LOS ANGELES – Late Thursday night, as DeAndre Jordan walked toward the Staples Center parking lot and so many glum Clippers officials headed home, a fitting song blared in the background after their one-sided loss to the Utah Jazz.
“Don’t let the light go out, it’s lasted for so many years,” the old-timey trio of Peter, Paul, and Mary crooned as the cleaning crew made its way through the stands.
If only for a moment, after six seasons of unfulfilled playoff promise came to an end when Chris Paul left in late June, there was a Big Three being heard from in this building again.
Five months after Paul’s decision to force a trade to the Rockets, and a week after Blake Griffin’s MCL sprain, the lights have officially gone dark in this place once known as Lob City. And now, with uber-competitive owner Steve Ballmer and his overhauled front office being put to a new kind of test as the Clippers have fallen to 8-14, everything is up for debate.
Are the Clippers considering firing coach Doc Rivers, who had his front office duties stripped last summer and who has one season left on the five-year, $50 million deal he signed in the summer of 2014?
Three people with knowledge of the situation say Rivers is likely safe for this season, with his championship resume still held in high regard and the injuries to four of five opening-night starters having made it unfair – in Ballmer’s eyes – to accurately judge his coaching performance this season. Point guard Patrick Beverley (knee surgery last month) is out for the season, while guard Milos Teodosic (out since the second game with plantar fasciitis in his left foot) and forward Danilo Gallinari (13 games missed with a left glute injury) are likely to return soon.
While Gallinari could return as soon as Wednesday’s game against Minnesota, Teodosic is likely to return at some point during the week of Dec. 11. Griffin is expected to miss at least a month, and potentially as much as two months. And no – as it pertains to Rivers’ future – the viral vote of well-known super fan Clipper Darrell doesn’t count.
Will they trade Jordan as a way of retooling the roster while also ensuring they don’t lose him for nothing this summer in free agency, when he can opt out of his deal?
It’s entirely possible, especially if contenders like the Cleveland Cavaliers deem Jordan a missing piece to their title hopes (the Cavs, don’t forget, have the 2018 Brooklyn first-round pick from the Kyrie Irving-Isaiah Thomas trade). The Clippers are listening to all incoming calls about Jordan but not making calls of their own. Their price will be high, as the prospect of re-signing him this summer (when league-wide salary cap space is limited) remains possible in their eyes. The activity could heat up come Dec. 15, the first date on which players who signed new deals last summer can be included in trades.
To Jordan’s credit, he’s receiving rave reviews internally for keeping an upbeat spirit during this challenging time and doing all he can as a locker room leader.
“We’ve got to stick with it and find a way to keep this ship afloat while these guys get healthy,” Jordan told USA TODAY Sports. “I’ll let (the front office) handle what they handle. That’s out of my control, so I’ll focus on what I can control. Like I said, I’m happy being here and you know, we’ll see what happens. If they come to me and they want to talk about (a possible trade), we can talk about it, you know? I don’t believe nothing in this league until it happens.”
Will they find a new home for productive players like Lou Williams, perhaps as a way of restocking draft picks?
This is very possible, especially since they lost their 2019 first-rounder by way of the Lance Stephenson trade with Memphis back in 2016 (it now belongs to Boston). They have their 2018 first-round pick.
Will they install a massive “Sellers” sign in front of their Playa Vista practice facility leading up to the Feb. 8 trade deadline, maybe even putting franchise centerpiece Blake Griffin on the market after they gave him a five-year, $173 million deal in July and called him a Clipper for life?
No, they’re not that desperate. They still fully intend on building around the 28-year-old, five-time All-Star.
Yet as Saturday’s blowout loss to the lowly Dallas Mavericks and a Sunday loss to Minnesota showed, the prospect of making the playoffs with this embattled roster is about as likely as Ballmer smiling anytime soon. This team that he paid a then-league record $2 billion for in May 2014, and that has now lost 14 of their last 18 games heading into Wednesday’s Minnesota game, is just not what it used to be. So now comes the part where the Clippers’ new office dynamic will be so interesting to watch.
Ballmer, to review, spent last summer making drastic changes to the way in which roster decisions are made while sparing no expense. The 61-year-old, who stands at No. 15 on Forbes’ latest list of wealthiest Americans, lured Jerry West away from the Golden State Warriors as a consultant in mid-July, paying him between $4 million and $5 million annually to be a trusted and unfiltered voice on all personnel matters.
He put Lawrence Frank in charge of the front office in early August, taking away the title he gave Rivers while leaving him on as head coach. He added three respected executives in general manager Michael Winger (formerly of the Oklahoma City Thunder) while Trent Redden (from the Cavaliers) and Mark Hughes (from the New York Knicks) came on board as assistant general managers. Former general manager Dave Wohl also remains as a special advisor to Frank.
When it comes to having as many reputable eyes on roster matters as possible, the Clippers may have no peers in the NBA ranks. But after three seasons in which the only voice more powerful than Rivers’ was that of Ballmer itself, the Clippers have an All-Star front office with many tough decisions ahead.
“I went through this (kind of a downward turn) in Boston (after the 2008 championship), and so unfortunately I know how this is,” Rivers told USA TODAY Sports after falling to Utah on Thursday. “You’ve just got to hang in there. People get down on the team. They get down on you. They get down on everybody. That’s what happens, and you can’t waver. You’ve just got to keep doing your job, and the players have to just keep playing.
“Overall, Gallo and Milo will be back soon – pretty soon, in the next three or four games, hopefully. But for the next three or four games, it’s going to be a (expletive).”
Rivers, who was vocal about his desire to keep the Clippers’ core together last summer before the Paul trade, wouldn’t say what he’s advocating for this time around.
“Oh, I’m not going to say because I don’t want to say,” he said. “But I know the direction we need to go, and I think everyone does.”
Their shared preference on direction, of course, is up. On that much they can agree.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Sam Amick on Twitter @Sam_Amick
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