“The Clippers are the Wile E. Coyote of basketball. They can’t win. If they win, everything is ruined.”
— Jimmy Kimmel, 2012
In December 2011, the Clippers stole Chris Paul away from the Lakers. Everyone lost their freaking minds. This was like a random jobber winning the WWE title, or Fredo stealing the Corleones from Michael. The Clippers were … cool? Lob City was … a thing? My Clippers tickets were … in demand? With Kobe hitting the 26th mile and the dopey Buss kids spreading their wings, for the first time, the Clippers had a chance to own Los Angeles.
Of course, we never imagined that trade would mushroom into this century’s biggest NBA-related “What if?”
Shout-out to Grantland! We produced that piece more than two years and 27 maybes ago. If Chris Paul goes purple, maybe Draymond never punches LeBron in the balls! Maybe Phil Jackson stays with the Lakers instead of destroying the Knicks! Maybe Nick Young marries Iggy Azalea! Maybe KD never jumps to the Warriors! Maybe Russ never turns into the most shameless ball hog in NBA history!
Maybe the Clippers never … stop being the Clippers?
Different owner, different logo, different coach, higher payroll, better players, longer season, same agony. Since moving to California in 1978, the Clips have won four playoff series (one more than Mike Budenholzer), never played in a conference finals, and never stretched a season past May 22. So many bizarre things happened to them that, in 2009, after no. 1 pick Blake Griffin brashly maintained that he didn’t believe in curses, I wrote him a tongue-in-cheek letter spelling out every scarring Clippers moment since 1976. A few months later, Griffin fractured his kneecap in a preseason game. He missed the whole season. You couldn’t make this shit up.
I bought Clippers season tickets in 2004. For seven years, it felt like owning a haunted house with 18,000 other people. (It still does, actually.) Imagine our surprise when Chris Paul waltzed in like the fearless hero of a straight-to-VOD horror movie, the dude who buys a creepy, discounted mansion even after a chandelier nearly pancaked him the first time he saw it. When the 2012 Clippers won a Game 7 in Memphis, even the most grizzled Clipper diehards believed in their new Point God.
Ten people were murdered here? They built it on an ancient burial ground? It’s fine — I’m the best point guard alive. Things are different now. I got this.
Paul served two years as the mayor of Lob City, turned Griffin into a superstar, filmed adorable commercials, and enjoyed the spoils of a major market. After Doc Rivers replaced Vinny Del Negro, a promising 2014 postseason crumbled under the weight of the Donald Sterling scandal and Game 5’s inconceivable breakdown in OKC. One spring later, they extinguished Duncan’s Spurs in seven (the second-greatest moment in Clippers history) before choking away a 19-point lead in Game 6 against Houston and never recovering (the worst on-court moment in Clippers history). An improbable brawl between Griffin and the team’s equipment manager sent the 2015–16 season into an irrevocable tailspin, and by the spring of 2017, nobody believed in the Clippers anymore.
I skipped most of this year’s regular-season games, venturing to Staples only to watch certain opponents. Watching the grumpy Clippers always felt like double-dating with a mismatched couple that fights for two straight hours. They spent an unfathomable amount of time whining about calls and blew an unfathomable number of fourth-quarter leads. Their beaten-down fans reserved their biggest pops for the possibility of free Chick-Fil-A sandwiches, which they earned the first time an opponent missed two straight free throws. Any time a known brick-thrower like Derrick Favors stepped to the stripe, 18,000 fans lost their goddamned minds.
Did the ticket hikes price out too many diehards? Was it all the late-game collapses? Hard to say. By April, we knew a Round 2 beatdown from Golden State was looming, and only if the crafty Jazz didn’t beat the Clippers first. Lob City was dead. Blake couldn’t jump over a Kia without a trampoline. Chicken sandwiches trumped alley-oops. Los Angeles still belonged to the Lakers. Nearly six years of the Point God had come and gone.
