The Clippers were the last team in the NBA to make their debut this season, but fans who didn’t stay up late to catch the second half of the TNT doubleheader didn’t miss anything they hadn’t seen a million times before. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin were threading passes through traffic, DeAndre Jordan was rolling to the rim and missing free throws, and J.J. Redick was running off screens and firing jumpers. The Clippers are exactly how you remember them. They still don’t have a fifth starter they can rely on, they are still getting into altercations with other teams, and they are still working the refs within an inch of their lives.
The same old Clippers were more than enough to beat the Blazers, who put up a good fight in a 114–106 loss. Winning a regular-season game in October hardly counts as revenge for losing a playoff series, but it’s a reminder that the Blazers beat an injury-riddled Clippers squad in the first round last season, one that didn’t have either Paul or Griffin available by the end of the series. It was the latest in a long string of playoff heartbreaks for the Clippers, who have famously never advanced out of the second round despite being one of the best teams in the NBA over the past five seasons. All those defeats hang over the franchise like a dark cloud, and it’s impossible to think about anything this team does without wondering whether it will help it get over the hump in May and June.
The Clippers have been relevant for so long that they’ve watched in real time the way in which the league has changed around them while they have stayed the same. The best example of that is the guy who was guarding Griffin on Thursday. The Blazers’ starting power forward last season was Noah Vonleh, an athletic 6-foot-10 big man with a developing outside shot. This season, the Blazers went smaller at the position, shifting Al-Farouq Aminu, a former Clippers lottery pick, from the 3 to the 4. Against the Blazers, Griffin adjusted the way in which he attacked his defender. Instead of exploiting his speed to get around bigger and slower defenders, he used his strength to overpower smaller and thinner ones. Blake is trying to expand his shooting range this season (he shot 1-for-3 from the 3-point line against Portland), but his biggest matchup advantage against the Blazers came when he put his defender on his back and sealed him in the lane.
Unlike Griffin, who continues to add weapons to his arsenal every season, Paul maxed out his game long ago. He can do everything that can be done on a basketball court at a high level, or at least everything that a player his size is capable of. He came into the league over a decade ago as a speed demon, but these days, he’s getting by more on guile than athleticism. Paul is a perennial first-team all-defensive selection who plays a high-intensity brand of defense, getting up in his opponent’s dribble and hounding him all over the floor. But with each passing year, it becomes clearer he isn’t close to the athlete he once was. He no longer defends opposing point guards the entire game; Thursday night, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute started on Damian Lillard. However, that’s just about the only concession to age Paul has made, despite playing in his 12th season.
After so many seasons together, Griffin, Paul, Redick, and Jordan could run sets with their eyes closed. The other team knows what they are going to do, but the precision of the Clippers’ execution means it almost doesn’t matter. When Griffin and Paul are in the two-man game, when Redick is running off screens, or when Jordan is crashing the glass, the defense has to commit extra guys to stop them, leaving another option open. The Clippers led the league in offensive rating in their first two seasons under Doc Rivers, and they would have been right there again last season if Griffin hadn’t missed most of the year after breaking his hand on an equipment manager’s face.
The only differences in Los Angeles this season are on the margins. With so much money invested in their core four, the Clippers have struggled to put together a good supporting cast, and it seems like they open every season talking up a new and improved bench. All their roster moves came up golden on Thursday, as new additions Marreese Speights (plus-20 in 16 minutes) and Raymond Felton (plus-17 in 16 minutes) spearheaded bench units that crushed the Blazers. Speights was 2-for-3 from beyond the arc, and the hope is he can be the stretch big man the Clippers were looking for when they signed Byron Mullens and Spencer Hawes in 2013 and 2014, respectively. The Clippers having a second unit capable of winning games instead of coughing up leads would be a welcome change of pace.
One reason the Clippers bench has been weak is Rivers’s refusal to stagger the minutes of his starters. That’s another leaguewide trend that has snuck up on the Clippers, as most NBA teams try to always keep at least one or two starters in the game. The Blazers are a perfect example, as they almost never play without either Lillard or C.J. McCollum on the floor. Splitting up the playing time of their best two players gives bench players a star they can play off of, and it gives each of their stars ample time over the course of the game to dominate the ball and use as many possessions as their heart desires. Of course, that comes with a downside: There is less time in the game for both players to threaten defenses together, and Paul and Griffin are virtually unstoppable together. It’s why Rivers has been reluctant to split up Paul and Griffin in the first place. Before Griffin’s quad injury at Christmas last season, Paul had played 89 minutes without him. In that same time frame, Lillard had played 365 minutes without McCollum.
Rivers’s refusal to stagger minutes impacts the way the Clippers construct their roster. The team is in constant need of shot creators on the bench because their second-unit players have to create most of their own offense. Jamal Crawford and Austin Rivers are two of the most ball-hungry reserves in the league, and whether it’s Josh Smith and Lance Stephenson last season, or Felton and Speights this season, the Clippers have never had a shortage of players who can get their own shot off the dribble. There are advantages to that type of independence; with enough shot creators in reserve roles, an off night from the team’s star players isn’t as daunting. On Thursday, Portland was unable to overcome a poor night from McCollum, who was 5-for-12 from the field with three turnovers and was minus-18 in 38 minutes.
However, one good night from the Clippers bench means only so much. Thursday night’s matchup highlighted exactly the kind of talent they need in supporting roles, but have never been able to obtain. It’s impossible to watch versatile defensive forwards with scoring ability like Aminu and Moe Harkless, pure shooters with length like Allen Crabbe, and two-way big men like Ed Davis and not wonder how they would look next to Paul and Griffin. The Clippers reserves replicate what their best players do, and there isn’t much synergy when they are all playing together. When Crawford or Rivers is holding the ball, they are taking the ball out of the hands of better players, and when they are playing off the ball, they aren’t contributing all that much.
The great irony is that Neil Olshey, the Blazers GM, was running the Clippers when they assembled their core. Rivers, who took over as coach and senior VP of basketball operations in 2013, inherited a full cupboard, and even his best acquisition (Redick) came at the expense of losing Eric Bledsoe, a young and talented prospect of the previous regime. For the most part, Rivers has spent the past few seasons signing veterans on short-term deals and making minor trades. In that time, his son is the only young player whom the franchise has developed into a contributor. The Clippers could have drafted Crabbe in 2013, but they picked Reggie Bullock instead, and they didn’t give Bullock much of a chance to play before shipping him off to Phoenix. They just haven’t placed much of an emphasis on draft and development, and that’s the best way to find affordable players who can fill out your roster.
The Clippers don’t draft well, they don’t stagger minutes, and they don’t have a lot of lineup versatility. Those are all small issues when you have the kind of star power they possess, but their playoff losses over the past few seasons have been by the tiniest of margins. They have consistently been on the wrong side of history, and they don’t seem to have learned any lessons from that. Maybe they were just unlucky, or maybe they needed to make bigger changes to their decision-making process and overall philosophy in the offseason. The shame is, with Paul, Griffin, and Redick entering free agency next summer, this group might not get the chance to try it another way before being broken up. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, the Clippers lost their way a long time ago.