You can say a lot of things about the Clippers, but rarely can you call them uneventful. In that vein, this season was pretty much par for the course. Of course you had Blake Griffin miss half the season and add insult (and injury) to injury by punching friend and team employee Matias Testi, but we also saw a slew of high-profile offseason acquisitions, an extended period of early-season doldrums that led to the typical "blow up the Clippers" din, even more "blow up the Clippers" talk after the Blake fiasco, the annual midseason dumping of high-profile offseason acquisitions, career years for J.J. Redick and DeAndre Jordan... you get the point.
There's a lot to unpack with this team. They finished with their worst regular-season record in four years, but might also be better than any of those previous teams. Do they have a better chance at getting past the second round, even though they'd have to play the historically great Warriors? On a more existential level: where did they come from, where will they go?
Let's rewind and look back at the past year for a moment before turning ahead to Portland.
June 15: The Clippers started making moves even before the Finals were over, shipping out the reliable but aging Matt Barnes and the disappointing Spencer Hawes to Charlotte for Lance Stephenson, a question mark of a player who would turn out to be perhaps the most polarizing figure on the team among fans this season.
To some (myself included), Lance embodied youth, athleticism, energy, potential, a misunderstood and marginalized player who could thrive in the right setting if Doc would just give him the damn ball. Others saw him as nothing more than a knucklehead who flamed out at every other stop of his career, and wanted nothing to do with him. Of course, he was somewhere in between, talented but too inconsistent for Doc Rivers' tastes. He was prone to openly sulking and wildly gesticulating while on the floor, and in the end he couldn't carve out a consistent role for himself on this team (in part because he never really picked up the Clippers' schemes on either end of the court).
June 19: New logo! New uniforms! They actually leaked several months earlier, leaving us crossing our fingers that this was some kind of bad joke. The rebranding was an obvious rush job meant to further dissociate the team from the stench left by former owner Donald Sterling, but ironically the organization's impulsiveness and terrible decisionmaking on this matter had the opposite effect. They outsourced the process to the Miami Heat's design team, for Pete's sake!
The horrifically bad red road uniforms have been pretty much phased out already in favor of the black alternates, not unlike the previous few years where the team gravitated towards royal blue over red away from home. There might be a chance that the Clippers attempt another rebrand in a few years, or at least add another alternate or two before then.
For most teams, this would be the biggest story of the offseason. For the Clippers, things were just getting started...
July 3: Nine and a half months ago, 53 wins seemed like it would be a best-case scenario for the Clippers. They'd signed Paul Pierce, who opted out of his contract with the Wizards to take a discount and come to Los Angeles to spend his last years in his hometown with his old coach — but then they lost DeAndre Jordan to Dallas. I wrote off the rumors at first, dismissing them as just that. It turned out that his flirtations with Chandler Parsons and Mark Cuban were far more serious than most of us had imagined, enough that DAJ was seriously planning on leaving the Clippers (at least for a little bit). The scuttlebutt was that his relationship with Chris Paul was beyond repair, a reaffirmation of the "even the Clippers can't stand the Clippers" narrative that acclaimed armchair psychologists and body language experts like Bill Simmons seized upon.
Fans didn't take the whole thing too well and said a lot of nasty things that were unnecessary and out of line. They questioned DeAndre's maturity and intelligence, tarring him as egocentric and 'not that good anyways'. Some of us acted like adults about it, but overall it was a disappointing moment for the fanbase. You know who you are.
July 7: The Clippers signed Wesley Johnson to the minimum, a good signing that paid major dividends this season. For the first time in his career, Johnson got to be on a team that won more than 30 games, and he had a good year in a reduced role. He's not the starting 3-and-D small forward some of us were hoping for, but for his contract he's exceeded all reasonable expectations. Hopefully the Clippers can retain his services this summer, though it's likely they'll have to pay more than the minimum this time around.
July 10: Austin Rivers re-signed with the Clippers. He didn't appear to consider going anywhere else, even though his agent was Dan Fegan. The team also added Cole Aldrich for the minimum, which didn't look like a meaningful move at the time.
July 16: Barely two months after channeling his inner Katniss Everdeen and tearing out the Clippers' hearts in spectacular fashion, Josh Smith signed on for the minimum to the team whose hopes and dreams he had ruined nearly single-handedly. Clearly, he was an adherent to the old proverb, "If you can beat 'em, join 'em."
Regardless of how things turned out, this was a great summer for GM Doc, who took a cap-strapped team and managed to add a ton of talent, potentially giving them the depth and versatility to be on the same level as the Warriors (before we realized that team had another gear of its own).