During halftime of Game 2 last Wednesday, with the Clippers trailing 1–0, a friend caught my attention and asked, “Could this be it? What if it’s the last half at home with this crew?”
“You’re not losing tonight,” I told him.
“Nah, too easy,” I told him. “Doesn’t feel Clippers-y enough.”
They rallied to take Game 2, flew to Utah for Game 3 … and Blake broke his toe. Out for the playoffs. Now THAT felt like the Clippers.
Before Tuesday’s pivotal Game 5, you could purchase lower-bowl tickets on SeatGeek for less than face value. My buddy Tollin and I have shared my tickets since 2010, after I nearly dumped them in despair because of Griffin’s broken kneecap. Tollin talked me out of it and took half the games. Our section is filled with fans who grabbed midcourt seats in 1984, after the Clippers arrived from San Diego as a cheaper alternative to the Showtime Lakers. (That’s like saying a four-day-old McRib is a cheaper alternative to a bone-in filet mignon, but still.) The dude sitting in front of us for Game 5 confessed that the owner of his seats — one of the original 1984 accounts — had gifted him the entire strip of playoff tickets. What? Why?
“He said he was done,” the guy said. “He’s been coming since ’84. He said that he couldn’t take it anymore.”
And that’s someone who lived through Benoit Benjamin, Michael Olowokandi, Bo Kimble, Fat Baron Davis, Vinny Del Negro’s clogged-toilet offense, Tim Thomas jogging between the 3-point lines, Fat Stanley Roberts and Hot Plate Williams, approximately 290 blown-out ACLs, Sterling, dressed in all black, at midcourt leering at cheerleaders and every other sobering Clippers moment. That racist slumlord asshole spent over three decades hawking the illusion of hope — ping-pong balls, troubled talents with a ton of potential and, occasionally, one talented player who made everyone believe things might turn around. (They never did.) Anyone who bought Clippers tickets wanted discount NBA basketball. We wanted Kobe and Nash twice a year, LeBron once a year, the latest hot rookie … and if the Clippers were vaguely watchable, we considered that a bonus.
My favorite Clippers season happened in 2008–09, when they finished 19–63 and Baron Davis looked six months pregnant. Tim Thomas did everything short of screaming, “I don’t give a shit!” after he bricked 3s. They brought in Zach Randolph AND Ricky Davis, right before Z-Bo turned his career around, as we wondered if they were secretly filming an HBO dramedy about an insane basketball team. Poor DeAndre Jordan spent his rookie year perfecting fist bumps and chest bumps, because God forbid they played anyone with potential on a 19-win team. And coach/GM Mike Dunleavy — I mean, just that phrase is funny enough in and of itself. That team was hilarious and hopeless. Can you really put a price on entertainment like this?
Eight years later, the Clippers are expensive and hopeless. They charge hefty prices for a noncontender with a broken nucleus. They pay Doc Rivers one of the NBA’s biggest non-player salaries to coach AND assemble the roster, in case you’re wondering how the Clippers started the second half of Game 5 with ancient Paul Pierce and rock-throwing Luc Mbah a Moute as two of their five. (My God.) It’s not funny. It’s just sad. Everyone in my section waited for two hours for the Clippers to blow Game 5. They did. That’s a rough place to be.
Year 7 of a Griffin-Paul-Jordan nucleus makes about as much sense as a Batman v Superman sequel. Why lavish Griffin with a $150 million extension when he’s been under the knife more times than the Kardashians? Sign-and-trade rules prevent them from flipping Griffin in July; they’d have to convince him to exercise his 2017–18 option for $21.3 million, THEN trade him. Like Griffin would pass up an extra $110 million in free agency when he’s endured something like seven surgeries already. What’s worse — spending $150 million on a once-athletic forward who might be breaking down, spending $200 million on a Hall of Fame point guard right as he’s leaving his prime, or spending $350 million on both?
