From the moment Chris Paul arrived with the Los Angeles Clippers four years ago, things have been very, very different for the once star-crossed franchise. After decades of futility, the Clippers have had winning records and made the playoffs four years in a row — both firsts in franchise history. They’ve also made it out of the first round of the playoffs three times in four years after doing so four times in their first 41 years.
But despite the undeniable success and the many transformational changes that have taken place along with it (not including Steve Ballmer’s $2 billion purchase of the franchise from its previous owner, Donald Sterling, an improvement for the franchise on virtually every level), Monday’s 100-99 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder leaves the Clippers with a 16-13 record and at a real crossroads as to where to go from here.
“We haven’t won any big games,” Griffin said in Houston following a loss there Saturday night. “We haven’t won the games you go into it thinking, ‘Okay, this is one we have to get.’ We’ve lost all those games.”
He’s right. Following Monday’s loss to the Thunder — one in which they led virtually the entire fourth quarter before Kevin Durant hit a shot to put the Thunder ahead in the final seconds, then blocked Paul’s potential game-winning shot — the Clippers have played six games against the three teams (the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and the Thunder) above them in the West, as well as the top four teams (the Cleveland Cavaliers, Toronto Raptors, Atlanta Hawks and Indiana Pacers) in the East. Their record in those games? 0-6. Against teams with .500 or better records, the Clippers are now just 5-10.
This was not what was supposed to be happening for a group that has won 56, 57 and 56 games over the past three seasons, and was expected to be even better this year after going out and making several moves this summer to strengthen their bench — the team’s major weakness last season — and after convincing DeAndre Jordan not to follow through on his initial commitment to the Dallas Mavericks as a free agent in July.
“We’re not a team that anybody needs to be worried about, I’ll tell you that,” Paul said Saturday night. “Not right now. We still have a lot of work to do.
“Being how our team was last year, we’re behind as far as figuring out that trust.”
So far, at least, the gamble Coach Doc Rivers — who also is in charge of personnel decisions — understandably took to add pieces to that bench that, while talented, brought other issues with them, hasn’t worked out. His own son, Austin, is athletic and a solid defender, but has proven he’s not a reliable NBA shooter (he’s currently shooting 40.8 percent overall and 21.2 percent from three-point range). Josh Smith, who signed a one-year deal for the veteran’s minimum, was benched for Monday’s loss after a season full of inconsistent play to this point, while Paul Pierce, who sat out because of back pain, has struggled to adjust to playing a much smaller role than he’s used to.
Then there’s Lance Stephenson, who … well, let’s just say Lance always is an adventure.
“That was kind of the narrative early on,” Griffin said, when asked if trying get everyone on the same page was still a legitimate excuse. “But after however many games, you can’t keep saying that over and over.
“At a certain point, it can’t be about new guys. It’s just got to be about buying in. Every team has some new guys. Most teams have some new guys. We have to figure something out.”
Almost two months into the season, the Clippers seem to be, at best, the same team they’ve been each of the past four years: one capable of challenging the teams atop the Western Conference, but one rarely finds a way to come out on top against them. Yes, there have been moments where they have been able to do so — last year’s first-round series win over the Spurs most notably among them — but every time it appears the Clippers are about to take the next step, they trip over their own feet.
There was the collapse in the final minute in Oklahoma City in Game 5 of the 2014 Western Conference semifinals, where a win would’ve likely pushed them into the Western Conference finals for the first time in franchise history. There was the even bigger collapse in Game 6 of the 2015 Western Conference semifinals at home against the Rockets, in which the Clippers somehow lost a 19-point second-half lead before going back to Houston and getting blown out in Game 7.
It had briefly looked like that would be the end of this Clippers run when Jordan initially agreed to leave Los Angeles for Dallas this summer — only for the Clippers to have a late-night meeting at his house in Houston the night before contracts could officially be signed to reel him back in.
Now, though, you have to wonder if this season winds up being the final one for this group, anyway. Before the season began, Rivers said in an interview with Grantland that this could be the final year for this group together if they don’t take that long-awaited step forward. And, at least so far, they don’t look like they’ll be able to do so.
The Clippers have played four games against those top three teams in the West. All have been competitive — but, like always seems to be the case for the Clippers, they found themselves coming up just short in all of them. If they can’t find a way to change that, change in personnel after this season feels inevitable.
“We have to be better than this,” Griffin said. “We are better than this and we’re not showing it.”
Time will tell if they can figure out a way to do so.