Can the Clippers stay relevant without Chris Paul?

Chris Paul’s trade from the Los Angeles Clippers to the Houston Rockets is the early frontrunner for the biggest deal of the NBA’s 2017 offseason. The nine-time All-Star and unofficial Point God brings new options (and potential problems, albeit manageable ones) to the high-powered Rockets, who now have the chance to make life much more difficult for the Golden State Warriors and the rest of the Western Conference. The Rockets are now big winners of this summer, and Daryl Morey might not be done just yet.

The Clippers are in a much different spot. Put bluntly, their future is now in considerable flux. At the same time, we can be reasonably sure that the club’s short-term prospects are far worse than they were several days ago. While yet another early-round postseason exit caused many analysts to argue (with plenty of cause) that the Clippers needed to break up their core, losing CP3 against the front office’s will portends a less-than-terrific 2017-18 season. It could get even worse if pending unrestricted free agent Blake Griffin decides he’s best served passing up a massive five-year contract and joining a more competitive squad elsewhere.

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Doc Rivers and Blake Griffin execute a particularly awkward handshake. (AP)

Griffin’s status will determine the Clippers’ course over the rest of this offseason and for several years to come. If he stays, then owner Steve Ballmer and coach-executive Doc Rivers can claim that the franchise still holds a chance at supplanting the Lakers as the premier team in Los Angeles. If Griffin leaves, then there’s a legitimate chance that the Clippers flounder and again become a laughingstock of the sports world. The absence of Donald Sterling ensures that things cannot possibly get bad as they once were, but optics and history matter. The stakes for the Clippers are high.

In a purely basketballular sense, it’s not clear that retaining Griffin keeps the Clippers relevant. The 28-year-old forward is a bona fide star and has shown flashes of an ability to lead a team as a ball-dominant scorer and facilitator. However, he has missed at least 15 games in each of the past three seasons (including 21 in 2016-17 and 47 in 2015-16) and has always looked secondary to Paul in the Clippers’ hierarchy, even if the duo attempted to present themselves to the public as complementary leaders. CP3 is not a minor personality to replace, and it’s not clear that Griffin is ready to step into the leadership vacuum.

Still, the Clippers would have good players. No matter his faults, Griffin is an excellent player who will understandably entertain many suitors when he hits the open market. Center DeAndre Jordan looks like a diminished weapon without CP3 around to throw him lobs, but he’s a formidable presence at both ends in any system.

Plus, the much-derided Clippers bench now looks significantly better after factoring in the haul from the Rockets. Patrick Beverley just made the All-Defensive First Team. Lou Williams can pair with Jamal Crawford to earn 20 three-shot fouls per game. Sam Dekker is a promising wing now on a team in desperate need of depth at that spot, and Montrezl Harrell is a functional backup center. There’s a decent team in there somewhere.

The big question is if that collection of players makes any sense without Paul around to stitch them all together. Griffin and Jordan have always benefited from playing with such an effective distributor, and score-first role players such as Crawford and Williams can only maximize their worth if they’re coming off the bench as a change of pace. This roster needs more creators, and it’s not clear that any good ones are on the market in the Clippers’ price range. For that matter, Rivers does not have a sterling reputation as a salary-cap whiz. This process is going to take lots of work and attention to detail. Maybe this is where new consultant Jerry West earns his money.

Even in a best-case scenario, the Clippers might not be any better than a low-seed playoff participant likely to get eliminated from the playoffs in four or five games. Seven years ago, Clippers fans would have welcomed such a fate. After six-straight seasons with a winning percentage over .600, it looks like a step in the wrong direction.

At least it’s not a walk off a cliff. If Griffin opts to join another team this July, then the Clippers suddenly become a surefire lottery team with an offense built around Jordan and several career role players. The one saving grace would be the possibility of opening up an absurd $70 million in cap room for the star-laden 2018 free agent summer. If Ballmer replaces Rivers with a rebuild-focused front office, then the Clippers would have a chance at salvaging something from Paul and Griffin’s departures and creating a freshly competitive squad.

Yet how many prospective free agents would want to join a Clippers squad fresh off a lottery appearance? For all the warranted talk of how this core underachieved, Paul and Griffin have been responsible for what’s easily the best stretch of seasons in franchise history. A franchise that had previously been known for a loathsome owner and a nightly spot in Jay Leno’s monologue finally had real cachet and, thanks in part to the Lakers’ downturn, a meaningful spot in the consciousness of Southern Calfiornia’s sports fans. Without that success, do those dormant zingers about the Clippers return with a vengeance? And why would any stars choose the Clippers when the Lakers figure to have considerable cap room, as well?

Those concerns are likely to force the Clippers to do everything in their power to chase whatever relevance they can. When Ballmer bought the franchise for $2 billion three years ago, he did so with the intention of building one of the NBA’s biggest clubs. Add in the Clippers’ plans to build a new Lakers-less arena, and it seems unlikely that their brain trust would willfully submit to a rebuilding process. Every stated franchise goal demands that the Clippers try to be as competitive as possible over these next few seasons. Anything less could spell a return to life as a punchline. They cannot become the West’s answer to the Brooklyn Nets.

It’s become a cliche to say that no team wants to reside in the NBA’s middle. However, the Clippers could be the rare franchise that actively attempts to occupy that ground. Relevance can come later. For now, the Clippers need to focus on keeping themselves alive.

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Eric Freeman is a writer for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at efreeman_ysports@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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