LOS ANGELES — For four years — an eternity in today’s NBA — the core of the Los Angeles Clippers remained intact. Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, J.J. Redick, Jamal Crawford and Coach Doc Rivers were part of the most successful run in the history of what had been one of the NBA’s lousiest franchises, compiling four straight 50-win seasons and two trips to the Western Conference semifinals.
But it was never enough. Despite erasing the previous image of the perennially woebegone Clippers, the franchise was in a state of flux every summer.
So why were the Clippers, who for so long had only dreamed of that kind of success, constantly wondering whether it was time to move on? The answer is surprisingly simple.
“We had a lot of success, as far as winning,” Rivers said. “But we were never the winner.”
Rivers spoke Monday, before his Clippers fell, 109-105, to the Philadelphia 76ers, their sixth straight loss. The game marked the first of three reunions this season with former members of that core. Redick made his return to Los Angeles after signing with the Sixers as a free agent.
It’s a run that, in time, undoubtedly will be looked upon fondly — the era in which the Clippers graduated from being the league’s biggest joke to one of its most successful teams. But by the time last season was over, that era clearly had come to an end.
“I think it was weirder to have the group stay together so long,” Redick said earlier Monday with a laugh. “It’s very rare that happens in the NBA now.
“If anything, I feel fortunate we were together so long.”
The core may have been together only four years, but it seemed like 40 at times. Some of the strife was internal: The constant battle for primacy between Griffin and Paul. Jordan being held hostage in his own home to ensure he re-signed as a free agent. The series of painful and dramatic playoff exits. Some was external, such as former owner Donald Sterling being banned from the league for life, and the subsequent sale of the franchise to Steve Ballmer for a then-record $2 billion. All of it combined was too much even for a team with the Clippers’ talent to overcome.
“We did go through, over the last four or five years, we’ve been through a lot of what I always call ‘stuff,’” Rivers said. “But we also were very good.”
The Clippers were good enough to make it to a pair of Western Conference semifinals — and within a mind-numbing, fourth-quarter collapse at home against the Houston Rockets, which kept them from facing the Golden State Warriors in the 2015 Western Conference finals. But they had that collapse, just as they fell apart the year before in the conference semifinals against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
And after Paul and Griffin left a first-round series against the Portland Trail Blazers with season-ending injuries two years ago, and Griffin did so again this past spring, change was clearly on the horizon. Redick left as a free agent for the Sixers, Crawford signed with the Minnesota Timberwolves and, in the most shocking move of all, Paul went to the Rockets in a trade in late June.
Suddenly, the team that had become one of the league’s consistent powerhouses was no more. In its place was a completely revamped roster with eight new faces, including a new starting backcourt of Patrick Beverley and Milos Teodosic, along with a new starting small forward in Danilo Gallinari.
Did the Clippers’ success depart along with their core? After Monday’s loss, the Clippers (5-8) are 12th in the Western Conference. Part of their slow start is because three of those new starters – Beverley, Teodosic and Gallinari – are out with injuries.
“It’s a long year,” Rivers said, “and I keep telling our guys that you go through it and squeeze out as many little wins as you can, and then, when you get healthy, hopefully the hole is not that big that you can’t get out of it. That’s why you just have to stay upbeat and keep pushing them, and that’s where we’re at right now.”
Even after all the upheaval of this past summer, the Clippers’ future still is uncertain. Jordan is set to be an unrestricted free agent next summer. Rivers, who gave up his title as president of basketball operations, is in the penultimate year of his contract.
The only certainty seems to be that Griffin, in the first year of a max contract he signed this summer, isn’t going anywhere. Yet even Griffin isn’t a sure thing: He has missed a combined 83 games over the past three seasons.
The Clippers’ retooled roster may have been inevitable. But with their rocky start, it might not take long for everyone to realize just how good things were — even if they were never quite good enough.