Brink of a breakup? For the Clippers, a summer of uncertainty awaits

LOS ANGELES – For so long, the Los Angeles Clippers were on the cusp of the glory years, a long run of contention to wash away decades of dysfunction and defeats, starts and stops. Chris Paul. Blake Griffin. DeAndre Jordan. The stars aligned, the best of everything coming. For so long, the core of these Clippers made championship contention an inevitability.

And yet, the inevitability feels like something else now; like the end of an era that never truly was. The Utah Jazz beat the Los Angeles Clippers 96-92 on Tuesday night at Staples Center, moving within a victory of advancing into the Western Conference semifinals.

As Jamal Crawford stood outside the Clippers’ locker room, his coach walked past, slapped his shoulder and tried to sound hopeful: “We’ll get it,” Doc Rivers said.

“Yes, sir,” Crawford responded.

For the Clippers, this is dire. Without Griffin on the court, the Jazz are a better team. With Griffin, the Clippers might have lost, too. The Jazz are deeper, better connected and ferociously determined. If this feels like the end for the Clippers, it is truly the beginning for the Jazz.

“We have the formula to play without Blake,” Crawford told The Vertical. “We’ve done it.”

Chris Paul and the Clippers are one loss away from exiting the playoffs in the first round. (Getty)
Chris Paul and the Clippers are one loss away from exiting the playoffs in the first round. (Getty)

When you start to ask Crawford a question about the togetherness of the team, and say, “If the group isn’t solid, this is where … ,” Crawford finishes the thought for you. ” … It can come apart.”

“But I think we’re solid,” Crawford told The Vertical. “We were down 2-1 to the Spurs and had to go get a win a couple years ago, and we were down 3-2 and had to go get a win. And we did that. Most of our core guys were in those battles. For us, we can really lean on that.”

The Clippers are selling themselves on that idea, because, in part, there’s far less now that makes the case for somehow surviving the Jazz. For everyone thinking these Jazz are on what Pat Riley used to call “the innocent climb,” think again: The pressure to hold onto Gordon Hayward in free agency is immense and hangs over the Jazz every day.

Utah general manager Dennis Lindsey and coach Quin Snyder have done everything right in constructing a burgeoning Western Conference contender, but they’ll have to withstand the Boston Celtics‘ push for Hayward on July 1. Winning a playoff series, getting a crack at the Golden State Warriors, gives Hayward a better prism with which to imagine his Utah future.

The plan for Utah is unmistakable: Offer Hayward a max deal, re-sign point guard George Hill and turn these 51-win Jazz toward 60 victories and push for a conference finals appearance sooner rather than later.

That process starts with a victory in Game 6 on Friday, with the Clippers catapulted into a long, uncertain summer.

The Clippers never wanted to be the “What if?” team, but they’re on the brink now. As soon as they’re eliminated in the playoffs, they’ll have to start making hard decisions on the future. To think the Clippers can watch Griffin get hurt again, lose in the first round and simply bring back everyone to incur a historic payroll and luxury-tax bill isn’t realistic. Just because Clippers owner Steve Ballmer can afford to pay that immense repeater tax doesn’t make it sensible.

The Clippers will start to ask themselves the hard questions: Does five more years of Griffin at a max salary make sense, or does maybe two years of Carmelo Anthony become an option? If Paul starts to take free-agent meetings on July 1 and the franchise needs free-agent guard JJ Redick to wait until Paul makes a decision before it can extend an offer, does Redick simply move on, accept an annual salary in the $17 million-to-$20 million range elsewhere before the salary-cap space dries up on the market?

If the Clippers can’t come back against the Jazz, it is extremely unlikely there will be management upheaval. What there will be is this: an orderly, exhaustive process on the next steps, because these are complicated crossroads.

For one thing, Rivers isn’t leaving the Clippers. He’s owed $22 million-plus over the next two years, and he has the confidence of Ballmer. The Clippers didn’t promote Lawrence Frank to executive vice president of basketball operations, give him a long-term deal, only to tear apart the management structure months later. Ballmer, Rivers and Frank have worked to build out the front office and scouting department, and examine the processes of what they all agreed was the most important summer in franchise history.

Between now and Game 6, the Clippers are trying to push back on summer, push the season to a Game 7 on Sunday at Staples Center. They’re holding onto hope from two years ago, from the Spurs series, but that feels like a reach right now. Blake Griffin is gone for the season, and the Clippers are wobbly, vulnerable and walking into trouble on Friday night, walking into the end of something.

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