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Has the NBA Passed the Clippers By?

Doc’s team is playing their worst ball, at the worst possible moment

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

On Thursday, the Clippers rebooted Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, getting absolutely smashed by the Nuggets 129–114. And it didn’t feel that close. The Clippers were without DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin, both of whom were rested for the second leg of a back-to-back, and yes [makes a gesture toward the Rockies] … the air up here. But still. That’s twice in two nights that a younger, stronger, faster, more positionally inventive team has run Los Angeles out of a gym (the Bucks did it on Wednesday). After the game, Clippers guard J.J. Redick took stock:

I’ll do J.J. one better: It feels like the Clippers, these Clippers, the Doc-Chris-Blake-DJ Clippers, started a lifetime ago. And this is the twilight.

Doc Rivers showed up in Los Angeles almost four years ago, and steered the franchise through the turbulent end to the Donald Sterling era. He was the major beneficiary of Steve Ballmer’s purchase of the team, becoming the club’s president of basketball operations, giving him the power to shape the roster as he saw fit. He inherited two top-10 NBA talents in Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, and helped sculpt DeAndre Jordan into an All-Star center, albeit one who can barely be played in crunch time because of his acute free throw allergy.

Under Doc, the Clippers constructed a starting five that checked almost every archetypal box — the floor general point guard, the sweet-shooting shooting guard, the bulldozer power forward, and the paint-patrolling 5. They’ve never been able to fill the 3 spot, though they’ve tried everyone from Matt Barnes to Paul Pierce to Luc Mbah a Moute to Batman. They have the coach’s son and one of the great streak shooters in league history coming off the bench. Every year they assemble a collection of vets for depth, and every year they come up short. Sometimes it’s injuries, sometimes they choke, sometimes it’s both.

And while Doc has been tinkering, adding to his core, or famously working to keep it together, the NBA has changed. It is a land of unicorns, point centers, and Greek Freaks. Watching the Clippers play the Nuggets last night was like watching a 19th-century pugilist fight Conor McGregor. Denver was painting with a different palette, and they had a new kind of artist.

The Clippers were the Clippers. Just older. This is a team that can consistently win 55 games a year, and their starting five, when healthy, is one of the best offensive units of the century. And yet L.A. is the most derided of the NBA’s upper tier, because they’ve never been able to translate their talent into true postseason success. And it doesn’t look like that’s going to change this year.

The Clippers are 4–6 in their last 10, and losers of three in a row. After the Bucks loss, Rivers said:

Doc is treating you like you’re a ref here. Don’t get worked. Yes, the reason the Clippers are being harshly judged is because they haven’t won a title. That is exactly why. It’s unclear what, exactly, Rivers wants: to be judged against the league’s elite, or against an upper middle class that frankly doesn’t exist anymore? Does he think he’s coaching the Pacers? Are the Clippers not supposed to be contenders?

NBA teams are always rising and falling. The Jazz, Bucks, and Rockets can weather ups and downs because they are fresh and new — experiments in tactics and personnel. The Spurs have shown an ability to unearth new talent, develop from within, and attract free agents. They are in an almost constant state of controlled flux.

The Clippers have a self-belief that borders on the absurd. They think that if they just keep plugging away, with the same guys, playing the same style, even against teams like Houston, Golden State, and San Antonio that are trying to relentlessly improve and reinvent themselves, something will break right for them.

And this is why they don’t get the benefit of the doubt. They’ve given us no reason to do so. While they were waiting their turn, the league moved on.