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The Clippers Are Just Waiting to Be Whole Again

Blake is back, just in time for the team’s roughest stretch of the season. But, as fans and critics will tell you, nothing matters until the playoffs.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Imagine if the Clippers were healthy right now. It doesn’t exactly require a VR headset — want to feel old? The Clippers started the season 14–2 — but you might as well put one on; their actual reality isn’t going to get much better from now until April. Look at all the alternate universes wherein the Clippers are fully intact and neck-and-neck with the Spurs for the title of second-best team in the West (even in the vastness of every conceivable timeline, this VR headset I’m wearing seems to have a suffocating Silicon Valley bias). But we’re stuck in the universe we’re in. The one where Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are two ships continually passing in the night; the one where Austin Rivers is the veteran stepping up and calling out the team’s poor effort; the one where crippling postseason ennui has already been projected onto the franchise, and we haven’t even made it to the All-Star break.

I haven’t been able to think about the Clippers, especially during the most turbulent moments of the season, without also thinking about Houston. The Rockets have been the beneficiary of one of the most successful rebranding campaigns in recent memory, in any medium. The Rockets gave their superstar the coolest title in basketball: point guard; with the tenets of Moreyball firmly entrenched in the team’s DNA, they brought in Mike D’Antoni to make it fun — the equivalent of a substitute teacher tossing the math worksheets in the trash and introducing the class to the rudiments of clay pottery. The Rockets went from one of the most reviled teams in the league to one that exuberantly refracts its cult appeal. There’s a part of me that’s convinced that the Clippers have a similar metamorphosis in them, if they could ever be healthy again.

There’s a cult favorite hidden under all the detritus. Steel yourself from Hack-a-Jordan, from Resting Blake Face, from the apparent fact that Everybody Hates Chris, and you might see something almost noble in what Doc Rivers has maintained in L.A. Imagine a chef stubbornly trying to keep a floundering restaurant just above water because he knows the staff is on the verge of creating a perfect dish — not a perfect restaurant, but a perfect dish. Imagine believing that’s something worth sticking to, worth risking collapse for. That’s what Rivers sees in the Clippers’ core starters.

There is a rare synergy whenever Paul, Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, and J.J. Redick are on the floor at the same time. Together, they play beautiful, dominant basketball. Every possession is a new one-off reenactment of Raiders of the Lost Ark: Walls formed by Griffin and Jordan are erected and collapsed, creating windows of opportunity for Paul and Redick to find space on the floor where there previously was none. A wide-open Redick 3-pointer off a curl is one likely result; a detonation of the entire play with an absurd alley-oop to either Griffin or Jordan is another. Seriously, what other team could possibly think this is a good idea, and then nearly get away with executing it?

Their labyrinthine offense is built on an intimate understanding of how each player instinctively plays the pick-and-roll as part of the main action and the side action, which is something that can be achieved only through playing a significant amount of time together as a unit. It’s time not usually afforded. But Doc has entrusted those four for a reason: The Clippers have been one of the most staggeringly efficient teams in basketball over the four seasons they’ve seen the court together.

Of course, Rivers’s starting players have long held a particular significance to him. Who could forget 2010, when he noted in a radio interview that the Lakers had yet to beat the Celtics in a seven-game series when all five players of Boston’s starting lineup were healthy. It was the perfect excuse at the time, when both teams appeared to have revived one of the NBA’s most iconic rivalries, but in the years since, it’s felt like a hex Rivers had put upon himself.

“We know when we’re healthy we’re as good as anyone,” Rivers said earlier this week. “But we’re not healthy right now so you go into survival mode. We’ve gotten good at that over the last two-three years, unfortunately.”

