I know. It’s ridiculous to write this piece right now.
We’re a half-game out of home court in the first round. We finally have a semi-healthy roster, if you don’t count the debilitating combination of Tourrete’s Syndrome and mono Blake contracts every other game. The basketball gods have tempted us yet again with the cruel lure of injury-induced playoff advancement, as the Warriors suddenly look slightly less invincible than they did a month ago.
You’re right. I should be analyzing clips of Exum-Diaw pick-and-pops, or breaking down SportsVU data on how we can best defend the apparently unguardable Joe Ingles corner three.
But while trauma-induced denial has come to be a cornerstone of post-Game 6 Clipper fandom, I have come to accept the likelihood that the Chris-Blake era as we know it will come to an end this summer. Yeah yeah yeah, I know under the new CBA if Chris re-signs with the Clippers he gets $700 million more in his mid-50’s and like zero co-pay on his dental benefits. But even for critics of narrative-driven decision making, the thought of this nucleus staying together barring a deep playoff run appears unlikely—and in some ways almost unhealthy.
Let me be clear: I am not resigned to an early playoff exit. Hope burns eternal in the heart of any fan that survived a full season of Dan Dickau. I am simply realistic about how old Chris is getting and the hyper-competitiveness of the West for years to come. And that’s making me take deep dives into the sepia-toned waters of 2012 YouTube.
Before ten years pass and ESPN forces me to watch a 30-for-30 entitled “Lob City of Tears”, the “which was the best Clipper team?” debate will need to be properly resolved. It’ll be tempting to simply pick a roster where the team advanced the farthest in the postseason. But as any real Clipper fan knows, injury and bad luck can determine postseason success as much as the talent and cohesion of a team.
Consider this my early contribution to the forthcoming volumes of Lob City history. Each team is ranked on a subjective mix of both talent level and how cohesively the team played that season, which are not necessarily the same thing. Years from now we may look back on one roster and say, “God that team was fucking loaded”. But that’s not the same thing as “God that team was fucking good.” This year’s team is not included yet.
Without further ado.
5) 2015-16: The “I Can’t Believe How Much We Need Cole Aldrich” Team
Record: 53-29 (.646 pct, 4th in Western Conference)
Postseason: Lost in first round, 2-4 to Portland
Offensive Rating: 108.3 (8th in League)
Defensive Rating: 103.8 (6th in League)
Starting Five: Chris, JJ, Paul Pierce*, Luc Mbah a Moute, DeAndre Jordan
Key Reserves: Austin Rivers; Cole Aldrich; Pablo Prigioni
Not So Key Reserves: Jamal Crawford; Lance Stephenson; Josh Smith; Jeff Green
How Good Was This Team? Not nearly as good as any other Clipper team in the Chris Paul era. For Christ’s sake, Paul Pierce started more games than Blake Griffin. While JJ and DeAndre both had fantastic years, and while the Blake-less Clippers played well together thanks to Chris Paul’s only 82-game season, this incarnation of Lob City was lacking in star power and depth. Aldrich played his ass off, but besides his contributions and glimpses of what we’re seeing this year from Austin, Doc’s bench was a disaster.
4) 2012-2013: The Tribe Called Bench Team
Record: 56-26 (.683 pct), fourth in West;
Postseason: Lost in first round to Memphis, 4-2;
Offensive rating: (110.6, 4th)
Defensive Rating: (103.6, 8th).
Starting Five: Chris, Willie Green, Caron Butler, Blake, DJ
Key Reserves: Matt Barnes; Good Jamal; Bledsoe; Grant Hill;
Not So Key Reserves: Ryan Hollins; Lamar Odom; Chauncey Billups;
How Good Was This Team? Good, but not as good as many Clipper fans wish to remember it. Sure, this season featured a mostly healthy Chris and Blake, an undefeated December, and a bench that earned a nickname I can’t believe hadn’t been used already.
But in retrospect the starting five featured the serviceable but hardly memorable Willie Green and Caron Butler; Blake had one of the worst statistical seasons of his career (career-low in per-36 PPG); and DJ wasn’t close to being DJ yet. The bench was good—anchored by standout seasons from Eric Bledsoe and yes, Jamal Crawford—but talent-wise I would argue it wasn’t even the best bench of the VDN era.
