The Clippers played probably one of the most important games in franchise history last night, when they evened up their first-round series with the San Antonio Spurs at three games apiece. You might have watched the NFL Draft instead, which is fine, but know that you’re missing out on some of the best playoff basketball of the year.
With the house that Doc Rivers built facing down an elimination game after another 50-win season and a host of championship expectations, we began to examine the Clippers as an entity, one of those teams that really should win a title for no other reason than the fact that it features some generational talents on the roster.
This is one of the weird caveats of professional sports. We measure players, once they’ve ceased to participate actively, on the merits of their accomplishments. In the NBA, that means championships. It’s a weird bit of weighting, but it’s inevitable: Consider Steve Nash, arguably the greatest point guard of the mid-2000s. Two MVP awards. No rings. Where do you put him on the all-time list, and does that change had he managed to win it all with the Suns? Of course it does.
Enter Chris Paul, the heir to the point guard crown. That CP3 has been the best player at his position for a number of years is simple fact, a universal truth understood by fans of the sport who weren’t caught up in favoring one of the other options, from Deron Williams to Steph Curry.
Paul’s dominance is so good, in fact, that the birth of Lob City remains the purest description of how much of an upgrade over anyone else he was (and, pointedly, how little the Clippers liked Eric Bledsoe). L.A. hasn’t been under .500 since the swap, and the Clippers remain perennial title contenders — even as excuses for their lack of success continue to run out.
Here’s a brief recap of the Los Angeles Clippers’ postseason luck since the Paul trade:
- 2012: Won an epic seven-game series against the Memphis Grizzlies, got swept by the San Antonio Spurs. The blame falls on head coach Vinny Del Negro, as well as the team’s relative inexperience with success at any level.
- 2013: Lost a six-game series to the Memphis Grizzlies. Blame falls squarely on head coach Vinny Del Negro, who is subsequently fired.
- 2014: Under the leadership of new head coach (and general manager) Doc Rivers, the Clippers beat the Golden State Warriors in a seven-game series before falling to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Distractions created by Donald Sterling’s behavior and the team’s lackluster bench performance are noted as contributing factors for the loss.
Which brings us into the present day. Doc Rivers the GM can’t seem to get out of the way of Doc Rivers the coach, the most egregious example of this being his continued insistence on playing Austin Rivers (son of Doc Rivers, natch) despite the fact that Austin looks like an NBA-caliber player about as often as a member of the general public does. That is to say, nearly never. The Clippers have a tremendous starting five that features some atrocious free-throw shooters, and the team continues to underachieve in spite of these handicaps.
Underachieve? Yes. While some will point to the Clips’ series opponent and say, “Wait a minute, we always talk about how the Spurs do things right despite their bad luck” and wonder why that same logic doesn’t apply to Los Angeles, the answer is easy: Because San Antonio has measured up to the expectations set by the fans over the years. They’ve won four championships. Chris Paul, despite being the preeminent point guard of his generation, has never even made it to a conference final.
Ever wonder why Kwame Brown is a punch line? It’s not just because he’s bad at basketball (in the NBA sense, that is), but because of the circumstances regarding his entrance into the pros.
Brown was picked straight out of high school by Michael Jordan, largely seen as the greatest basketball player of the modern era — even though he more realistically ranks behind Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russell — with His Airness’s first draft pick in the first round. When you’re the first guy that Jordan thinks is worth a first overall draft pick, there are certain expectations that come with the gig, expectations that don’t roll over to other first overall picks.
It’s the same phenomenon that made LeBron’s departure from Cleveland so visceral, and why everyone was quick to forgive him after the Heat won a title: Fans are never happier then when they see players doing what they’re supposed to do. If you exceed those goals, you’re a surprise. If you fail to meet them, you’re kind of a bummer.
It’s not a stretch to say that NBA fans expect the best point guard in the game to have postseason success to his name, so while no one is ever going to blame CP3 for the Clips’ poor performance, he is the reason why they always feel so underwhelming.