(Quick tangent: I enjoyed the hell out of Blake’s prime and maintain that, by the second round of the 2015 playoffs, he was the league’s third-best player. His body just can’t seem to cooperate. It’s a bummer. Even before his latest injury, the 28-year-old Griffin rarely jumped over guys anymore, and his half-court game had regressed enough that “back my defender down, then lurch into him like a marlin that just got pulled out of the ocean” actually became one of his go-to moves. I used to love watching him, so I don’t enjoy writing any of this. Well, except for the thrashing like a marlin part. I enjoyed that. Everything else, no.)
Rivers recently compared his current nucleus to Utah’s Malone-and-Stockton teams, with the implication being, Those guys were great, too, and it took them forever to make the Finals. He’s right and he’s wrong. Utah stayed relevant from 1988 through 1996, losing conference finals to the ’92 Blazers, ’94 Rockets and ’96 Sonics. They were very good, but never great. Once Malone and Stockton reached their mid-30s, they belatedly made the Finals twice. According to Rivers, that meant the Griffin-Paul nucleus could belatedly make the Finals, too.
One problem: You can’t compare mid-1990s basketball to mid-2010s basketball. The league brazenly over-expanded from 1988 to 1995, adding six teams without nearly enough quality players to go around. And a slew of future stars never reached their potential because of drugs, injuries, immaturity, failed potential and Too Much/Too Soon Syndrome (too much money too soon). Even if the ’97 Jazz were older and less dynamic than a superior ’92 Jazz team, their competition cratered enough that it didn’t matter.
These days, we’re in the middle of the NBA’s biggest talent boom since MJ’s pre-baseball apex; it doesn’t help that the greatest team in 20 years shares Doc’s division. His Clippers can’t wait it out like those Jazz teams did. They missed their title window in 2014 and 2015, when they employed two of the league’s best 10 players and couldn’t cash in. The Clippers squandered the Point God’s prime. And only because they’re the Clippers. Even if they repair a flawed roster this summer, it might be too late. The Point God might be too old.
If Chris Paul felt pressure on Tuesday night, you couldn’t tell from the stands. He carried himself the same way he always does — the brilliant tyrant, the frustrated artist, the grating perfectionist, the relentless competitor always searching for an edge. He bossed teammates around, snapped at coaches, barked at referees, chipped opponents on screens, stomped around with his angry Fred Sanford walk, even goaded Gordon Hayward into nearly slugging him. (Hayward settled on screaming “MOTHERFUCKER!”) In other words, it was like every other Chris Paul game.
You know how Russell Westbrook hogs the ball too much? Chris Paul never hogs it enough. He borrows Isiah Thomas’s model of making teammates better for 42 minutes, then taking over the last six. He’s a better, more efficient, more durable version of Thomas — someone I still consider to be the best pure point guard I ever watched.
You can’t fairly compare their numbers since Isiah’s generation never valued 3s; he certainly lacked the training/dieting/video/travel/spacing advantages that Chris enjoys now. But unlike Chris, occasionally Isiah would just GO OFF, like Curry or Kyrie on their hottest nights. What Isiah accomplished in Game 6 of the 1988 Finals ranks among the best playoff performances ever. Chris Paul never could have done it. Why? Because he never would have thought about doing it. The Point God simply isn’t wired that way. It’s his biggest flaw.
Isiah headed into Game 6 thinking, “We’re up 3–2, we’re on the road, they can’t defend me, I can’t let this get to Game 7, I’m going for the jugular.” He finished with 43 points on 18-of-32 shooting — only two 3s! — dished out eight assists and dropped 25 in the third quarter, many of them after badly spraining his ankle. He spent the fourth quarter limping around and persevering, filming a sports movie with a shitty ending that absolutely should have been rewritten. The Pistons blew the final minute, then they blew Game 7. But Isiah’s Game 6 lives on.
What pushed Isiah to that desperate place? What pushed him to sob on Dan Patrick’s ESPN show years later while watching the tape? Years of pain. Years of falling short. Years of hearing that the Pistons couldn’t succeed with a puny guard as their best guy. They were one year removed from one of the worst playoff collapses in any sport — Game 5 and Game 7 in Boston — and after anguishing over it for 12 months, Isiah wanted redemption so badly that a swollen ankle couldn’t even stop him.