3) 2014-15 Clippers: The Team That Should Have Made The WCF
Record: 56-26 (.683 pct, 3rd in West)
Postseason: Don’t ask.
Offensive Rating: 112.4 (1st);
Defensive Rating: 105.5 (15th));
Starting Five: Chris, JJ, Matt Barnes, Blake, DJ
Key Reserves: Bad Jamal; Austin Rivers; Big Baby;
Not So Key Reserves: Spencer Hawes; Hedo Turkoglu; Jordan Farmar;
How Good Was This Team? It might be controversial to put the team that beat the Spurs in 7 and almost made the Western Conference Finals this low on the list. This was the team where the starters probably reached their max comfort level together, with JJ shooting 44% from 3 and the team leading the NBA in offensive efficiency (in the year the Warriors became the Warriors). But the bench was so thin on this squad—Jamal was already on the decline, Austin was not Austin yet, and Big Baby was our most reliable backup big. That lack of depth is partly what ultimately doomed the team in the postseason.
2) 2011-12 Clippers: The “Jesus Christ That Team Was Loaded” Team
Record: 40-26 (.606 pct—Lockout-shortened season); fifth in West
Postseason: Lost in second round to San Antonio Spurs, 4-0;
Offensive Rating: 108.5 (4th of 30th);
Defensive Rating: 105.7 (18th of 30th);
Starting Five: Chris, Randy Foye, Caron Butler, Blake, DJ;
Key Reserves: Eric Bledsoe, Reggie Evans, Kenyon Martin, Mo Williams, Nick Young
Not So Key Reserves: Ryan Gomes; Chauncey Billups
How Good Was This Team? On paper, this is arguably the most talented roster the Clippers have ever assembled. Remember this?
Sure, Caron Butler was still a starter, as was Randy Foye. But that bench is absolute dynamite: a former All-Star in Mo Williams who was only a backup because of the Chris Paul trade; an amazingly effective rebounder in Reggie Evans who almost single-handedly won us that Memphis series; and a second-year Bledsoe who absolutely torched the Spurs in the second round.
Then GM Neil Olshey also deserves credit for the sneaky good midseason Swaggy P pick-up, as Nick Young was actually a pretty effective offensive player when his role was defined correctly.
It’s a shame this team was coached by VDN, and that the lockout-shortened season made integrating all the pieces together that much more difficult. Say what you will about Doc, but if he had this roster and a full training camp, this team could have been pretty extraordinary. Assuming he didn’t trade half the team away with a first rounder for Byron Mullins.
1) The 2013-14 Clippers: The “Tony F-ING Brothers” Team
Record: 57-25 (.695 pct, 3rd in West)
Posteason: Lost in second round to OKC, 4-2 (don’t ask);
Offensive Rating: 107.9 (1st);
Defensive Rating: 104.8 (9th);
Starting Five: Chris, J.J. Redick, Matt Barnes, Blake, DJ
Key Reserves: Decent Jamal; Big Baby; Darren Collison;
Not So Key Reserves: Broken Jared Dudley; Willie Green; Antwan Jamison; Byron Mullens; Ryan Hollins; Reggie Bullock;
How Good Was This Team? The best...kind of by default. Doc’s arrival meant the first season DJ was actually a force to be reckoned with—on the defensive end, on the glass, and as a potent lob outlet for Chris. And while Chris Paul missed 20 games due to a separated shoulder, his injury actually allowed Blake to fully flesh out his game, with Griffin finishing third in MVP voting that year.
The bench was not nearly as talented as any of the VDN teams, but a reliable Collison, a declining but still capable Crawford, and Davis at the very least didn’t make it a liability. Redick was in and out of the lineup with assorted injuries but by the postseason was healthy enough to shoot 40% from three.
Perhaps most importantly, unlike all the other teams on this list, the 2012-13 Clippers weren’t beset by incompetent coaching, crushingly-timed injuries, or a crippling lack of depth. The Core Four were all under 30; DJ earned his seat at the “Big Three” table; and Chris still had a dose of athleticism in him he just doesn’t have today.
Anyway, that’s my ranking. Yours?
H/t to the homie Connor for the beautiful cover art. Connor, you are the Kenyon to my Rony.