The Clippers are 43-26 as of right now, which puts them on pace for their fifth consecutive season with a winning percentage north of 60 (they were 40-26 in the lockout shortened 2011-2012 season). If you had asked Clipper fans of 10 or even 6 years ago if they were content with that kind of consistent performance, the almost unanimous answer would have been "Of course!" That is no longer the case, however. For perhaps the first time in the CP3 era, fans have started feeling disgruntled at the way things are going. Why? The answer lies in the title. Familiarity breeds contempt.
When Chris Paul first came to the Clippers in December 2011, expectations were sky high: he was only 26 when the trade occurred. Blake Griffin was a mere pup at 22 and it seemed like nothing was out of reach for him. The window had a definite shelf life, but it was a very long one. The excitement of those early seasons was incredible, as "Lob City" was in full effect and people were made Clippers fans the world over. Yes, there was the looming image of Donald Sterling lurking behind everything, but the on-court product was exciting and the team was good. Just as people might have been getting sick of mid 50 win teams and early playoff exits, the Sterling shadow was cast aside in 2014 and the bright new regime of Doc Rivers took over.
Fast forward to now. The core three of Paul, Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan have been together for five years, and other key pieces such as J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford have been around for a while as well. The Clippers still haven’t gotten past the 2nd round of the playoffs, and with a seemingly destined matchup with perhaps the greatest team of all time in that round this season, another early exit appears likely. However, the Clippers were never favorites to win the West in any of the previous seasons either. Sure, none of the contenders were as overwhelming as the Warriors or Spurs this year, but last year’s Golden State squad was extremely formidable, and the Spurs the year before seemed to have mastered "beautiful basketball". The Thunder have been a terrific team for the entire CP3 era as well. In all previous years, fans were mostly satisfied with how things were going. Not anymore.
Fans don’t see much hope for this year, but most importantly just haven’t had fun this season. Chris Paul has been as masterful as ever, Redick is having a historical season shooting the ball, and DJ remains incredibly fun above the rim on both ends. It hasn’t really mattered. Even when the Clippers were playing well, the excitement was mostly gone. The team itself doesn’t seem to enjoy being on the court, and while not every team needs to in order to succeed (cough Spurs cough), it really does help fan gratification to see the team having a good time. The season has mostly felt like a slog instead of a ride.
At this point in the fan-Doc/CP3 relationship, the fans are starting to see a lot of the faults inherent in the team. At the same time, the more enjoyable aspects no longer bring as much joy as they used to. Seeing DJ stuff home a lob from CP3 is still great, but it’s not as fun when you have seen it a few hundred times and have to watch him get beat on the glass and in the paint by Omer Asik. Jamal Crawford remains one of the truly terrific ball-handlers and shot creators in NBA history, but his signature crossover and tough jumper is less satisfactory as part of a 4-11 shooting game on a losing night. Even Chris Paul’s greatness, incredibly, has become mostly taken for granted (outside of a few out-of-this-world performances).
None of this is to fault Clippers’ fans. It is something that happens to every sports fanbase during a period where the team has the same basic composition without winning anything substantial. Even the Spurs (the Spurs!) fans’ wanted to trade away Tony Parker and/or Manu Ginobili during their "down" period from 2008-2012 when they didn’t make an NBA championship. Everyone gets tired of the same mistakes being made, of the same DJ mental mistakes, Austin Rivers clanked jumpers, and rotating cast of below-average small forwards. When things aren’t working, change is desired, sometimes even thought of as necessary. That is what is happening this season. The team doesn’t appear to have evolved as should happen over time. The same silly lapses in concentration that have plagued them over the years (and led to their inexplicable collapse to the Rockets in last year’s playoffs) have continued. Youth and inexperience is no longer an excuse. The problems have been real.
The huge caveat, of course, is the Blake Griffin injury (really injuries) and the whole punching incident. Not only is Blake Griffin one of the 10 best players in the NBA when healthy, he is also one of the most exciting to watch. His absence has taken a lot of fun plays out of the Clippers’ season, but then again, they were only 17-13 when he began his leave the day after Christmas. The season had already gotten off to a dismal start, but perhaps the team may have started to click with him and ended up turning into a juggernaut. It is hard to tell. The negative press from the "punch heard round the NBA" also felt like a grim return to earlier, pre-Steve Ballmer times. It was just bad all the way around.
None of this absolves Doc Rivers and the front office from the situation the Clippers are in today. Many of Doc's moves have simply not panned out the way he probably anticipated. Trading Jared Dudley after an injury-laden season and dumping a 1st round pick just to get rid of him seemed like a bad decision at the time, and only looks worse now as he has emerged as a perfect small ball 4 in today’s NBA. The Jeff Green trade is still unwritten but has not worked out well so far. The Spencer Hawes signing last year was awful. Doc has built good teams every year, but has yet to construct a true juggernaut, which is a problem since he has had two of the top 10 players in the NBA on his roster. It is really hard to win an NBA championship, but it feels like the Clippers should have gone farther than they have in at least one of their playoffs.
Satisfaction almost completely depends on expectations. Some fans want competitive play, a shot in the playoffs, and an exciting regular season. To those supporters, the past half-decade probably feels like a tremendous success. Others want their playoff ready teams to actually win the title. Obviously, the Clippers haven’t delivered to those fans. Worse, they don’t appear to have any significant chance this year, and the Western Conference doesn’t look any easier next season. Chris Paul is almost 31, JJ will turn 32 over the summer, and Blake and DJ are hitting their late 20s. Time appears to be running out, and that feeling has sapped much of this year’s real success.
Anything can happen at any time. The Clippers could be playing the Warriors in the 2nd round when Steph bends his knee the wrong way and is out for a season (I am obviously not wishing that on him), leading to a Clippers title run. They could land a miracle signing or trade in the summer that pushes them to the next level. The realm of possibility is endless. But right now, the future is uncertain. Even if the Clippers don’t win a title in the CP3-Blake-Doc era, it has been by far the most successful stretch in Clippers’ history, and should be remembered fondly. No matter what, lets enjoy the rest of the season as best we can, and go Clips!