This week, Mike Prada of SB Nation is embarking on a project called “Titleless: The quest to find the best NBA team to never win a championship”. Today is the debut of the “Flameout” division, which has the 2013-14 Clippers as a no. 7 seed. This is the only Clippers team to make the 64-team bracket.
Here at Clips Nation, we weren’t sure if the 13-14 team represented the best non-champion, so we have decided to make a case for that team as well as two others, the 2005-06 and the 2014-15 Clippers. The 05-06 team made Prada’s Also Considered list, and the 14-15 team was the first alternate for the Lob City Clippers.
Once you’ve gone through our arguments for each team, vote in the poll and share your comments below!
Let’s start with the only team that made the bracket, the 2013-14 Clippers. In year one of the Doc Rivers/Lob City era, this team finished 57-25, third in the Western Conference, and had the best offensive rating in the league as well as the ninth-best defense. Three other teams had top-10 rankings in both offense and defense, putting the Clippers among the elite.
The Clippers had disappointed in the playoffs the year before, as an ill-timed Blake Griffin injury led to a first-round defeat to the Memphis Grizzlies, but Griffin was at his best in 2013-14. He played 80 games and posted the highest offensive and defensive win shares of his career, as well as the highest true-shooting percentage. Not even 3-point shooting Pistons Griffin was as efficient of a scorer as 24-year-old Griffin.
Both Griffin and Chris Paul were named All-Stars that season, and DeAndre Jordan led the league in rebounding while finishing third in defensive win shares. Jamal Crawford, J.J. Redick, and Darren Collison rounded out the roster to give the team six double-digit scorers.
Paul missed 20 games and the Clippers had other assorted injury issues (including a broken hand for Redick) that pushed them down into the third seed, but they were probably on equal footing with the other contenders heading into the postseason. To say they flamed out against the Thunder, who had a better record than the Clippers despite missing Russell Westbrook for much of the regular season, probably overstates the team’s talent and overall level of play.
However, it is definitely fair to wonder what might have been with this Clippers squad. Maybe they didn’t flame out against OKC, but they certainly could have done better, and it all comes down to the Donald Sterling saga.
Everything about Sterling is generally odious, so let’s break it down to this. The Clippers were up 2-1 against the Warriors in the first round, hardly in control of the series but with homecourt and winners of two in a row. Then, the tapes leaked, and it was unclear if the Clippers would even play in game 4. Instead, they made a silent protest and lost going away, ultimately rebounding to win series in seven, but Doc Rivers and multiple players said the ordeal took an emotional toll that was hard to overcome.
That probably doesn’t excuse what happened in Game 5 of the second round. The Clippers made a valiant fourth-quarter comeback in game 4 to tie the series heading back to OKC, and then seemed poised to win and earn a closeout game at Staples Center. But they somehow let a 7-point lead evaporate with less than a minute to play, compounded by a boneheaded play from Paul and equally specious decision-making from the refereeing crew. Game 6 was tied with eight minutes left, but it never felt like the Clippers were going to emerge victorious. Their title hopes had been left in Oklahoma City.
This is the best Clippers team to not win a title because of how good Griffin was, how good their defense was relative to other Lob City years, and how close they were to getting past the Thunder. The Clippers proved they could beat the Spurs in 2015, and might have been able to do so in 2014 as well. This was their chance, and Sterling — like he did for so many years as the team’s governor — ruined it.
Ok, here goes: The 2005-06 Clippers should be in the conversation as one of the best teams in team history not to win a title. I know, I know, the Griffin/Paul era and current Leonard/George era has more pure talent and are more beloved than the 2005-06 group, but here’s my case.
One, it comes down to the talent assembled in spite of the franchise’s track record. The Clippers of this era are used to seeing players come and go every year, the good ones, the bad ones, all of them pretty much. But this Clippers team had Elton Brand approaching his prime, Sam Cassell in the middle of his late-career revival, Chris Kaman settling into a solid NBA center role, Corey Maggette a consistent scoring option, and Shaun Livingston showing glimpses of what he could be as a guard.
They finally, finally won a playoff series in this season, something that I would argue was massive for the franchise’s psychology moving forward when they were truly good again. And after dispatching a division winner, Denver, 4-1 in the first round, they took the Phoenix Suns to the limit in the next round, losing in a seven-game series. This was the height of the Suns’ 7 seconds or less approach, a paradigm-shifting style of play that was not ultimately successful for them but transformed the league.
In addition, consider this was the mini-era between dynasties in the NBA. In 2004, the Detroit Pistons won the title seemingly out of nowhere. The next year, the Spurs won it. In this season, 2005-06, the Miami Heat won it. This was arguably one of the few times over the past 40 years when the field was wide open — the Clippers would not have been a favorite, but they could have hit a hot run if they won game 7 against the Suns. Timing is important here, and with no superteam, they could have done it if a couple more bounces went their way.
Finally, with what we know now, about just how awful Donald Sterling was as owner, with the dysfunction running rampant in the front office and Mike Dunleavy’s coaching approach that seemed to be more outdated every year, it’s rather remarkable what this team accomplished anyway. I am not big on counterfactual history, but I think the starting unit was legitimately good, and they had some modest success in spite of the circus around them — imagine what they could have done with a reasonable owner and a competent front office and coaching staff. For all those reasons, I think the 2005-06 needs to be in the conversation for best non-title Clippers team.
If we’re talking about the greatest teams to never win a title, look no further than the 2014-2015 LA Clippers team. Before we dive into their season, we need to begin with the talent surrounding that team.
First and foremost, they had Doc Rivers at the helm as their head coach. Having won a title with the Boston Celtics in 2008, Rivers is expected to go down as one of the winningest head coaches in NBA history. When talking about some of the best coaches in the NBA today, Rivers’ name is always near the top. Moving on to the players, the Clippers had arguably one of, if not the best one through seven in the league.
To start, they had Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan all in their primes. Three All-Stars who all play different positions that could have been the best player on almost any team. Adding on, they had sharp-shooter J.J. Redick, who was one of the best shooters in the NBA and finished the year with 200 made three-pointers. Rounding out the starting lineup was Matt Barnes, who could hit a three when needed and lock down on defense, as well as motivate the hell out of his team when needed. Off the bench was arguably the best bench scorer in NBA history in Jamal Crawford, along with Austin Rivers, who was a more than serviceable backup point guard.
The Clippers were in the driver’s seat, looking to make their first Western Conference Finals in team history. Up 3-1 in the semifinals against the Houston Rockets, the Clippers lost three consecutive games, eliminating them from the playoffs. Up 19 with two minutes left in the third quarter in game 6, the Clippers were on the wrong end of one of the biggest comebacks in NBA playoff history.
Had the Clippers moved on, they would have faced the Golden State Warriors, the team they eliminated from the playoffs the year prior. During the 2014-2015 season, the Clippers lost three of four to the Warriors, but two of the losses came in the final minutes of the game. The Clippers had experience against the Warriors in a playoff series before, and would be coming off series victories against the San Antonio Spurs, who were the defending champions, and the No. 2 seeded Houston Rockets. With the Clippers hungry for their first ever title appearance, who’s to say they couldn’t have gotten past the Warriors and competed for their first ever championship.
Which Clippers team was the best to not win a title?
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