As Clipper fans, we're of course used to this ritual. You miss the playoffs, despite some promising talent and seemingly loads of potential, and then you begin dreaming of next season. The team will find a missing piece in the draft, some of the younger players will improve over the summer, the key players will stay healthy next season, etc. etc.
But somehow it feels different this April. The unaccustomed weight of expectations is dragging our buoyant 'just wait til next year' spirit down into the pit of despair. It's hard to believe, but after decades of futility, it seems that the one thing that could crush the hopes of ClipperNation is a playoff series win. 15 consecutive seasons with losing records and continual rebuilding we can cope with - missing the playoffs with the SAME TEAM that was within a game of the Western Conference Finals - now THAT'S depressing.
After Elton Brand was snubbed for the All Star team back in February, I hypothesized about what people would think of his 2006-2007 season had his 2005-2006 season never happened. If Elton had averaged career highs in scoring and field goal percentage while also having top 10 performances in rebounding and blocked shots, it would be pretty damn ridiculous to call him a 'disappointment'.
The same thing could be asked of the team. How would we feel if the 2005-2006 Clippers had never happened? Would we feel better or worse about our prospects going forward? If the MDsr era was a steady curve up to the foothills of respectability (28 wins, 37 wins, 40 wins) instead of a rapid climb to the peaks of contention followed by a plummet off a cliff (28, 37, 47, 40)? We'd feel a little better about having this coach signed for four more years, that's for sure.
This season's Clippers played terrific defense compared to the teams from 2005 and before. This season's Clippers were in playoff contention until the last game of the season, despite playing without one or both of their point guards since the All Star Break. A couple of breaks, continued improvement based on continuity of coach and roster, an injury-free season from Sam Cassell, and this team will be in the playoffs next year with or without Shaun Livingston, right?
But of course last season did happen. It wasn't just a dream, although at this point it does appear to have been an illusion. Dreaming wistfully of the things that might have been different in order to make the playoffs is more than a little pathetic when missing the playoffs wasn't considered a realistic possibility at the beginning of the season. Being better defensively than Clipper teams of the past is irrelevant when this team was so much worse defensively than last season's edition. And in particular, attaching our hopes to the development of young players (Kaman and Livingston) and the health of older players (Cassell and to a lesser extent Mobley) is not something we're willing to do again. Been there. Done that. As George W. Bush once said, "Fool me once, shame on ... shame on... you... fool me... you can't get fooled again."
Still, it's also nice to know that the potential is real. This roster really is playoff-caliber, and it's not just ClipperNationals drinking Kool-aid. We saw them win 47 games. We saw them dismantle the Nuggets. We saw them outplay the Suns. It really did happen. And so, in theory, it could happen again.
But there's one big problem in all of this. There's no room at the Inn. In our most optimistic moments last May, no one really thought the Clippers were going to be better than the big three (Spurs, Mavs, Suns) in the foreseeable future. The only way was for Shaun Livingston AND Chris Kaman to develop into All Stars - not out of the realm of possibility at the time, but a half-court shot then, and length of the court now. And now the Rockets, Jazz, Nuggets and maybe even the Warriors have jumped ahead of the Clippers in results and probably in potential. In other words, the way it looks right now, the Clippers will battle the Lakers for the 8th seed next season, and that's assuming Greg Oden next to Pau Gasol doesn't turn Memphis into an instant contender.
Astoundingly (I can only assume this has never happened before, as it seems mathematically next to impossible), the top six teams in the West ALL have at least TWO All Stars from this season. The Suns have three, and there are a handful of former All Stars, some of whom are still young and very capable (Ginobili, Kirilenko). Moreover, all of these guys are signed, and all but three are under 30 (not that Nash, Duncan or Iverson have shown any real signs of age). Barring injury or fire sale cost-cutting, none of these teams is going anywhere. Oh, and don't forget Golden State.
It's yet another example of the dominance of the West. Not only are all the best teams in the West currently - all of the foreseeable factors indicate that the best teams in the West will remain contenders for years, while teams like Detroit (age), Miami (age), New Jersey (age and contracts) and even Chicago (age and contracts) have some large issues looming. It's frighteningly easy to envision a day in the near future where Cleveland is the class of the Conference whether LeBron James gets any help or not. Or maybe the class of the conference will be Toronto <shudder>. But I guarantee you that Charlotte believes they'll make the playoffs next season, and why not? Are they any worse than Orlando?
But back here in the West, the Clippers, in the best case scenario, will be battling for one of the final Western Conference playoff spots for the rest of this decade, hoping to be able to break through some time in 2011 or 2012 - and that's assuming that Sterling decides to re-sign Brand and Maggette. (It would not surprise me if he went back to the 'low payroll, big profits' approach that served him so well his first five years in Staples Center.) If you assume that Livingston recovers and plays again and the Clippers re-sign him, the team in 2009 will probably be Kaman, Brand, Maggette, Mobley and Livingston with Tim Thomas coming off the bench. Those are six solid pros - but will they be better than TMac, Yao, Battier and whoever? Forget Phoenix, Dallas and San Antonio - will the Clippers be able to compete with Houston, Utah, Denver and Golden State next season or the season after that?
I'll have lots more to say about the team this off-season. I may even allow myself a little optimism at some point. But I'm not there right now. We may have to be content to root for the best NBA team in LA for a while.