Sport is a funny thing. People often watch the same exact same thing (be it a season, a game, or even a possession) and come to very different opinions about what they have just seen. A built in bias for/against or selective viewing can impact opinion on the various topics of discussion. Even with the advanced analytics and scientific methodology applied to today’s game, there is no limit to the number of conclusions and opinions that can be drawn about a team, player or performance. But the greatest influence of opinion comes from expectations and perception, neither of which have ever been greater for the Los Angeles Clippers. With the season now at an end, management must decide how the Clippers performed based on their own expectations of success, and decide what needs to be done moving forward.
Expectations are a major part of sports. For the Clipper’s in town rivals, anything short of a trip to the Finals is deemed an utter failure. Think about that for a second. In a sport where only 9 different teams have won a Championship in 32 seasons, the Lakers management, fans, and analysts across the country all expect that franchise to compete for and win NBA titles EVERY year. Failing to do so is exactly that, a failure, a lost season. Contrast that with the Los Angeles Clippers, long the laughing stock of the league. Under Larry Brown, the Clippers made the playoffs twice, and it was seen as quite an accomplishment, as the Clippers before (and after) were perennial losers. Though they had some success under Mike Dunleavy, it was not until Chris Paul arrived last year that expectations began to shift for the Clippers. The Clippers were now in a position where not making the playoffs would be viewed as a failure. When they advanced to the second round in the 2012 post season, those expectations were elevated. In 2013, the Clippers were expected not only to make and have home court in the first round of the playoffs, but to advance. Things were changing in Clipper-land.
Well the Clippers made good on some of those expectations this season. They won their first ever pacific division title and stayed within reach of a top two seed in the west for most of the season before a mini slump in the final month. They swept the season series against the rival Lakers for the first time ever and looked dominant in doing so. They won 17 games in a row and posted a perfect 16-0 month. Expectations were high to begin with and continued to grow throughout the year. Up 2-0 in their first round matchup with the Grizzlies, the same team they eliminated just a season before, the Clippers appeared to have a chance to possibly come out of the west and compete for a title. But those expectations were not met, and the Clippers limped out of the playoffs with 4 straight losses, becoming somewhat of a statistical anomaly, as teams that go up 2-0 typically win more than 80% of those series.
The Clippers may not have succeeded in achieving their ultimate goal, but pay no attention to the people out there claiming the Clippers were overrated. It’s a silly suggestion not based on anything at all. They finished the regular season just about where everyone expected them to. Were they overrated when they jumped out to a 2-0 lead in Memphis? Who is to say that the Clippers wouldn’t be a better matchup against Oklahoma City than Memphis is? They were a good basketball team and anyone who watches or analyzes them knows it. They lost to a 56-win team in the playoffs. The Grizzlies played well, and Blake Griffin got hurt. Is anyone questioning how good Chris Paul is? No sane person is. The series could have gone differently, but it didn’t. The question is not whether the Clippers were "overrated." The real is question is where do they go from here? Having the best season in Franchise history AND getting eliminated in the first round creates quite a dichotomy among those who follow the team. It seems most would agree this IS the best team in franchise history, but is that enough?
When coach Vinny Del Negro was hired, the expectations for the Clippers were not so high. They had the makings of a scrappy, athletic team with some major roster holes. In Chicago, he posted consecutive .500 seasons and took a very good Celtics team to 7 games in a first round matchup. He never built a reputation as a great X’s and O’s coach, but his teams played hard for him. With the Clippers, after an initial rough season, the club has set franchise records for winning percentage in each of the last two seasons. Now, the winning coincided with the arrival of Chris Paul and an emerging Blake Griffin, but giving and taking away coaching credit based on players is a shaky science at best. Not too many coaches have won without stars. Consider that Paul won 46 games his last season in New Orleans alongside David West, Willie Green, Trevor Ariza, and Emeka Okafor. A season later he won 40 games in a 66 game lockout shortened season with Blake Griffin, Caron Butler, Deandre Jordan, and Randy Foye.
Still, fans and many in the media would argue that Coach Del Negro is horrible, and he is often made into a punch line. It’s not fair to Del Negro to take away all credit because Chris Paul is there, just as it was not fair to Mike Dunleavy to suggest that the ONLY reason they had success was because Sam Cassell was "the coach on the floor." It has to be noted that under Del Negro, Blake Griffin improved his all around game quite a bit this season, as did Deandre Jordan and Eric Bledsoe. The Clippers team defense was vastly improved this season. On the flip side, there is an argument to be made that there were glaring coaching failures in the postseason. The truth, as it so often does, lies somewhere in the middle. Del Negro is not an awful coach. Nor is he an elite coach. The 2013 Clippers were a talented and deep roster, but not one without holes or room to improve.
For the Clippers, perception shaped expectations, and those expectations were met by a harsh reality: In a conference where 56 wins gets you a 5 seed, there are no easy matchups in the post season. That said, the expectations were not unreasonable; the Clippers proved as much last season. By failing to meet these expectations, the Clippers put themselves in a position where they must now reevaluate their team from top to bottom, starting with the coach. The Clippers revamped their roster after they won in the first round in 2012. The team improved, even if it didn’t translate into playoff success. Not attempting to improve the team this offseason would be foolish. As long as Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are on the roster, the perception will be that this team should be competing for conference championships. For Vinny Del Negro, getting replaced is probably not the fair thing, but that doesn’t make it the wrong move. The same goes for the Clipper players. No player outside of Griffin and Paul should be considered untradeable, and the team should be looking to upgrade at every position possible. Not doing so would be the equivalent of burying their money in the sand.
When the Clippers acquired Chris Paul, they got more than a player who could win basketball games. They got more than someone who could sell season tickets. What they got in that deal was an opportunity for legitimacy. An opportunity to make people forget about the "same ol Clippers" perception that is ingrained in the collective conscious of basketball fans. A chance to change the franchise for good. A chance to raise expectations. The Clips have an opportunity to win now and build towards the future at the same time. They need to be smart, but also bold and unafraid to make changes.
Expectations don’t make things easier in this league, but the Clippers and Chris Paul shouldn’t want it any other way.