The Los Angeles Clippers were eliminated from the NBA playoffs last week after losing three straight games, including a pivotal winner-take-all 7th game of the 2nd round series to the Houston Rockets. The loss prevented the team from making their first ever Western Conference Finals appearance, and reminded fans of the frustration that can come from attaching themselves to this franchise.
Decades of Disappointment
Up until a few years ago, the Clippers historically had been one of the least successful NBA franchises ever since their move to Los Angeles in 1984. From 1984-2011 the team compiled a 762-1,420 record, a winning percentage of less than 35%. During these 27 seasons they had three times as many last place division finishes (12) as playoff appearances (4), and won a playoff series only once. Despite playing in one of the biggest media markets in the country, the team also received little fanfare partially because they lived in the shadow of their neighbor, the Los Angeles Lakers, who are considered one of the premier teams in NBA history.
Aside from the anemic winning percentage, the team also faced many off the court embarrassments. Long-time team owner Donald Sterling has received multiple public allegation of racism, sexism and misconduct over the years. He was eventually forced to sell the team after his racist comments about Clippers fans from a private telephone conversation were leaked to the media. In addition to his deplorable personality traits, he has largely been the point of blame for the team’s losing ways. He pinched pennies at every opportunity, and as long as he was making money, he seemed content to let the franchise be perennial losers.
Because of the team’s poor record most seasons, the Clippers were granted a high draft pick in many years, but these rarely panned out. Serious injuries and severe underperformance often plagued their young players. Many joked that the team must be cursed. More often than not, their better performing young players did not return to the Clippers after their initial contracts expired, and the team was rarely in contention to sign premier free agents. Part of this was attributed to Sterling being unwilling to pay high contracts for players, and also to the fact that top talent preferred teams with a more stable winning culture.
Building a Winner
In 2009 the Clippers drafted college superstar Blake Griffin with the first pick in the draft. Bad luck struck again, as Griffin broke his kneecap during the preseason and missed the entire season recovering. Critics were quick to assume that this was going to be another high draft pick gone to waste. However, despite the ominous start to his career, Griffin’s placement on the team was a key move that helped rebuild fan interest in the team and eventually lead to the building of a winner. Griffin recovered from his initial injury and performed so magnificently the following year that he won the league’s Rookie of the Year award. He garnered national attention as a human highlight reel, wowing fans with his impressive dunking abilities. Over time, he has developed into one of the most well rounded power forwards in the game, with excellent rebounding, shooting, ball handling, and passing skills.
The Clippers' former 2008 draft pick, DeAndre Jordan, also developed into a cornerstone and one of the most dominant defensive big men in the league, following a slow start to his career. His statistics in his first few years were not impressive, which probably contributed to the team’s ability to retain him. However, his raw athleticism eventually translated to production on the court, just as teammate Blake Griffin was starting to develop alongside him. In the past three years Jordan has led the league in field goal percentage three times, rebounding twice, and was named to the NBA All-Defensive Team once.
In 2011, the most significant move in franchise history was made, when the team completed a blockbuster trade for superstar point guard Chris Paul. Paul is known for his passing abilities (has led the league in assists four times), defensive tenacity (led the league in steals eight times) as well as his leadership. Through 2015, Paul has been named to the NBA All-Star team eight straight years.
These three players formed a chemistry that propelled the Clippers to one of the most exciting teams to watch in the NBA. Shortly after joining the team, the Clippers were nicknamed “Lob City” in reference to Paul’s ability to frequently set up teammates Griffin and Jordan for alley-oop dunks during games. The improvement wasn’t just cosmetic, however, as they began winning at the most consistent pace in team history. The Clippers finished 2nd in their division during the 2011-12 season, despite Paul not having a training camp to develop chemistry with his new teammates before the start to the lockout-shortened season. They also won their first playoff series for only the second time since moving to LA. In Paul’s four seasons with the team, the Clippers have a record of 209-103 (a 67% winning percentage), won back to back division titles (the first two in team history), and made the playoffs all four years.
In 2015, the team started the season with their highest expectations ever. The Clippers were not dominant, but had another solid season, finishing with a record of 56-26 and finishing 2nd in the Pacific Division. They had the unfortunate draw of playing the defending champion San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the playoffs. However, in a sign of poise, maturity, and superior skill, the Clippers defeated the former champs in an intense seven game series.
The victory advanced them into the second round where they faced the Houston Rockets. The momentum from the Spurs series seemed to carry over, as the Clippers took a 3-1 series lead in the best of seven series, completely outplaying the Rockets in the process. Comforted by how dominant they were playing, and the fact that only eight teams in NBA history have ever lost a series after holding a 3-1 lead, confidence that the Clippers would make their first ever Western Conference Finals appearance was high. However, they lost focus in Game 5 and were blown out by 21. In Game 6, the series returned to Los Angeles, and the Clippers again had a chance to advance to the next round. The victory seemed to be within reach as the team held a 19 point lead in the third quarter. However, during the fourth quarter one of the worst collapse in NBA playoff history occurred, as the Clippers completely fell apart and were outscored 40-15. The shocking loss seemed to affect the team’s psyche going into the winner-take-all Game 7 in Houston, and the Clippers were dominated, losing by 21 to end their season.
The historic nature of the three game collapse received a lot of negative media attention, and allowed critics to take potshots at the team again. Los Angeles-based Hall of Famer Magic Johnson was highly critical about how the team finished, tweeting the following, “I thought the Spurs taught the Clippers how to win after a tough 7 game series. I was wrong. The Clippers are still the Clippers.”
What does the future hold?
Despite the disappointing end to the season, and the franchise’s reputation for underperforming, the team still has a bright future. Although transforming the roster into a true championship contender may be difficult, the team should continue to build on their recent winning ways.
The first priority will be to re-sign their defensive anchor DeAndre Jordan, who’s contract expires at the end of the season. Blake Griffin and Chris Paul are already under contract for the next three years, so it would make sense to try to keep their three-man nucleus together during that time. Under NBA rules, the Clippers will be allowed to offer Jordan more money and a longer contract than any other team, so the allure of a large contract plus playing with Paul and Griffin in Los Angeles will likely keep him in town.
The true key for the team is to find the right blend of complementary players to surround Griffin, Paul, and Jordan. Those three players’ combined salaries will be larger than what they can offer the rest of the team combined, so they will need to be shrewd in finding good values among the league’s free agents to add to their roster, as well as further developing and utilizing the supporting cast they already have. Depth and the team’s bench play was one of the team’s biggest weaknesses, especially in the playoffs.
If they can re-sign DeAndre Jordan, as well as make a few additional smart player signings, then the team should head into next year with high expectations once again.