Since the end of their first-round loss to the Utah Jazz, the Los Angeles Clippers have seen hundreds of thousands of words written about how they - as a team - are done. This article is more about this specific season. Once again, they were both successful and failures.
The Clippers have won at least 60% of their games every year since Chris Paul came to town. Coming into the season, there were endless questions surrounding this team: Will Blake stay healthy? Is Chris Paul getting too old/beaten up? Is this team ever going to get over the hump? Is DeAndre Jordan great enough at the things he's great at to make up for the things he is not great at? Is Doc Rivers actually good at his job? Is this the last chance for these guys? Does having a top-5 payroll mean anything? Will any of this team's stars be on the team next year? Is the bench mediocre, bad, or laugh-out-loud terrible? Does Blake Griffin remember what it was like to jump over people? Why is Steve Ballmer so goofy? Is that what being a billionaire is like? Will Chris Paul punch someone in the crotch this year? Is Blake Griffin sending a message by not doing State Farm commercials with his teammates? If yes, can we get him to admit that those commercials are a blight on an otherwise terrific basketball league? Will Chris Paul make it to the conference finals this year? Does anyone actually like the Clippers?
There are more, surely, but a smattering works to show that this was going to be a big season one way or another for the Clippers. Unfortunately, it seems to have been big for the wrong reason.
Doc Rivers did well enough as a coach to once again slide his team into the 4th position in the west. At 51-31, this was their lowest win total since the strike-shortened 2011-2012 campaign. Rivers has been criticized for his work as an executive, but we'll get to the decisions he's facing soon. His coaching work included fighting through 20 missed games for both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, plus a surprisingly old roster (JJ Redick is 11 months older than Chris Paul!).
For their part, the Clippers players were also a muddled bunch. Sure, Chris Paul continued to dazzle, despite those 20 missed games. DeAndre Jordan finished top 10 in the league in the following categories: Rebounds per game, blocks per game, defensive rating, offensive rating, defensive win shares, offensive rebounds, and shooting percentage. He was terrific. He has been worth the $88 million contract he signed before last season. But he's not the type of player to carry a team offensively.
Then there's Blake Griffin. What do we make of Blake Griffin? Lately, Blake Griffin is not the same player he was a few years ago. Sure, he should shoot more threes if he's starting to make some of the open ones. But do you remember when this was Blake Griffin?
BG dunked 2.545 times per game over the first four years of his career. In the past three seasons, he's dunked 1.15 times per game. He is just not the same player he used to be. He's still a charismatic star, he's still a 20+ point scorer, and he's still only 27 years old. He's going to get max offers this summer, and more power to him for getting them, but it'll be very interesting to see how that plays out as he hasn't played more than 67 games in the past three years.
So, the Clippers. They got in at the 4th seed again. They went 11-2 down the stretch, beating Utah, Washington, and others over that run. They even got me wondering if they were peaking at the right time and poised to plow through round one.
They did not. Blake got hurt again, CP and DeAndre could only do so much on their own, and the Jazz played just well enough to get it done. The supporting cast in the playoffs included 36-year-old Jamal Crawford, 39-year-old Paul Pierce, and 32-but-feels-like-38-because-of-weight-problems Ray Felton. Not ideal against the Jazz. As such, LA looked OK but lost.
Look at the numbers in the regular season. Look at Los Angeles's rankings in the team/opponent stats. They were a pretty good team. The biggest problem that the Clippers have is that there's nothing fundamentally bad about their team except free throw shooting. Rebounding was a bit of an issue, but not a "these guys suck" issue.
Unfortunately, once again, they met a tough team in the playoffs and the breaks just happened to go the wrong way. There's no shame in losing a 7-game series to this Jazz team. Utah had the league's best defense and LA had to face them without their starting PF for four of the seven games. There really is no shame in that. But it always happens to the Clippers.
The Clippers are stuck in NBA purgatory. They're not good enough to get into heaven (late-round playoffs), or bad enough to get into hell (lottery, although it would be understandable if you flipped which one was which). They're inspirational to a team like the Minnesota Timberwolves - reaching the playoffs six straight years would be huge. On the other hand, they're an embarrassment by not getting past the 2nd round in any of those six playoff trips. They're only as good as a 51-55 win team should be. It's the 60 win teams who should be feared in the playoffs.
What's next? Who knows. The Clippers had the 4th highest-paid team in the NBA last year, and if they were to re-sign just one of the Paul/Griffin duo to a max contract, they'd be near the salary cap with several spots open on the roster. That has been discussed in multiple places, so we need not look at contract options.
The point is simple: The Clippers had a pretty good year. They also failed. That is the story of the Los Angeles Clippers and it has been for several years now.
Los Angeles is in an unenviable position. If they fail in the off-season, they can kiss Purgatory goodbye.
No one would be surprised.