2014 NBA Free Agents List & Predictions: Did Donald Sterling Controversy Cost Los Angeles Clippers Chance to Sign Top NBA Free Agents?
The Los Angeles Clippers were living a true Cinderella story over the last few seasons. After decades of being a laughingstock in the NBA, the place where careers went to die, the 2011 trade that sent Chris Paul to the Clippers changed everything in Clippers-ville.
What was broken was suddenly up and revving. What was boring now became exciting. What was gray became Technicolor. Paired with All-Star Blake Griffin and the exciting DeAndre Jordan, Paul has helped spearhead the Clippers' rise from worst to first in the Pacific Division, their success overshadowing even the mighty Lakers, whose grip around Los Angeles was ironclad for decades. According to Forbes, the Clippers outdrew the Lakers at the Staples Center last year while watching their TV ratings go up 85 percent, the fourth-highest gain in the NBA for that year. As it stands, the Clippers look poised to go deep in the playoffs and perhaps even contend in the Western Conference Finals.
But in a span of a few bad days and one controversial taped phone call, the Clippers' bright future has now been clouded with uncertainty.
Clippers owner Donald Sterling's alleged taped conversation with his supposed girlfriend V. Stiviano — in which the real estate mogul reportedly ordered her not to bring black people to his team's games, which included Magic Johnson, whom she posed with for a picture she shared on Instagram — has rocked the sports world. Condemnations have been pouring in from players — league MVP LeBron James calling Sterling's supposed remarks "unacceptable" — owners, civil rights leaders and even President Barack Obama, speaking from a press conference in Malaysia.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver issued a blockbuster announcement Tuesday when he issued a lifetime ban against Sterling and banned him from engaging in many team operations, adding that he and the NBA owners would be pushing for Sterling to sell the team. However, Sterling may not be out of the picture completely as he may decide to possibly keep the team, which would result in what would surely be a lengthy and costly legal fight between Sterling and the NBA. Meanwhile, the Clippers now find themselves struggling to keep up with a young, tough Golden State Warriors as they fight for their playoff lives.
As the Clippers struggle to face their problems in the present, another pressing issue to ask for Clippers fans is this: How will the Sterling controversy affect the team's future?
The Clippers were maybe a year or two and maybe one more key piece away from making a run at the NBA Finals in a stacked Western Conference, and while having a stuffed payroll at $73 million, the Clippers have the pockets and, most importantly, the winning reputation needed to attract stars in what are supposed to be loaded, star-studded summers in 2014 and 2015 in the free agency waters. But the controversy surrounding Sterling and the fallout that has drastically altered the landscape of the Clippers organization may have created a situation where big free agent stars that might have been looking to play with the talented and popular Paul and Griffin may now be reluctant — and rightfully so — to play for, at best, a team with an unstable ownership situation and, at worst, an owner that has been ruled by the NBA to be on record as a known racist.
That's huge. At this point in their 44 year history, the Clippers are at a critical crossroads where they find themselves closer to the NBA title than they have ever been. And now with many questions surrounding the team's immediate future, the Clippers may be facing a situation where they face missing out on one of the richest available crops of basketball talent in years because of this unique and complicated scenario.
Let's take a look at some of the upcoming free agents that the Clippers may covet — and may miss out on.
Of all the high-profile talent available out there, Melo is the most enticing — and most likely to leave — talent that is good enough to change a franchise's fortunes by himself. Last season's NBA scoring champion is friends with Paul — the two famously toasting together the idea of playing on the same team in 2010 — and the two playing together would give the Clippers a scoring duo that would be nearly impossible to stop. If they could squeeze Blake Griffin into that equation somehow by either having Melo shift to the small forward position or having them switch places, that has the makings of a monstrous frontcourt with a floor general smart enough to figure out how to keep them both effective on offense. But you couldn't blame Anthony for wanting to pass on even this promising opportunity, given the circumstances.
He comes off the books after this summer, and while he's not a young pup anymore, Pierce still has plenty of bite, especially in the playoffs, as his Game 1 performance against the Toronto Raptors in the first round showcased. A crafty shooter that has ice water in his veins, particularly during playoff crunch time situations, Pierce has plenty of history with Clippers coach Doc Rivers, the two pairing together for the Celtics' heralded "Big Three" run that yielded them the 2008 NBA title and two NBA Finals appearances. In the twilight of his career, Pierce would love nothing more than a chance to grab another ring — and even better with an old friend. But would he be willing to play for a team with an unstable ownership situation?
A skilled shooter who can put up triple doubles on a nightly basis, unrestricted free agent shooting guard Stephenson — whose star is rising so high that the small-market Pacers may have to let him walk this summer — can give the Clippers the solid shooting they need, along with the unique bonus of his rebounding prowess. Paired together with Paul, this has the makings of a frightening backcourt that can go toe-to-toe, move-for-move with the best in the league. Stephenson has a bright future ahead of him, but if the Sterling situation has truly poisoned the well for the Clippers' prospects in attracting free agents, then perhaps Indiana's up-and-coming two-guard may be better off either staying put or looking at options other than the Clippers.
The Clippers have the defensively-adept DeAndre Jordan at center. But his contract expires after 2015, and the Clippers may not want to spend that much on a center that isn't a big scorer. With a player option after 2015, the young and multi-talented Hibbert can decide to get out of Indiana if they can't contend for the long haul (and given the Pacers' dreadful performance over March and in the first round of the playoffs against Atlanta, it's not a stretch to question Indiana's viability). Hibbert might be going through a slump, but if he rebounds next year and returns to the form that he was in when he terrorized teams in the playoffs last season (17.0 points, 9.9 rebounds 1.9 blocks), he could be the best center in the league for years to come.
He scores, he rebounds, he defends. At this point, it's about asking what Deng can't do. Don't expect him to stick around in Cleveland past this summer, as the two-time All-Star small forward will want to play for a winner and will have no shortage of suitors. Deng's offensive skills and defense on the frontline would give the Clippers the depth they need to challenge for Western Conference supremacy. But Deng couldn't be faulted for being gun-shy about heading to the Clippers in light of the recent scandal, even with a chance to play with a title contender alongside Paul and Griffin at stake.
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