The future of both franchises could be drastically altered by the outcome of Game 7.
I would argue that there isn’t anything that quite matches a Game 7 in sports.
Everything’s on the line. Win or go home. It’s like a mini-championship game.
You just can’t beat a Game 7, there’s too much at stake.
Sure, an entire seven month, 82-game season comes down to the results of one game, but for the Los Angeles Clippers and Utah Jazz, there’s much more on the line entering their Sunday afternoon Game 7 matchup.
After an often-bizarre, slow, some-would-say-boring-some-would-say-physical series that was swayed more by injuries to Rudy Gobert and Blake Griffin (as well as Gordon Hayward’s bout with food poisoning) than the actual talent on the floor, the finally-healthy Clippers will enter the Staple Center with the future of their budding superstar very much in question.
The 28-year-old Hayward is expected to hit free agency for the first time this summer and is believed to be extremely interested in talking to Brad Stevens and the Boston Celtics and The Godfather Pat Riley and the Miami Heat.
Until this season, Hayward had only one playoff appearance under his belt, way back in 2012 under coach Tyrone Corbin. Alongside prime Al Jefferson and the young version of late-bloomer Paul Millsap, Hayward and the Jazz were swept in the first round by the San Antonio Spurs that year. Hayward, at the time far from his current status as Just-Barely-Not-A-Superstar, shot just 18 percent in the series, a number that has dogged him ever since he became eligible for the “is this guy a superstar or not” conversation.
Two years after that series, the Jazz bottomed out, won only 25 games, fired Corbin and started the rebuilding process.
Long story short: Utah hired Quin Snyder as their next head coach, developed then-rookie Rudy Gobert into the best defensive big man in the league and Hayward into a near-superstar, leading up to this year’s 51 win campaign — the franchise’s highest win total since 2009-10’s Jerry Sloan and Deron Williams led squad.
Hayward was said to be less-than-thrilled during that rebuilding process (which, I can only assume, means he would kill himself if he was a part of the Knicks 20 year rebuild), leading many to believe he would bolt for his former coach at Butler Stevens or a proven winner like Riley, with the Los Angeles Lakers and Magic Johnson acting as a dark horse candidate.
But what if the Jazz can get to the second round, especially after winning 51 games despite a wild season in terms of injuries? Would the team’s progression be enough to lure Hayward back?
Utah can pay Hayward more money than Stevens, Riley and Magic, and when healthy has proven to be one of the better teams in the Western Conference. His performance this series, highlighted by a 40 point Game 2 and a 25 point second half in Game 6, has only increased his stock this summer.
Gordon Hayward has looked like the best player on the floor tonight. pic.twitter.com/hcCYwUof7f
— Basketball Society (@BBallSociety_) April 26, 2017
In fact, the curiosity of wondering what could have been had George Hill and Derrick Favors been healthy all season, or had Gobert not hyperextended his knee in Game 1 and rolled his ankle in Game 6, might already be enough to convince Hayward that the Jazz gives him the best chance to win. After all, he claims that will be the largest factor in his decision-making process this summer and when compared to his likely top prospects, Utah has to be a serious contender.
The Celtics easily have the best roster situation currently, but with a plethora of future top picks still to come there might be too many stomachs to feed and Hayward might want a bigger piece of the pie.
The Heat have a chance at bringing Dwyane Wade back this summer and already have a strong roster anchored by Hassan Whiteside and Goran Dragic, but the chance to play second-fiddle to the legacy created by LeBron-Wade-Bosh proved to be a deal breaker for Kevin Durant last summer and could be one for Hayward this year.
The Lakers are the biggest work in process and could have a drastically different roster come free agency. Nearly their entire group of prospects — D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and Brandon Ingram — have been mentioned in trade discussions this season, not to mention the heavily speculated Paul George acquisition that seems destined to happen either this summer or next.
Utah seems to be the best and most obvious decision for Hayward regardless of Game 7. An All-NBA center in Gobert that’s still only 24-years-old, one of the game’s rising young coaches in Snyder and a bunch of talented role players that play well in Snyder’s team-oriented offense — Joe Johnson, Rodney Hood, Boris Diaw and Hill (when healthy).
Who knows, if the Jazz can take Game 7, maybe they go on to give the Golden State Warriors trouble in the second round. Utah has the league’s top-ranked defense and has the ability to drag the pace of the game down to a crawl, something that can give the Warriors’ offense problems.
