The Clippers Slipping Back Into Irrelevancy

The L.A. Clippers have lost Chris Paul and with him, their identity. The Lob City era is over. Unfulfilled expectations linger and the fear of irrelevancy has taken hold. This is what happens when a team is assembled with incredibly high expectations and fails to deliver time and again as the Clippers have.

The four phases NBA franchises seek to avoid at all costs are unfolding in real time: Discontent. Departure. Desperation. Despair.

Welcome to phase three Clipper Nation: Desperation.

Truly, the desperate undertones are evident. Clippers’ de facto GM and Head Coach, Doc Rivers, isn’t fooling anyone, but maybe himself. Saying aloud that your team is more talented and more versatile following Paul’s departure doesn’t make it so.

Doc’s first mistake is failing to understand that acquiring (and retaining) talent means zilch when that talent is repeatedly seated at the end of the bench dressed in street clothes. One might think the Clippers would understand this concept better than most given their recent injury history, but their continual pursuit of injury-prone players indicates otherwise.

Blake Griffin and Danilo Gallinari are prime examples. For his career, Griffin is averaging 21 games missed-per-season. Gallo is worse; averaging 29 games missed-per-season. Both are on the wrong side of the age curve with former injuries (i.e., knees) that historically hinder future performance. In a NBA where maximizing upside while limiting risk is paramount, Griffin and Gallinari are poor investments on which to hinge your organization’s long-term success.

In a world where the Clippers do manage to stay healthy, their second (more pressing) problem is Doc Rivers’ false narrative of versatility and greater ball movement without Chris Paul. Doc undermines Paul’s greatness by implying he’s a ball stopper on offense. Fact is, he’s not.

Chris Paul Not to Blame Assist % NBA Rank Usage % NBA Rank Playoff Minutes
2016-17 46.8 4th 24.3 72 37.1
2015-16 52.7 1st 26.9 33 31.3
2014-15 47.4 1st 23.4 93 37.1

Paul is “The Point God” for a reason. He maximizes his teammates’ offensive abilities while minimizing offensive stagnation. He does this by artfully manipulating possessions without overwhelming the offense itself. In short, CP3 is the NBA’s most efficient shot creator. The Clips never had a ball movement problem with Paul. Instead, they’ve taken for granted that he was their ball movement.

The harsh new reality is L.A.’s roster combines ball dominant, shoot first, pass second scorers with a few quality defenders. This is bad news for literally everyone on the roster outside of isolation players, Lou Williams and Austin Rivers. Blake Griffin is L.A.’s assist leader. Patrick Beverley and Gallo are the only proven consistent three-point threats. Sam Dekker is talking about brawling instead of basketball. Meanwhile, Lou Williams just wants to hoop. Pinning hopes on Euroleague addition, Milos Teodosic, doesn’t sound too far-fetched.

2016-17 Numbers Usage Rate Assist% % FGM Assisted 3P% PER
Lou Williams 29.1% 19.9% 38.1% 36.5% 21.4
Danilo Gallinari 20.0% 9.1% 67.1% 38.9% 17.4
Blake Griffin 28.0% 24.5% 53.7% 33.6% 22.6
Austin Rivers 20.3% 15.0% 37.8% 37.1% 11.4

The outlook isn’t pretty. Doc Rivers is preaching versatility and ball movement, but he’s about to find out square pegs don’t fit in round holes. The roster is incompatible and spacing is a legitimate concern. He has shooters surrounded by shooters and no Paul to take Griffin and Jordan to another level. Doc is a future Hall of Fame Head Coach, but even he can’t turn a NBA team into something it’s clearly not.

And so here the Clippers are. Grasping at straws. Unaware that their best laid plans, including $35 million in 2018 cap space if DeAndre Jordan, Austin Rivers, Milo Teodosic and Wesley Johnson opt-out and if the team declines the option on Brice Johnson and Sam Dekker, only perpetuates one of their biggest problems: lack of continuity. It’s how six seasons of “The Point God” and arguably a top-5 roster on paper severely underachieved. They had the talent, but talent alone wasn’t enough. It never is.

Despair is on the horizon and Los Angeles’ other basketball team has officially begun its journey back to whence they came: NBA irrelevancy.


photo via llananba