see, Denver was not joking around. And we weren’t either, but we weren’t ready. Our young guys struggled. It was a great example for them.”
The Clippers came into the season with low expectations, but they opened the campaign at a stunning 15-6. Rivers seemed rejuvenated by a roster full of humble, hard-working players.
“Just hoop,” Williams said of the Clippers continuing to compete despite the recent changes to the roster and an eye toward next summer or beyond. “We pros, so you can’t really think about stuff like that.
“As far as players inside the locker room, guys go out and guys come in, and we say, ‘OK, I’m just going to keep hooping and try to win games.’ It’s not really a thing for us. It would be an excuse. If a superstar came over here, like, we wouldn’t make excuses for ourselves; we’d look forward to it so we give those guys the same energy as that.”
Whether Rivers can finish one of his best coaching performances with a playoff berth remains to be seen. But the Clippers keep chipping away at securing a spot in the postseason — as well as at that window for contention that was all but sealed shut with the end of the Lob City era.
“Losing [the big three] hurts you, it really does, because it ends the immediate dream,” Rivers said. “But then it starts a new dream, and we’re lucky enough that we were able to get stuff for them.”