No, I do not think Utah can beat the Warriors in a seven-game series, but I do think that they can steal a game or two and further their case for Hayward’s return. Game 7 is the first step in doing cementing that case.
The Clippers have a similar problem but multiplied by three or four.
The Chris Paul era in LA seems to be coming to a close, or at least this alteration of it.
Paul has the option to return to LA next year for $22 million or hit free agency this summer and after personally negotiating the new CBA to include the Over-38 Rule. Formerly, the max contract the Clippers would have been able to offer Paul this summer is four-years, $156 million because of the Over-36 Rule, which essentially lowered the max contract for players that are 32-years-old and older. So Paul, turning 32 this May, would not be able to get the maximum amount of money possible from the Clippers.
Under the new Over-38 Rule that Paul helped craft, the max contract is only lowered for players that are 34 or older. This change makes Paul eligible for a much more lucrative five-year, $201 million deal, a difference of nearly $50 million. And in case you were wondering, LeBron James was also in on the negotiations and (believe it or not) will receive the same benefit!
I have such a profound amount of respect for this power-move by Paul and James, it would take your breath away (spoiler alert- fellow Banana Boat-mate Carmelo Anthony will also receive the benefit! The way these guys have taken over the league is incredible. I love it.)
So yeah, Paul is probably opting out this summer.
Paul’s probably the best Clipper of all time (sorry Bob McAdoo and… Elton Brand? Is Elton Brand the third best Clipper of all time? Jesus Christ), and there will be plenty of pressure on both sides to figure out a deal. Because of that, I tend to believe that Paul will find himself back in a Clipper uniform next season and, most likely, for the forseeable future.
His surrounding cast, meanwhile, is much less predictable.
The Paul-JJ Redick-Blake Griffin-DeAndre Jordan nucleus has been firmly in place for the Clippers since 12-13 and has been… less than successful when it comes to meeting expectations.
Sure, the unit has five consecutive 50 win seasons together. Over that time period, they never finished worse than fifth in the Western Conference standings, generally gaining the reputation as being one of the league’s premier teams when clicking on all cylinders.
The problem, it turns out, is getting those cylinders to run properly at the right time.
Since Paul came aboard in 2011, the Clippers have yet to make it past the second round of the playoffs.
In 2014, the Donald Sterling controversy rocked the team just before the playoffs and they fell to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Conference Semis.
In 2015, they blew a 3-1 lead to the Houston Rockets, once again in the Conference Semis.
In 2016, injuries to Paul and Griffin decimated them and they lost in six to the Portland Trail Blazers.
In 2017, it appears to once again be an injury to Griffin that could derail the Clipper’s postseason, as Blake left Game 3 with a broken toe and has been ruled out for the remainder of the playoffs.
Amazingly, the Clippers have suffered a massive stroke of bad luck at the worst possible time for the fourth consecutive season.
Now, Doc Rivers will have the first opportunity to restructure his current core.
Griffin is expected to opt-out of his contract alongside Paul, while Redick’s contract ends after this season.
A Game 7 loss and another early exit could send Rivers to the hot seat and push him to make a change within his core. As previously covered, Paul is a generational talent and probably won’t be going anywhere. Griffin and Redick, on the other hand, are much more interchangeable.
Griffin’s far from the above-the-rim terror he was as a youngster, largely due to a string of injuries that have kept him sidelined and sapped him of his aggression. It’s possible that his time in Los Angeles has come to a close and a change of scenery is what’s needed, and it certainly sounds like Griffin is open to leaving. A first round exit could be all that’s needed to warrant a mutual parting of the ways, but with the Clippers not actually saving any cap space by letting Blake walk, it’s difficult to say exactly what Rivers will do with his big man.
Redick, meanwhile, remains one of the game’s most solid two guards on both ends, even at 32-years-old. He’ll be an attractive option for young, talented teams with cap space (Bucks, Lakers, and Thunder to name a view) and could easily walk into a better situation.
If the Clippers once again Clipp, it’s hard to imagine the Paul-Redick-Griffin-Jordon unit making a full comeback next season. Even if they do win Game 7, does getting swept by Golden State in the second round really make you feel that much better about the group moving forward?
At this point, the Clippers would probably have to win at least a couple of games against the Warriors to really give you a reason to believe in them long term, but a Game 7 loss would almost be a death sentence for them.
So there you have it.
Gordon Hayward vs. Paul-Redick-Griffin.
Sure, there’s playoff survival on the line.
But really, there’s way, way more than that when it comes to Game 7.