If the Los Angeles Clippers could go back in time and relive that moment when Chris Paul hit a one-legged game winner that advanced his team to the second round of the playoffs, they would gladly repeat those last seconds over and over again, only to remember what pure joy feels like. What’s happening right now is so far removed from that moment of joy, it’s hard to juxtapose this level of misery against the ecstasy that descended upon the Clippers 10 weeks ago that had many thinking the Clippers were NBA Finals bound.
Enter the epic disaster that has wrecked the Clippers off-season and you have an organization that has fallen on their sword.
DeAndre Jordan leaving the Clippers to join the Dallas Mavericks, a team without a point guard and holes elsewhere in their lineup, when the money was the same, when his best friend was on the Clippers, when the Clippers, for the past four years, were building something, struck a fatal blow to the Clippers front office plans, leaving them without leverage to do much of anything. The salary cap has paralyzed them so it doesn’t matter how much of a billionaire their owner is. They are out of options other than acquiring past their prime veteran players or trying to pull off sign and trades.
The first Clippers player to discuss the sudden turn of events on record was guard J.J. Redick. When asked about his team’s offseason, Redick didn’t hide his distaste. He was pretty blunt about it on Bleacher Report Radio. He gave the Clippers an F.
We had one priority this summer and that was to re-sign D.J. and we missed out on that. Barring some miracle our makeup of our team is completely different now. He was such an integral part of what we did and not just defensively but offensively with his screening, his rolling, his offensive rebounding. His presence down low essentially made teams either committ to the three point line when Blake (Griffin) or Chris (Paul) penetrated, or committ to him and that either opened up lobs for him or threes for me or Jamal (Crawford) or Matt (Barnes). He was a huge part of what we did and missing out and having him leave for Dallas gives us a failing grade.
Even though Redick has every right to be critical of the moves Doc Rivers has made so far, he is banging a drum that is beaten and worn out. Rivers himself wasn’t shy about reiterating how important DeAndre Jordan was to the Clippers and how they needed him to return. It was the focus of his post-game media chat after the Clippers were eliminated from the playoffs.
The Clippers thin talent pool, once you take a detour past Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and J.J. Redick, is hardly representative of a team that hopes to contend for a NBA title. Jordan covered up all of the Clippers mistakes on offense and defense.
For four years, the Clippers have been one of the NBA’s special teams. Their trade for Chris Paul cemented them into the upper echelon of their conference and ensured them an annual return to the playoffs as a top seed. But, the playoffs is where the Clippers continually failed. In 2012, they lost in the second round to San Antonio. In 2013, they lost in the first round to Memphis. In 2014, they lost in the second round to Oklahoma City. This year they lost in the second round to Houston. It’s a pretty damning pattern of a team that is on autopilot and is clueless on how to win in the post-season.
In a twist of irony, the Clippers have the Golden State Warriors to thank for their financial black hole condition. In 2011, DeAndre Jordan was a restricted free agent. The Warriors signed him to a max offer sheet which the Clippers were forced to match even as the terms for Jordan were way out of alignment with his value at that time. Still, the Clippers matched it, unaware that Chris Paul was a gift that was coming their way in the next week. That put the Clippers behind the eight ball. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin were maximum contract players and gifted talents but financially, they, with Jordan, erased all the Clippers flexibility under the cap.
Which brings us to this summer. The Clippers priority to re-sign Jordan was all that mattered and perhaps had the Clippers advanced to the Western Conference Finals Jordan may have suppressed his unhappiness with the offense and his marginalization by Chris Paul. But the way the Clippers lost to the Houston Rockets, blowing a 19 point lead at home in an elimination game and then losing in Houston, partly because the Clippers bench, as put together by Doc Rivers, was a miserable collection of no shooting, no rebounding, talentless players that could not help the starters in any capacity, was the final nail in the DeAndre Jordan Clippers coffin. All of it was more than he wanted to deal with and he had an easy out in Mark Cuban who used Jordan’s misery to sell him on the idea that the grass was greener elsewhere.
With Jordan gone and the Clippers without cap space, and with Kendrick Perkins, Ryan Hollins and JaVale McGee the only crumbs out there, the prospects are slim for a Clippers repeat of the past four years. Paul and Griffin must stay healthy. Griffin is going to have to play some time at center. Both he and Paul are going to have to put up big offensive numbers which is draining and is not their particular game; they are not gunners. The Clippers interior defense, without Jordan, will allow a steady stream of layups, postups and dunks. It’s hard to see where the Clippers go from here.
That said, this is how the NBA works. A consistent playoff team suffers because one of their stars is stolen. It is the Clippers turn to descend into one of those teams that is in no-man’s land. Not good enough to be in the conference finals and not bad enough to be in the lottery. The Clippers will tread water, make the playoffs, be a sixth or seventh seed, lose in the first round and will be rescued when the salary cap goes up in 2016. But by then Chris Paul will be 31 years old, his prime dwindling, and every other team will have gotten younger and better and more experienced.
When the Clippers collapsed against Houston in the second round of the playoffs, it was widely believed to be the worst moment in the Chris Paul era. It was a devastating set of circumstances that happened in May. But time is always fluid. That particular Clippers nightmare is no longer the headline. What’s coming next is the worst the Clippers have ever been since the blockbuster trade that resurrected the Clippers franchise and sent Chris Paul to Los Angeles.