HOUSTON -- The one constant during this stretch by the Los Angeles Clippers that has included four straight trips to the playoffs amid changes in the ownership, front office and coaching staff, has been the core of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.
So the natural question after the Clippers blew a 3-1 series lead to the Houston Rockets in the second round is whether they should look to change or at least tweak their big three.
Jordan, who is an unrestricted free agent, would appear to be the most likely candidate to move, but the Clippers can't afford to lose him for nothing this offseason. Jordan, who finished sixth in the NBA in WARP, is expected to be offered a max contract of five years for $108.7 million by the Clippers this summer, according to sources.
Jordan, 26, could decide to spurn that offer and sign a four-year, $80.7 million deal elsewhere. He also could sign a one-year deal with a player option for the second. If he plays well then he could opt out of the second year and cash in when the cap rises to $90 million. If he does that, he would make $18.9 million next season and then be in line to sign a five-year, $143.7 million max contract the following year.
"Obviously, I want to improve the team," said coach Doc Rivers, who also serves as president of basketball operations. "But, it ain't easy with us, contractually. I don't think everyone gets that. It's very difficult when you have the contracts we have. You know, bringing J.J. [Redick] in here was great. That's one thing we've done well. But we have to get this team more support. With the contracts we're hamstrung with, it's going to be minimum deals for the most part. There are no big deals out there that we're going to make, most likely. Our first priority is DJ. After that, we'll see what happens."
While Jordan, who set career highs in points per game (11.5), rebounds (15.0) and field goal percentage (.710), said Sunday he is undecided about his future, he told ESPN.com earlier this season that he isn't interested in signing a one-year deal. If he is inclined to sign only a four-year deal, there is only about a $4.1 million difference in what he could make with the Clippers versus another team. That's a difference that could probably be made up with an endorsement deal or two, which Jordan often jokes he doesn't get enough of as he routinely knocks down cans of Red Bull from the Clippers' postgame news conference podium.
"Obviously, I want to improve the team. But, it ain't easy with us, contractually. I don't think everyone gets that. It's very difficult when you have the contracts we have." Doc Rivers
Jordan, who grew up in Houston, visited with friends and family after the Clippers' Game 7 loss to the Rockets on Sunday. He said he would take his time before deciding what to do. This is the first opportunity for Jordan, who is the longest-tenured Clipper on the roster, to explore free agency after being drafted by Los Angeles in 2008. When Jordan signed an offer sheet with the Golden State Warriors in 2011 for $43 million over four years, the Clippers took all of one day to match it.
"I've been here for seven years so this is what I'm used to," Jordan said. "But I'm not thinking about that, man. It's still so fresh [Sunday night]. It's tough."
Even if you're in the camp that believes the Clippers would be better off not giving Jordan a max contract, letting him walk out the door without getting anything in return would leave the Clippers without one of the best young centers in the NBA and next to no cap room to replace him. The Clippers are on the hook for $66.8 million without Jordan, and the cap is expected to be $67.1 million, so they would have no cap room to sign a decent replacement.
If Jordan were to leave they would likely be forced to turn to Spencer Hawes as their starting center after using their full midlevel exception (four years at $23 million) on him last summer. Hawes has struggled through his worst season since his rookie year and was buried at the end of the bench during the playoffs.
The Clippers hope they don't have to worry about that this offseason and can get Jordan to re-sign. Then they could look to tweak the roster and improve their much-maligned bench with some minor moves that won't shake up the core of the team too much.
"You don't rule out anything, but I like our group," Rivers said. "I really do. Teams that have stuck it out, in the long run if you look at sports history, have done better than teams that have blown it up. We're really close, clearly. It might be a defensive guy; it might be one more guy. I don't know yet.
"Again, it sounds so easy, 'Why don't you go get him?' Well, it's going to be hard because the way the contracts are structured. But we can do something. We can improve this team. We will improve this team, but we're not going to bring in another max guy. We're going to do it with what we have and then add."