Man, that went really quickly. Maybe it's because I've taken a step back from the blogging gig, but I honestly don't remember an off-season that flew by quite so fast. Whatever the reason, we suddenly find ourselves on the eve of a new NBA season, and just two days away from Los Angeles Clippers basketball. It's time to start building my schedule around STAPLES Center and Prime Ticket once again.
And heading into this new season, the theme for the Clippers seems to be "Now or never" at least as far as the media is concerned.
Season previews from Zach Lowe in Grantland,
The Clippers have had three cracks at it with Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan all in their primes, and they're not afraid to admit the fourth could be their last — that another flameout will force them to ask whether the core has grown stale;
It might not be explicitly expressed as such, but the Clippers are entering a do-or-die season;
They have to show up in the postseason and they have to win big. There are only so many chances a team gets before it all falls apart.
all said the same thing -- it's last call at the Clippers saloon.
It all makes for compelling narrative. And I can see absolutely no reason that it is remotely true.
This season for the Clippers, for me, is as it has been for a while: now or if not now then maybe a little later from now.
Teams have shelf lives, they have expiration dates, that much is true. There are many valid reasons for that, and maybe one or two of them apply to this edition of the LAC. But the most significant ones -- age and contracts -- simply do not. The Clippers have a young core that fits together incredibly well, they have a management team that is willing and capable to pay to keep them together, and they have a coach who has won championships for whom players like to play. These are the things you want to have in order to give yourself a chance for many years, not just for one year. Some teams are built for one shot at a title. This isn't one of them.
In fact, the single most bizarre part of this false-narrative to me is that you could make a resonably compelling case that the Clippers only have two seasons left in their window -- Chris Paul and Blake Griffin will each become free agents in the summer of 2017 -- but they certainly have more than this year. Other than impatience and the overwrought speculation of sportswriters, why would this be the Clippers' last stand?
Blake Griffin is 26 and signed until 2017. DeAndre Jordan is 27 and signed until 2019. Sure Chris Paul is 30, but he plays a game that should age very, very well. J.J. Redick is coming off his best year and signed until 2017. The supporting cast is as good as it's ever been, and with the salary cap set to increase significantly, the team might actually have the flexibility to add external salary for the first time in the Doc Rivers era. None of that says now or never.
Frustration can certainly set in, particularly after two such ignominious playoff exits as the Clippers have had the last two seasons. But dismantling this Clippers core would have been a massive mistake this summer, even in the wake of the Rockets meltdown, and it would be a massive mistake next summer as well, even assuming a similar close-but-not-quite season.
Over the last four NBA seasons, that is since Chris Paul arrived in LA, the Clippers have won 209 regular season NBA games, third most in the league. The only two teams to have won more regular season games? The San Antonio Spurs and the Oklahoma City Thunder, teams who have represented the Western Conference in three of the four NBA Finals during that time, and, by the way, teams that really do have a window closing fast. Tim Duncan will be freaking 40 by the time the playoffs start this season and Kevin Durant will be a free agent this summer. If you've been the third best team in the conference, and the other two might be fading, patience is the key.
People seem to want to use the team's regular season success versus their playoff exits as the reason the team should be broken up. But the simple fact is that good teams beat other good teams in the playoffs. It happens.
The Chris Paul Clippers have had the misfortune of playing basketball in a historically good conference. Over the last four seasons, everyone with a pulse correctly predicted the Eastern Conference champion -- the team with LeBron James. Predicting the best team in the West has been a much less reliable proposition (don't forget 2012-13 when everyone thought the Steve Nash/Dwight Howard Lakers would waltz into the Finals). Not of lot of people saw the Warriors coming.
The conventional wisdom seems to be "The Clippers haven't gotten it done in four years with this group so it's time for a change." But if you take a step back, the real story is "The Clippers haven't gotten it done in four years with this group because it's really freaking hard, but if they get a little better while the other teams get a little worse, it could happen at any time."
What exactly is the logic in arguing for a reboot? Maybe this core group is tired of playing with each other goes one theory. I find that argument to be counter-intuitive to say the least. In 2011 the Spurs lost in the first round to the Grizzlies. It was San Antonio's fourth consecutive playoff exit. It was the eighth year that Duncan-Parker-Ginobili had played together. Obviously the only option would be to break up that core and start over, right? I mean, players can only get sick of each other when they play together for many seasons. There couldn't possibly be any benefit from playing together in the same system for several years, could there?
Not to mention that Paul, Griffin and Jordan have something very important to prove regarding their partnership. Jordan was out the door on his way to Dallas this summer, and the reason we were given was that he did not want to play with Paul and be third fiddle to Paul and Griffin. With Jordan changing his mind in such a public fashion, the Clippers big three have explicitly said "We like playing with each other, we want to stay together." Maybe it's not true, but they went a long way to say that it is, and now they have plenty of incentive to prove it.
In the end, it's just more dramatic to say "It's now or never" than it is to say "The Clippers are once again as good as any team in the league and maybe this time they'll get there." Interestingly, Flannery didn't even believe it when he wrote it. A post that was titled "This is the Clippers' best and last shot to win the NBA title" eventually got to "Considering the Big 3 are all signed through 2018 [actually 2017 since Griffin and Paul both have ETOs that they will exercise], I think there's at least two years left before any major decisions need to be made."
Is this the Clippers last chance? Certainly not. Is it their best chance? It's probably their best chance so far, at least from a roster standpoint. But if Tim Duncan retires over the summer and Kevin Durant goes to Washington, then next season, with two fewer elite teams in the conference, would become an even better chance.
What is unfortunate for this group of Clippers is the meteoric rise of the Warriors, but it also seems reasonable that Golden State will regress to the mean a bit after a near perfect season last year.
Maybe it gives everyone more of a sense of urgency to say that the window is closing. That's fine by me. This appears to be a terrific Clippers team, and if the pieces fit together well it is as good as any team in the NBA. If they play like it's their last chance to win a title, maybe they will.
It certainly makes for a good narrative.