I believe Chris Paul cares just as much as Isiah did. But if Thomas brought the Clippers into Game 5 — with Griffin gone, with Redick slumping, with a one-in-four chance that Jamal Crawford might get hot, with the CP-Blake-Doc era heading for a precarious end — he would have tossed away the “42 minutes for you, last 6 for me” mantra and owned the game. Isiah would have thrown the Clippers on his back, engaged the crowd, pulled them into it, played off their energy, made everyone believe.
Like Magic and Bird, Thomas understood the balance between performance and art. It wasn’t just about winning or putting up numbers. It was about the way you resonated — with everyone. It was about extracting the best performances from every teammate, challenging their manhood, pushing them, making them believe in themselves (and you, too). Nobody had built an NBA champion around a small guard until those Pistons teams did it twice. And they did it because Thomas grasped every nuance of that position — everything — and performed accordingly.
Chris came so freaking close. Again, he’s a better version of Isiah in almost every way. Better defender. Better shooter. Better on pick-and-rolls. I believe that Chris’s signature move — go left to right, veer to the right of the foul line, hint that you’re driving, then uncork the 15-foot fallaway — doubles as the most unstoppable two-point shot in the history of that position except for Magic’s junior skyhook. It’s certainly deadlier than anything Thomas had.
But I don’t believe Isiah would have squandered Game 5, and here’s why …
38 minutes, 28 points, 9 assists, 2 turnovers, 10–19 FG, 4–4 FT.
That’s a perfectly fine line. Seriously. Kudos to Chris Paul. But if you showed me that line BEFORE Game 5, I would have said four words to you: “The Clippers are done.”
They needed 40 from him. Minimum. How else were they getting to 100? Rivers blamed Griffin’s absence after the game, believing that Paul wore down early as the team’s only ball handler. Expect him to start Crawford or Austin Rivers in Game 6 to share that load. Then again, if Paul can’t handle the ball for 38 minutes in a must-win playoff game without wearing down, maybe Father Time is coming sooner than we thought.
Let’s say they lose to Utah in six. And let’s say the Clippers never contend again. How much would you hold it against Chris Paul? If you judge him for never sniffing a conference finals, the Basketball Police come screaming with pages and pages of advanced metrics and statistical pitchforks. Remember, numbers matter more than winning now. Westbrook hogs the ball to alarming degrees, makes every teammate the same or worse, wins one playoff game … and he’s going to be our MVP. Anthony Davis leads his team to 34 wins and the lottery … he’s going to be our first-team All-NBA center. That’s where we are.
And I don’t love the Ringz Culture, either. But there has to be a middle ground. If Chris Paul is really the Point God, why can’t he carry the Clippers past the well-rounded Jazz when he’s the best player in the series? Why isn’t a top-3 center, some shooters, and home court enough to win one fricking round?
If Chris Paul is really the Point God, how should we explain his monumental collapse in Game 5 of the OKC series in 2014 — the final 20 seconds, with the Clippers leading by two, when Westbrook stripped Paul for an indefensible turnover, then Paul fouled Westbrook shooting a 3, then Paul dribbled the potential game-saving possession off of his foot? Has a better player ever had a worse 20 seconds?
If Chris Paul is really the Point God, how did the Clippers blow a 19-point lead in Game 6 of the 2015 Rockets series to Josh Smith and Corey Brewer — AND WITH JAMES HARDEN SULKING ON THE BENCH? That wasn’t just one of the worst playoff losses ever, it’s the single-biggest basketball choke job I’ve ever witnessed in person. And I was there for “Bird steals it … over to DJ, he lays it in!” This was worse.
