The following is the fifth in a series of “Lob City Memories” that will highlight some of the standout people, moments and games from the six-plus years of Lob City in Los Angeles. Over the next couple of months, we will look back at things a little more obscure than a Spurs series victory, Chris Paul buzzer beater over Tony Allen, Blake Griffin alley-oop off Jamal Crawford’s between-the-legs pass, or DeAndre Jordan humiliation of Brandon Knight. Part 5 of Lob City Memories looks back at how Griffin and Paul vs. Jordan and Paul became a thing.
Despite having three All-NBA players in the relative prime of their careers, a three-time Sixth Man of the Year winner, and veteran role players, the Lob City Clippers never won two playoff rounds in the same year. They fizzled at the worst times. They failed to live up to their lofty expectations.
Were the Lob City Clippers a failure? In short. Absolutely not. They resuscitated a franchise that had only come up for air once before, and only breathed deeply for a single season. Twenty-six seasons of holding your breath in Los Angeles should kill anyone, but the Clippers survived and Lob City was the payoff.
There’s no shame or deep complaint in the level of intrigue and excitement those Clippers teams brought from 2011-12 to 2017-18. Still, seven years removed from Eric Gordon’s last media day and his subsequent jettison to New Orleans for Chris Paul a few days later, there is something forever missing.
I’ve thought about this, too much. People much smarter than me, people paid more than me, people invested in decisions that affect the franchise have thought about this much more. However, the fact that three All-NBAers could only muster three postseason series wins in six-plus years is somewhat astounding and speaks to a combination of misfortune and mismatched personalities.
Lob City was formed with a plan in mind. Lob City deviated from the plan. Steve Ballmer arrived in the middle of it. Doc Rivers arrived for two-thirds of it. But the three inarguable faces on the Mount Rushmore of those seasons are, obviously, Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan. No matter how much they toiled and tried, they never truly meshed.
There were times within those six years that it seemed as though Jordan was the misfit. That breaking up the group meant shipping Jordan out. There were the very real Kevin Garnett rumors in 2012-13 and, again, the following summer. There were thoughts that Jordan, although durable, was the player most likely to sink the Clippers title chances, whether it be due to errant free throws, a lack of offensive diversity, or immaturity.
Rivers’ arrival ended that notion. Jordan bought into his role, and for Rivers’ first two seasons the Clippers were at their peak. You could argue that the 2012-13 team had the best chance at a title: they were gifted the James Harden trade and Russell Westbrook injury from the defending conference champs, played well against San Antonio and Miami in the regular season, had the league’s deepest bench, and a relatively clear path to the Western Conference Finals until Vinny Del Negro failed to make adjustments and Griffin stepped on Lamar Odom in practice. Still, anyone would be hard pressed to argue the first two seasons with Rivers had the Clippers in the league’s best 4-5 teams because of a better than average defense and a historically and surgically efficient offense.
But whose team was it? Paul certainly thought it was his, but Griffin, while maintaining a team-first face publicly, certainly disagreed. You saw it in January and February of 2014 when Griffin assailed the league as the prime ball-handler when Paul was sidelined with a separated shoulder. You saw it again 15 months later when he demolished the Spurs in one of the league’s best first-round series matchups of all-time.
It wasn’t until 2016 when Griffin broke his hand in an off-court altercation with team staffer that the real question about who should be the No. 2 to Paul emerged. At the time, it was jokes about the team being better off without Griffin that allegedly set him off. But should the question all along been whether or not the Clippers were better with Griffin as the No. 1? At this point, it’s a moot point. They are all gone, but back then it was a thing… because they let it be a thing.
We never knew what Paul and Griffin, at their respective peaks, looked like without Jordan because, to Jordan’s credit, he was never hurt. We had pretty large sample sizes of lineup combinations with Jordan and Paul or Jordan and Griffin. The tide swung, again, after Griffin’s altercation in that Toronto restaurant (remember: he had already missed a couple months with a quad tear).
In each season from 2014-15 to 2016-17, Paul and Jordan played more minutes together than Paul and Griffin. In 2015-16 that disparity was massive: 2,185 minutes to 864. By their final year together, the on-court chemistry between Paul and Jordan finally seemed to reveal something. Paul and Jordan sharing the court together netted a +15.8 per 100 possessions in 2016-17, more than 2 points per game more than Paul and Griffin combos. Maybe, after all that time, it was proof that the Paul and Griffin marriage was destined to fail. Or it was a self-fulling prophecy. Or maybe, just maybe, the final season with Del Negro and first two with Rivers were merely the Clippers’ window and they just couldn’t pry it open wide enough to fit everybody through it at once.