July 22: After holding a press conference to introduce free agent signings new and old, the Clippers added Pablo Prigioni to their reserves, another feather in Doc Rivers' cap. The bench seemed to be deep and potentially great, although some misguided basketball minds questioned whether the second unit could function well at all with so many ball-dominant high-usage players.
To that end, Jamal Crawford's future in Los Angeles continued to be in doubt, and he spent much of the summer moping on Twitter. Meanwhile, Josh Smith made his first blunder as a Clipper as an innocent comment about moving around a lot being hard on his family was misinterpreted as Sprewell-esque greed and entitlement. It would not be his last blunder.
August 4: Clips Nation founder and managing editor Steve Perrin stepped down after nearly a decade at the helm. He was succeeded by our Lucas Hann, who many have described as the Shams Charania to Steve's Adrian Wojnarowski, or the Vader to his Palpatine.
August 19: Staff writer Robert Flom predicted a bear market for the Bulls, and learned the hard way not to poke the #Bullhive. After bravely predicting that Chicago would miss the playoffs, he was beset upon by Bulls fans emerging from every nook and cranny in cyberspace to voice their outrage. I publicly agreed with commenters who called for him to be fired for his incompetence, which some people took seriously.
As it turns out, the Bulls did miss the playoffs. In unrelated news, the prestigious Robert Flom School of Basketball Metrics and Analysis is currently accepting applicants.
September 1: A month after Austin Rivers fired Dan Fegan, DeAndre finally did the same. Meanwhile, the Clippers got a slap on the wrist for a meaningless free agency recruiting violation, although that didn't quell the legions of angry Mavs fans feeling left at the altar.
Interestingly enough, the anger and contempt shown by Dallas fans (and their thoughts about DAJ, both as a player and as a person) were nearly identical to what many Clippers fans said and thought during those few feverish days in early July. Many who had off-base criticisms of him found themselves defending him against those same characterizations less than a week later, without a hint of self-awareness.
Maybe I'm being a little bit too hard. After all, it was a Mavs beat writer who implied that Doc Rivers' daughter seduced DeAndre into staying in Los Angeles. And it wasn't a Clips blogger who repeatedly insisted on likening Jordan's return to a victim of domestic violence returning to his/her abusive relationship. Those kinds of reactions were disrespectful, inappropriate, and reprehensible.
September 7: TNT's tagline is "We know drama," so it makes perfect sense why the Clippers get so many games broadcast on the network.
They just couldn't stay out of the news last summer. A few weeks after noted Clippers insider Bill Simmons claimed massive dysfunction within the Clippers organization, calling them "just as much of disaster behind the scenes" as they were under Sterling's regime, TMZ Sports reported that there was a major power struggle between Doc and President of Business Operations Gillian Zucker, who had been hired by Steve Ballmer less than a year prior. This wasn't baseless rumormongering, as TMZ has been wont to do in the past; it was confirmed to varying extents by the team's beat writers and other members of the media. Again, the Clippers tried to do a rebrand in under a year and ended up contracting the Miami Heat's design staff to do it for them!
On the bright side, several months later there's been no news or rumors on the matter since. Neither Doc nor Zucker have been forced out, and thankfully all the Clippers drama we've gotten has been on the court (for the most part). Either the team was able to resolve their internal issues and move on, or they've just gotten better at keeping a tight ship and putting on a good face for the media. Either way, the organization became more competent.
From the first paragraph, a short list of eventful happenings in Clipperland this year:
Of course you had Blake Griffin miss half the season and add insult (and injury) to injury by punching friend and team employee Matias Testi, but we also saw a slew of high-profile offseason acquisitions, an extended period of early-season doldrums that led to the typical "blow up the Clippers" din, even more "blow up the Clippers" talk after the Blake fiasco, the annual midseason dumping of high-profile offseason acquisitions, career years for J.J. Redick and DeAndre Jordan...
We've come this far talking about everything that's gone haywire this year, and we've still only covered one thing on this list. Even for the Clippers, this has been an eventful and drama-filled year.
September 24: The Clippers signed Luc Richard Mbah a Moute to a non-guaranteed contract as a camp invite after his contract with Sacramento was voided when he failed the team's physical, much to his confusion. LRMAM was another fantastic pickup for Doc Rivers, eventually becoming the starting small forward shortly after Thanksgiving.
His offensive limitations are well-known, and it's still likely he gets replaced in the starting lineup at some point in the playoffs. LRMAM deserves a ton of credit for his defense and rebounding, and his ability to guard elite offensive players at multiple positions is extremely valuable. He's a big part of the Clippers' much-improved defense (T-4th in defensive efficiency) this year. This season, he's swung games by playing fantastic defense on the likes of Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Chris Bosh, Paul George, Paul Millsap, Jimmy Butler, and LaMarcus Aldridge.