And again, it’s an unassailable résumé at this point: 12 seasons, nine straight All-Star Games, four assists titles, six steals titles, four All-NBA first teams, three second teams, one third team, a decent chance to become the first player with 20,000 points and 10,000 assists. For his career, he’s 19 and 10 (834 games) and 21 and 10 (74 playoff games), and he’s one of three players (along with Steve Nash and John Stockton) to shoot 45/35/80% while averaging at least eight assists per game for his entire career. Oh, and he’s sixth in PER (25.7), third in assists per game, fifth in steals per game and first in offensive rating (123). Repeat: first. Out of everyone.
CP3 could retire tomorrow as one of the seven best point guards ever. I would rank them like this …
(With Curry climbing and Frazier, Kidd, Stockton, GP and Russ fighting for the next five spots.)
He also goes down as one of the most frustrating superstars I ever followed. You know what I wanted on Tuesday night? Pain and greatness. I wanted to stare into his basketball soul like we did during 2015’s Spurs series, when he gave us a glimpse and even drained the series-winning shot. I wanted to watch someone examine the mortality of their position, and their franchise, and their career — 12 years at the highest of high levels, knowing point guards rarely thrive for longer than that — and mutter to himself Jack Walsh–style, “I’ve come toooooooo far …”
The Clippers needed 40 from him. Chris Paul gave them 28. A wonderfully efficient, exceedingly well-done 28. Fuck.
The history of the point guard position warns that Paul’s performance will decline within the next three years. Little guys age well in Hollywood, just not the NBA. Only five players averaged 18 points and 9 assists in their 12th season or later: Chris Paul, Magic Johnson, Lenny Wilkens, Gary Payton and Jerry West. Every all-time point guard faded dramatically after Year 12, with the exception of Nash, who stayed ahead of his peers with dieting, sleeping and conditioning.
Nash’s defining game happened in the 2007 Spurs series, Game 1, when someone crushed him in the nose and he kept playing. Almost like a beaten-up MMA fighter who just took a flying elbow. He kept going. Pain and greatness. I expected that from Paul in Game 5, only he waited too long; he scored 15 of his 28 points in the fourth quarter. Maybe he’s throwing on his Point God cape for Game 6. But if there’s a silver lining with Paul’s inevitable (and dangerous) $201 million extension this summer, it’s how the last few years of Nash’s career played out.
Nash Years 9–12: 17.5 ppg, 11.2 apg, 51/45/90%
Nash Years 13–15: 15.6 ppg, 10.7 apg, 50/42/93%
Nash Years 16–19: LAKERS FANS LOOK AWAY
Again, the Clippers don’t have a choice. They have to pony up that CP3 cash. In an extended L.A. landscape littered with two NFL teams, two NBA teams, two major college programs, two MLB teams, two hockey teams and (soon) two MLS teams, Steve Ballmer’s franchise could disappear overnight. Throw in HD televisions, streaming services, the second-screen generation, the secondary market and an overwhelming amount of content choices every night, and the question remains … do you need season tickets for anything anymore?
Expect the Clippers to splurge on Blake and Chris, say all the right things, then shop Griffin starting in December. (They missed their window with that, too.) Eventually, CP3 will start breaking down — maybe Year 14, maybe Year 15, but it’s coming — and by 2020, paying Chris Paul $40 million a year will look like Ballmer’s dumbest idea since Microsoft bought Skype. The NBA lottery will happily welcome back its old friend, the bumbling L.A. Clippers. Ticket prices will free fall. Some fans will worry about Ballmer moving their team to Seattle; others will wonder if it’s for the best. Dysfunction will be the norm. The Clippers will feel like the Clippers again.
Very little of this is Paul’s fault. But I worry about basketball, and where we are, and how we value things. Westbrook takes 152 shots in a five-game series, only it’s OK because he doesn’t have any help. (Just wide-open teammates standing in the corners with their hands up.) Paul scores 28 points in a must-win game when his team needed 40 from him, only his offensive rating remained spectacular, so he remains our Point God. Maybe Friday night in Utah, with another season on the line, we’ll see Chris Paul actually earn it.