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DeAndre Jordan at Center of Clippers’ Uncertain Future

Doc Rivers, Steve Ballmer and the Los Angeles Clippers face an offseason that’ll define the future of the franchise for the next several seasons. With DeAndre Jordan expected to command (via Adrian Wojnarowski, Yahoo! Sports) a max contract north of $100 million, a bench that has Austin Rivers—another free agent—as its second-biggest contributor and the need to reduce the amount of wear and tear the starting lineup endured last season, the Clippers have more than a few difficult decisions to make as the club enters the offseason earlier than projections might have suggested just a week ago.

The last thing the Clippers need to do is break up their legitimate big three of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and Jordan. Even for a climate where rain is unusual, the hot takes regarding Southern California’s team on the rise have been blazing hot. Despite a massive meltdown that saw the club blow a 3-1 advantage in unceremonious fashion to lose the series to the Houston Rockets in seven games, the Clippers are an elite team in an improving Western Conference. Paul is 30, and both Griffin and Jordan are 26—all in their prime. This isn’t a team to blow up. This is a team to invest in going forward.

Per Bleacher Report’s Grant Hughes:

The core isn’t the problem. L.A.’s starting five posted a net rating of plus-17.7 points per 100 possessions this year—the highest of any unit playing at least 500 minutes in 2014-15 and the highest overall since 2008-09, per ESPN.com’s Kevin Pelton.

If Jordan is intent on going elsewhere, he’s going to have to leave an extra season and $20 extra million on the table to do it after the Clippers—the club that drafted him 35th overall in the 2008 NBA Draft as a “project”—offer him the max contract he’s seeking. Per Rivers, who’s the decision-maker when it comes to how his roster is shaped, the club will do just that. Despite a salary cap that’s projected to rise considerably over the next few seasons, the Clippers don’t possess any immediate wiggle room.

Even if Jordan walks to one of the teams rumored to be interested (Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers, Portland Trail Blazers, per ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne), the Clippers will still be just about within $1 million of the projected cap. In other words, this is a team that’ll have just its mid-level exception (hello, Spencer Hawes) and minimum level contracts in an effort to improve around the edges. It’s going to be a challenge to raise this team’s ceiling, and if Jordan leaves, this is a club that’ll take a major step backward with no clear replacement on the roster—and few realistic paths to acquire one.

If Jordan walks for nothing, the Clippers could be starting Hawes—and his ponytail—at center next season. That’s not a good look for a team that’s supposed to be a title contender, and they’d swiftly fall out of that conversation without their All-Defensive First Team center.

Here’s Bleacher Report’s Fred Katz painting the picture:

Jordan is still the backbone of the defense, arguably the most important player on the team, considering how the Clippers performed with Griffin out this year and Paul out last year. If the free-agent-to-be walks this summer, the Clips are in serious trouble.

The Clippers have been here before—as in last season. Instead of filling real needs that this team had (veteran small forward, defensive-minded backup big man), the available funds were allocated to Hawes and Jordan Farmar. For roughly the same amount of money, Los Angeles could have signed Paul Pierce and Ed Davis. That’s just one example, and it illustrates just how significantly different this team could have looked for the same price.

It’s not hard to imagine how things could have ended in a different fashion if this team had a Truth, Trevor Ariza or even Marvin Williams on the roster. It’s harder to continue to ignore the Clippers’ inability to address the biggest needs on the roster. This is a club relying on Matt Barnes and Hedo Turkoglu at small forward—in the year 2015—while trotting out two top 15 players in Paul and Griffin. And with Griffin’s evolution into a completely dominant NBA superstar, the Clippers shouldn’t be wasting any more time squandering this team’s immense potential.

With no draft assets to work with in the 2015 selection process, it’s critical that the Clippers are able to come up with a reclamation project or two that Los Angeles can sign off the slag heap to revive. Remember when Hassan Whiteside famously said that Rivers didn’t want to give him a workout with the Clippers? Whoops. For an organization to succeed, it’s imperative to uncover values where others are done looking. The San Antonio Spurs’ investment in Boris Diaw is a prime example, and now the Clippers need to follow that idea into the offseason as the club shifts into preparation mode.

It all starts with Jordan’s free-agent decision, and if he feels like a section of fans do—that the Clippers have maxed out as constructed—Rivers and the front office would have to figure out how to replace the most irreplaceable player on the team. Good luck.

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