September 25: Media Day! Finally, a chance to get back to basketball and forget about all the drama and turmoil, right? Right?
October 9: In an interview with Grantland, Doc Rivers made an innocuous comment about needing luck to win a championship (indisputably true), offhandedly presenting the Warriors as an example (because they avoided the Spurs and Clippers). Of course, notoriously thin-skinned Golden State heard of it and took it as a personal affront challenging the legitimacy of their championship, and they proceeded to snipe back at the Clippers through the media. It was a relative non-story of a controversy that became conflated into a larger ongoing national discussion about whether the Warriors were fluky or overrated.
This all took place while the Clippers were in China, by the way. After splitting their first two preseason games with Denver and Toronto, they traveled across the Pacific for a two-game series with the Hornets, losing both in decisive fashion. Chris Paul suffered an index finger fracture while overseas, one of several injuries which would hamper him through the first two months of the season. The Clips' tour of China also came at a price for the rest of the team, costing them valuable practice time that might have helped the team master the defensive scheme change sooner or allowed for the new players to develop continuity and familiarity as a unit.
October 20: The preseason hadn't been too great to the Clippers to this point. They had been auditioning both Paul Pierce and Wesley Johnson at starting small forward, but neither impressed Doc enough to declare a starter. Meanwhile, the new and supposedly improved bench had been equally unimpressive, playing ugly, disjointed basketball and looking totally useless on both ends of the floor.
Doc had been reluctant to give Lance a shot at starting SF, envisioning him as a dynamic bench threat in tandem with Jamal. Before Game 5 of the preseason, back home against the Warriors, he finally relented, and Lance showed enough to warrant another look. The Clippers starters dominated a Warriors team playing without a few key guys, and the bench finally showed flashes of the elite unit many thought they could be with gorgeous plays like this.
Lance and Draymond were called for a double technical, and CP3 somehow got ejected... from a preseason game.
October 22: The final preseason game is rarely a big deal, but for the Clippers and this particular opponent, it just might have been the genesis of a heated rivalry that could reach full flame in the next few weeks.
Against a young Portland Trail Blazers team who few expected to be competitive this year, the Clippers would fall behind by as many as 35 points in the first half before roaring back to make it a game. The second half was played at an intensity that wouldn't be out of place in a lesser playoff game, as the bench took over in the fourth quarter, getting over the hump and finishing the ridiculous comeback victory. Paul Pierce flashed his Playoff Wizards form by going off in the fourth quarter, tantalizing Clippers fans who expected that sort of production from him and the bench come the regular season (that wouldn't happen, as you might know... but we're getting to that).
Those details are less important than the opponent, though. That moment was a rallying point for the new Trail Blazers and the source of their animosity with the Clippers. From CSN Northwest's Jason Quick:
It started in October with a heated preseason game in Los Angeles, when Clippers coach Doc Rivers barked at Portland coach Terry Stotts on the sideline, at one point telling Stotts to "sit down you (bleeping) punk!" The exchange stemmed from Stotts complaining to referees about the Clippers bench spilling onto the court during a comeback from a 35-point deficit, in particular DeAndre Jordan, who at one point from the bench leaned into play and talked into the ear of CJ McCollum. Rivers didn't like Stotts talking to his players, and complaining about celebrating, saying he saw plenty of Blazers waving towels while building the 35-point lead in the first half.
The exchange between the two coaches, coupled with Portland losing its big lead, proved to be the roots of a an inspiring speech by Lillard after the game, when he told the locker room the way the Clippers treated them would be typical for the rest of the league. It's when Lillard declared the season would be "Us against Everybody," a rallying cry that still resonates throughout the locker room.
October 24: LRMAM makes the final cut, beating out the aged, heftier Chuck Hayes and the tragically forgotten Nikoloz Tskitishvili. The Clippers are ready for the regular season, expecting to be deep and talented enough to finally break through the second round glass ceiling and hoping to win a title. As usual, the "this is the last chance for these Clippers" narrative is strong, fueled this year by comments from Doc pondering their shelf life and expiration date. That's nothing new for this team though, it's just more background noise. After their incredibly turbulent and tabloidized offseason, perhaps some of them hoped that the upcoming season would be devoid of further shenanigans, relatively uneventful by comparison.
Well... it didn't quite work out that way. But we'll cover that, talk about the actual basketball this year, and attempt to provide more context and clarity about the big questions surrounding this team — all coming in Part II.