It wasn't supposed to end this way. The second year of the Chris Paul era for the Los Angeles Clippers was going so well. The team had shown significant improvement during the regular season, particularly on the defensive end. A couple of months into the season, the Clippers had the best record in basketball and looked like a legitimate title contender. And two games into the NBA playoffs, they held a two games to zero lead over the Memphis Grizzlies, with a wounded Oklahoma City Thunder team suddenly looking like less of a roadblock; a deep playoff run seemed inevitable.
And then the wheels came off. Four straight losses to the Grizzlies and the Clippers crashed out of the playoffs -- in the first round! How could this be? Even if the team wasn't as good as the Thunder or the Spurs or the Heat, surely they were better than last year's team. Yet last year they made it to the second round. This year they didn't even win a playoff series, the same fate as the likes of the Bucks and the Lakers.
The opportunity squandered may hurt more than anything else. With the Lakers limping into the playoffs, there's hardly a distinction between the two teams at this point. Sure, the Clippers finished the regular season 12 games ahead of the Lakers and swept the season series. But both teams exited the playoffs on four straight losses in the first round; and the injury-riddled Lakers have a better excuse.
The opportunity was there to be the only LA team playing, to grab some big headlines in this Laker-centric town. The opportunity was there to defeat the defending Western Conference champion Thunder, suddenly far less formidable without Russell Westbrook. But those opportunities now go to the Grizzlies and the Warriors while the Clippers are left to ponder what might have been.
What a disaster, right?
It hurts, don't get me wrong. But if the goal of the team is to be taking steps in the direction of a championship, it's pretty easy to argue that they had a successful season. A franchise record 56 regular season wins, a much improved defense, franchise records in home wins, road wins, consecutive games -- all of that matters. As for the playoff exit, the simple fact of the matter is that there were five Western Conference teams with 56 or more wins this season. Either the Clippers or the Grizzlies, both coming off record-setting seasons in the history of their franchises, were going to make a first round exit, by definition. Does that also by definition negate the good things they accomplished during the season? Not to me.
It seems strange to me also that the Clippers' playoff exit is being portrayed as such an unmitigated collapse. Don't forget that this series was tied at two games apiece, with both teams holding serve on their home court, when Blake Griffin suffered a sprained ankle that would have kept him sidelined for three weeks in the regular season. Griffin limped through 34 minutes of Games 5 and 6, but he was essentially out due to injury. Which means that the Clippers were tied with a 56 win team and then lost two straight playing without their leading scorer and rebounder. Big surprise, right?
Does a first round playoff exit mean failure? Did it mean failure for Memphis last year? Did it mean failure for the Spurs two seasons ago? Any team would prefer to advance further into the playoffs, but losing in the first round doesn't necessarily mean you're on the wrong path. It certainly means that the team isn't yet where it wants to be, but at the end of the season, that applies to 29 out of 30 NBA teams.
The Clippers finished the regular season tied for the fifth best record in the NBA. They had the third best point differential. They were one of four teams in the league that finished in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, the other three being the Thunder, Spurs and Heat. It turns out that the Grizzlies were really good to and beat the Clippers in the first round of the playoffs. But just because there are still eight teams playing doesn't mean the Clippers are somewhere between the ninth best and 16th best team in the NBA. You can make a compelling argument for fourth, fifth, sixth, somewhere in there. I'll take that.
So as John O'Connor pointed out yesterday, the question now is less about where the team is going, and more about what they do next. The first order of business of course is to re-sign Chris Paul, which I've maintained all along is a virtual certainty. After that, it's a matter of continuing to move forward and improve. Sure, they'll probably hire a new coach, which is fine and probably appropriate if only because Vinny Del Negro was never the right choice for this job. He certainly made it easier to justify a change with his bizarre decisions in Game 6. But the real key is that the team continue to improve. That improvement will come from another year of growth from Griffin, or a deal that brings in new talent in exchange for the underutilized Eric Bledsoe, or a combination of both. A new coach will have an even better team to work with simply because the Clippers have some key assets that are still improving.
The Clippers went from the equivalent of 50 wins two seasons ago (adjusted for a full season) to 56 wins this season. Sure, the postseason ended prematurely, but these things happen. If they're on track for a 60 win season next year, I'm OK with that.