LOS ANGELES — As a matter of protocol, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan filed onto the stage together for media day at the Clippers practice facility in late September. It was the NBA version of a “three guys walk into a bar,” only without a punch line — or at least one they’d find funny. They grabbed their microphones and answered all the requisite questions about their core and about that nagging, gnawing, unfinished business with the playoffs.
That last point has become something of an unavoidable theme for the Clippers. No matter how hard they try — and boy, they’ve tried hard — the Clippers have been unable to shake free of the second round’s suffocating grip. That is the hard truth and it’s a painful subject for the lot of them.
But if any single Clipper suffers just a little bit more than his teammates, it’s probably Paul. You could see it all over his face when he was asked, yet again, about the Clippers’ still unfulfilled promise.
He answered politely, because he is a professional, but it was hard not to notice the body language: part resignation, part defiance that they can still do something about it, and part frustration that they haven’t yet.
“I’ve had 11 summers of knowing what it’s like not to win a championship,” Paul said, almost sighing the words while Griffin and Jordan sat silently by his side.
This will be the trio’s sixth season together (and the fourth since Doc Rivers and J.J. Redick took up residence in Lob City). That’s an awfully long time for a professional sports franchise to sip from the same formula without tossing it aside for fresh ingredients and a less worrisome expiration date.
If your basketball palate is weary of the unending sameness of it all, you are not alone. There are a bunch of players and a man named Doc who share your distaste. When you’re among the league’s best teams, there’s urgency to win a title — but, as Rivers put it, no more “than last year or the year before.”
“Our regular season record over the last three or four years says we’re one of the better teams,” Rivers said. “Now, we have to back that up through the playoffs.”
That last sentence was simple but heavy. It is the distilled version of everything you need to know about these Clippers: past, present, and future. Like everyone else, they are acutely aware of it. A few days later, after a training camp practice session at UC Irvine, Redick acknowledged that there’s “a certain narrative” with the Clippers. He’ll be a free agent this coming offseason. Paul and Griffin can be, too, if they exercise their early termination options. Now more than ever, the familiar narrative threatens to conclude with a not-so-happy ending.
“My thing with that is, a narrative is only a narrative until it’s not,” Redick said. “In other words, the LeBron thing, LeBron couldn’t win — until he did. Michael couldn’t win — until he did. We couldn’t get out of the second round, until we do. And we will. I don’t think we get caught up in that, but that’s the conversation around our team.”
You know the beats of that particular conversation just as they do. This is the year for the Clippers. This is the year Doc wins another title — or picks a different wall to bang his head against. This is the year their core comes together to accomplish great new things — or gets detonated. This is the year they finally push past the second round — or don’t. This is the year for the Clippers. It is always the year.
A few hours before media day, Paul Pierce announced his pending retirement at season’s end. He was asked about it, of course, but it didn’t take long before the questions stopped being about his farewell, and focused on the Clippers and how they’ll combat the “superteam” assembled in Golden State. Even when a future Hall of Famer says he’s quitting, even in star-studded, navel-gazing Los Angeles, the NBA epicenter remains nearly 400 miles to the north. Pierce thought about it for a moment before ultimately dismantling the question and asking some of his own.
“To me, I think we have a superteam here,” Pierce said. “You look at Chris Paul, who’s been a First Team All-NBA. Blake Griffin, First Team. DeAndre Jordan, currently First Team All-NBA. How many teams can currently say that?
“We have the best three-point shooter in the NBA. We have the Sixth Man of the Year. Why is this not a superteam? What defines ‘superteam?’ When you look at those stats and you hear what I’m saying, this could very well, easily be what’s considered a superteam.”
He went on like that for a little while, employing the term “superteam” 10 times before tuckering himself out. Golden State’s dangerous, multifunctional lineup aside, Pierce’s point is noted. The Clippers are loaded with talent and experience. Of the players who figure to make the roster, more than 10 have been in the NBA for at least seven seasons, and half of those have been in the league for a decade or more. Austin Rivers is the most junior man among regular contributors, and he’s entering his fifth professional campaign.
Pierce’s evaluation wasn’t wrong. The Clippers do have a top tier rim protector at one end, a three-point sharpshooter at the other, and two superstars in between. A year ago, they were sixth in the NBA in offensive rating and fifth in net rating, per NBA.com. The year before that, they were first and second in those respective categories. Just like the year before that, as well. They’ve won at least 53 games in each of the last four seasons. With the notable exception of technical fouls, the stats Pierce mentioned look like that of a contender.
(An aside: the Clippers are perennially among the league leaders in techs. On a podcast with Griffin, Redick revealed that players can write off the accompanying fines. As Redick quipped, “being an asshole is a business expense.” Business in L.A. is booming. Perhaps that’s owed to their unvarnished desire to be perceived and treated as an elite team. When that doesn’t happen, or when it doesn’t happen to the extent they’d prefer, their frustration often manifests itself in heated interactions with the refs. It’s a bit of a self-perpetuating cycle, but at least it comes in handy during tax season.)
But if Pierce is really asking how to define a superteam, there’s a new advanced metric that cuts to the center of the debate and trumps all others: PPA (parades per attempt). The zero rating in that column holds greater gravity than all the other numbers combined. Whatever superteam status the Clippers enjoy is tempered as a result.
In the last five years, the Clippers have been sent home by the Rockets (after going up 3-1), Thunder, Grizzlies (after going up 2-0), and Spurs (who swept them without compunction). Last year, they were dispatched by the Trailblazers after Paul and Griffin suffered season-ending injuries in the same playoff game, a particularly cruel variation to their annual and gruesome postseason torture. That Griffin’s second injury of the year was suffered on the court and not in a regrettable altercation outside a restaurant in Toronto was small consolation.
For his part, Griffin has apologized to the Clippers and their fans — both for what occurred in Canada and what still hasn’t happened in L.A. In a recent piece in The Players’ Tribune, Griffin — who has been the subject of countless trade rumors this offseason — addressed the unshakable aforementioned team narrative, how difficult it is to win a championship under even the best circumstances, and how the Clippers have “embraced the public perception of who we are.”
“For lack of a better term, we’ve adopted the philosophy of: F— it,” Griffin wrote. “Let’s just go out and play basketball.”
Before the offseason funneled into the preseason, and shortly before training camp started, Redick had Paul on his podcast. If the Clippers are tired of revisiting certain well-worn topics with the public and the media, they haven’t yet given up on discussing it with each other. That particular episode featured moments that came off as a hybrid TED Talk/therapy session.
During one exchange, Redick asked Paul if he had read The Carrot Seed, a children’s book by Ruth Krauss. He had not. The abridged version goes like this: a little boy plants a carrot seed. His family tells the child his efforts won’t yield results, that the carrot will not grow. Unfazed, the kid keeps after it, watering the plant, pulling the weeds, waiting. Because, you know, kids. Eventually, the carrot does grow, much to the delight of the boy.
Redick was reminded of the story, he told Paul, after the Clippers lost to the Rockets in Game 7 of the playoffs two years ago. He recalled an inconsolable Paul sitting in the locker room and saying aloud that he couldn’t believe he had to go through all the extra conditioning and shooting, the nutrition and hard work, just to get another playoff opportunity. The point was obvious enough. Success requires monumental effort and attention — and even then, the carrot might not grow.
“You know what I’m saying?” Redick asked.
“I know exactly what you’re saying,” Paul replied.
This is the year for the Clippers. It is always the year.