The Paul-Griffin-Jordan-Redick quartet already feels as old as the granite that Mount Rushmore was carved out of. That’s because it’s exceedingly uncommon for a team to maintain four core starters for such a long period of time; teams, depending on their construction, are usually buoyed by one or two stars with a rotating cast of starters to fill in the blanks. But with the Clippers’ core four, it’s not just how many years they’ve been together, it’s how many minutes they’ve actually played together. (Hint: They’ve played a ridiculous number of minutes together.) In the three and a half years since both Rivers and Redick joined the Clippers, those four players have played 3,965 minutes (regular season and playoffs) as a unit in 168 games, numbers that won’t change until the tail end of the season, when Paul makes his return. The only other four-man lineup that comes close is the Warriors’ old Death Lineup configuration, sans Andre Iguodala: Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Harrison Barnes played 3,411 minutes together in that span, but they did it in 240 games.

That’s right. The Clippers’ core four have played 554 more minutes together than the Warriors’ now-defunct unit, despite appearing in 72 fewer games. It’s almost as if Rivers is sticking with this core in hopes of some Gladwellian breakthrough; 3,965 minutes isn’t 10,000 hours, but considering how difficult it is to even maintain efficiency among four players for that sustained amount of time, it has to be close, right?

It also speaks to how snakebitten the team has been with regard to injuries: As it stands, the Paul-Griffin-Jordan-Redick lineup has managed to play together for more than 29 regular-season games only once in their four seasons together, though that could change depending on how soon Paul returns to the court (they’ve played 25 games together this year). The outlying season was 2014–15, when the quartet played a staggering 1,570 minutes together in the regular season (nearly doubling those of the aforementioned Warriors lineup); they played an additional 302 postseason minutes, which made it the fourth-most-used lineup despite appearing in only 12 games. According to Elias Sports Bureau data I looked into back in 2015, the Clippers played their starters for 73 percent of their total playoff minutes that season, which is about as extreme as it gets in the 21st century this side of D’Antoni’s Seven Seconds or Less Suns.

Had Josh Smith not magically transformed into Ray Allen in Game 6 of the Western Conference semis in 2015, and had the shock of that transformation not completely rotted L.A.’s collective willpower, we might be remembering the Clippers differently. They probably wouldn’t have come away with a championship, or a Finals berth, but D’Antoni proved you don’t need either to become an iconic coach for an iconic team. Rivers has remained consistent in his convictions — what have the past four seasons of Clippers basketball been if not a condensed version of Ubuntu, where the concept of mutually beneficial, multilayered codependence truly exists only in the starting lineup? Those convictions aren’t too dissimilar from D’Antoni’s philosophy in Phoenix of playing six-deep in the regular season and the playoffs. The difference? Maybe it was D’Antoni’s access to an exceptional medical staff, a component that the Clippers have only recently begun to look into, as detailed by ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh.

The interplay among Paul, Griffin, Jordan, and Redick is one of the great joys of the modern game, and its brilliance can be appreciated courtside, on TV, and even in the nosebleeds, each angle emphasizing a different aspect of their mastery together. And yet what has kept me intrigued for so long is Doc’s sheer commitment to the dream. Amid uncertainty in all areas of the franchise, amid the calls for a trade, the calls to stagger his lineups to make the best use of Paul and Griffin’s creativity, he’s remained insistent on the same platonic ideal he’s had since he arrived in L.A.

“We don’t change much about how we go about our business,” Rivers said. “We run the same sets, the same approach. Obviously it’s a little different without Chris on the floor but we don’t do any major changes. Everything’s the same.”

And everything will remain the same until it’s suddenly not. While it’s unlikely that they’ll all jump ship, Paul, Griffin, and Redick have escape valves this offseason should things go horribly wrong with the franchise — though it’s hard to imagine any of them turning down the kind of money only the Clippers can offer. The team, with a rusty Blake Griffin leading the way, is about to embark on a grueling 10-game stretch: eight on the road, eight against teams currently in the playoff picture, and three against Golden State. We won’t learn much in that time; the consistency with which a Clippers season ebbs and flows and the notions of remaining put until all the pieces fall back into place render the rest of the regular season void. Nothing about the team matters until the playoffs come around; the Clippers have become their own cliché. But I haven’t given up on the Clippers, if only out of morbid curiosity. Doc Rivers is still obsessing over the plating of the dish. I want to see if he can nail it before the roof caves in.