What you already know about the Los Angeles Clippers, a limited and injury-stricken team that lost far too early in the postseason yet again in 2017, is just about enough.
All the good Clipper columns were nailed back when the team went by “Los Angeles,” before the team’s super-weird 2015 switch to “LA.” We know the particulars: Chris Paul is alternately too demanding and too brittle, Blake Griffin runs as too introverted during unfamiliar times while acting similarly prone to freak ailments, all while Doc Rivers the general manager ruins the pitch for all involved, including Doc Rivers the coach.
After falling short in six playoff tries with Blake and Paul around (five involved leads in the round the Clippers eventually lost in, four with Doc as coach), the setup was pinned to the wall months ago:
LA, featuring free agents Griffin, Paul and J.J. Redick, is too thin to compete in a West that demands you play stronger than the sum of your parts. Years of poor planning led to a series that saw Rivers the coach relying on the retiring Paul Pierce, a gimpy Austin Rivers and even Raymond Felton to helm big minutes against a Jazz team that was ripe for a first-round loss due to injury and illness.
He had no choice to, lest you thought Wesley Johnson and Brandon Bass were better options. The blow-to-blow impact levied by yet another injury to a star player (Blake Griffin’s toe, alone, this time) and the usual cast of lacking helpers once again did the Clippers in.
Nothing in reserve, no options beyond Austin Rivers (30 minutes per game in the series against Utah), and Raymond Felton (18), and this is why the team is done until November. This is why we may never see this Clippers lineup again, and this is why you’re allowed to feel as if, spiritually, this group never had a chance. If you’re the sportin’ type, blame it on a deal with the devil; pacts that persist years after the devil is run out of town.
The setbacks seem routine by this time. Each of the thuds – the injuries (sometimes in the same game), the what the wrong end of the wrong night can do to a person’s judgment, the sudden loss of clarity in a playoff moment (dethroning San Antonio’s champs before falling to Josh Smith’s Rockets?), the flukes, the public fights – have to be seen to be believed, and after a while the headlines can add up. In total, “cursed” feels too light a word.
Curses don’t travel, though.
This is the NBA. Paul will be offered maximum deals from several outfits, concession plans with nearly there contenders offering less, or (the Clippers fear) some knockout combination of the two in free agency. Some team will confirm with its cash that it believes J.J. Redick to be the missing piece, and other franchises will find ways to throw as much money as possibly at Blake Griffin, Franchise Player. Each of these unnamed suitors will be making the right decision, as all three players will be worth whatever they get this summer.
Which is why all three may remain. To call the Clippers “passive/aggressive” would be to leave too much out. Though these are the sorts of players that would give Irish Goodbyes to the Clippers’ free agency party, the fear for some fans and observers is that each prominent part will talk themselves into a return. To the same team, with the same fears about making it until May. Partly because nobody wants to get in each other’s face, and partly because it is fun to live in Los Angeles, and make as much money as possible.
Say they bring it all back. Not because Griffin or Paul or Redick are sellouts (they wouldn’t be), but because confirming a life-altering decision within the NBA’s (daffy and quite insipid) early July free agency period is rather tough. Cast the jokes aside and consult DeAndre Jordan, if you don’t believe me.
The fact that the group can return to something familiar, while making more money in LA than anywhere else only adds to it. The space between Griffin’s season-ending toe injury and Paul’s final acts of desperation against Utah in Games 6 and 7 may have given both sides enough space to talk themselves into giving it another go.
And, presumably, returning to the mindset Blake Griffin explained here, in Kevin Arnovitz’s must-read column about the team that nobody has ever covered better:
“I think differently than CP,” Griffin says. “I’m big. I do things differently. That’s been my biggest thing — learning how to find that place where I’m, like, ‘OK. Cool.’ Because there’s an instinct to go, ‘Yeah, but’ when you’re discussing something. That was the biggest hump for me to get over — the ‘OK, cool.’ Whenever you play with different people, you learn how to deal with them on the court, off the court. You have to learn to understand where they’re coming from when they’re doing their thing.”
“OK. Cool” allowed us to see Blake and CP grow on the fly. It helped push the Clippers to 50-plus wins in a 2016-17 season that could have seen Blake (beset by injury, potentially pushing too hard in a make-good year after a disastrous 2015-16) completely wear himself out, mentally. The team badly needed “OK. Cool” to survive.
And “OK. Cool” has to end, now, if the Clippers want to survive past this offseason. If the Clippers are going to commit to Blake Griffin through his prime, while Chris Paul attacks his early-to-mid 30s, LA will have to try another approach.
For all his winning ways, even with that Oscar Robertson-esque direct track between thought and action still running almost without complication, CP3 is going to have to back off. Not in his chatter, that strain of guidance and leadership isn’t going anywhere, but in his play.
We’ve learned that other teams can stop the great, now let’s see if they can stop the weird: Griffin’s mercurial (and, on-surface, unreliable) ways of scoring and making plays will have to act as the team’s focal point moving forward, even if Paul returns to play alongside him.
They’ll have to sign first, Griffin and CP3 for hundreds of millions, Redick for waywaywayway more than the $7.7 million he made this season. Then they’ll have to overcome the mess that Doc Rivers put them in. Like many things with Doc, the Clippers will have no choice in the matter. Because the Clippers are going to go out of their way to avoid blowing this group up. And if Doc is going to be in charge of it all, avoiding the rebuild is the best option.
You can’t let this guy run the trek back down the unscaled mountain, because we’d get shin splints 20 yards in. Rivers led the most uncreative front office in the NBA for four seasons, and now you’re going to trust Doc the GM for an innovative blowup, on the fly? Or, you’re going to watch him try this with Paul alone, or with Blake by himself, finding value for one or the other while splitting the pair up? The whole of the NBA knows that the Final Shuffle is the right move for this basketball team, but that doesn’t mean “the right move” is ever held in high esteem in Los Angeles or “LA.” You cannot trust Doc to get fancy with things, if the stars want to stay.
The Clippers aren’t done digging themselves out of the various piles created by their stars’ shortcomings, in ways that would not dissipate with a full and committed rebuilding process (as helmed by Doc Rivers). The team is too deep into its current commitment, so much so that wiring hundreds of millions of dollars its stars’ way almost seems like the canniest of options. Even if this dance is familiar, and frustrating.
It was a different time, with two to one side of the court, when John Stockton and Karl Malone turned their Jazz fortunes around two decades ago, so much so that the comparisons nearly rank as apples vs. oranges talk when discussed alongside the current Clippers. In terms of narrative, though, the similarity sustains: Utah fell short in the late 1980s and early 1990s when John Stockton was hounding the historic stats, and only emerged from the loaded West to meet the championship Bulls twice once Karl Malone ascended into the MVP stratosphere.
The resemblance, in a modern NBA that looks increasingly little like the league Stockton and Malone pick-and-rolled in, needs to stop there. That’s what the Clippers are going to try and sell us, though, rather than copping to the idea that the team had no choice but to continue the financial bleeding in hopes that the new time-slot will work. It’s all very Los Angeles, and it would be a shame if it stopped so soon.
Other teams that are gone until November:
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