“Story is a yearning meeting an obstacle.”
Those words from Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler ring true particularly for the NBA, a league whose rich history is made up of the unique stories of players, teams, coaches, and more. We tend to gravitate towards these stories as a way of learning about the game of basketball, and the ones we remember most are those where players overcome the monumental challenges in front of them to achieve their goals. Think Dirk Nowitzki winning a ring for his Mavericks in his twelfth season, or Kobe Bryant leading the Lakers to beat the rival Celtics in 2010 for the first time in decades.
The story of Eric Bledsoe is not one that enters fans’ minds when thinking of the stories that stitch together the fabric of the NBA. The story of the Clippers franchise may even be viewed as one of the most disappointing ones in the league. However, the feeling of nostalgia that Clipper fans felt with Eric Bledsoe’s return should not just be brushed off—in fact, it marks the end of a distinct chapter in the story of the Clippers.
Bledsoe’s initial arrival was in 2010 as a 20-year-old, one year before the blockbuster trade for Chris Paul was completed. He last suited up for the Clippers in 2013, when they dropped four games in a row to the Grizzlies, resulting in a painful first-round exit. His teammates included many forgotten names aside from the iconic “big three” of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan such as Lamar Odom and Chauncey Billups. The head coach of the team was Vinny Del Negro (Doc Rivers was still in Boston), and the team governor was Steve Ballmer’s predecessor, whose name would be in the news for all the wrong reasons just months after Bledsoe’s departure. In short, the Clippers that Bledsoe initially left are not who he’s coming back to this time.
It was during his absence when the narrative arc of our modern Clippers began to take form. A young, promising team filled with vitality had flashes of potential, but the punishing early playoff exits they suffered year after year expedited the experiment. What seemed to be a coming-of-age story turned into a tragedy, as the Lob City era came to an end with a dramatic locker room fight at Staples six months after the sign-and-trade that sent CP3 to Houston.
However, the arrival of Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams dramatically changed the image of the Clippers as a flashy underachiever to a gritty underdog, and leading to perhaps the team’s most beloved chapter. Written off at the start of the 2018-19 season, they snuck into the playoffs and made a name for themselves, beating the Warriors twice as an eighth seed before falling 4-2 in a fashion that Kevin Durant compared to David and Goliath. After this, the Clippers had a chip on their shoulder, with a winning culture and a desire for success that attracted the attention of star-level talents.
The trade for Paul George and the signing of Kawhi Leonard the following offseason vaulted the Clippers from playoff contention to title contention, with the resilience and ambition of its players paying off. However, the realistic shot at winning a championship came with plenty of other challenges. Their play in the Orlando bubble made it clear that the Clippers lacked a real identity, caught in a period of transition between their brief moment as underdogs and now as true title contenders, all while they blew yet another 3-1 lead in the second round. That moment demanded honest reflection and self-evaluation, and the results speak for themselves.
It took the season to work out the kinks for a relatively new team, but it was the playoffs where those results were visible. In the wake of Kawhi Leonard’s untimely injury, a whole new Clippers team seemed to emerge, with a newfound identity centered on redemption fueling their historic playoff run. Integral pieces like Nicolas Batum and Reggie Jackson brought their dwindling careers back to life, and the play by Paul George in the playoffs finally rid him of the “Pandemic P” moniker. The team could have stayed attached to relics of its recent past, but it changed directions on its own terms, exceeding the ceiling of success for a perceived second-rate franchise that many thought the Lob City Clippers set years before.
Going into the 2021-22 season, the Clippers have turned an important page in their own story, and the now 31-year old Eric Bledsoe’s return cements the start of a new chapter. It’s clear the Clippers have a deep, genuine yearning for championship, and it’s without doubt that their path to the Finals will be littered with obstacles to overcome. Those elements make up a story—a good one at that—but with an unknown ending.
Now all that’s left is for the players to write it.