Why the Clippers remain a mirage; has zero to do with the Brooklyn meltdown
Until the Chris Paul-led Clips make a substantial playoff run, the underachieving story is the same
LOS ANGELES -- Let's dispense with this Clippers silliness early: They are a regular-season illusion, a team marked for disappointment, a group that -- until they prove otherwise deep into a postseason -- can't be taken seriously simply because early on they do some marvelous things.
And no, it's not because they lost to a very bad Brooklyn Nets team Tuesday night in double overtime.
I've been in Los Angeles during, more or less, the same span in which the Clippers supposedly have emerged as a true Western Conference force. I've seen and heard it all: That once they get healthy, it's go time. That the Warriors have never had to face them in a seven-game series. That they've finally -- after years, and problems, and meltdowns, and behind-the-scenes chemistry issues -- figured it out.
This year, it goes like this: That the Clips are finally legit. Their bench is fixed, and Blake Griffin and Chris Paul are now, if not best of friends, in a good place, and DeAndre Jordan's defensive and rebounding prowess can finally make a difference. That Doc the General Manager is starting to catch up with Doc the Coach, and it all adds up to the Clippers being a team you better take seriously.
Not so fast.
I've seen this movie before, and I've seen how it ends: A chunk of the regular season that is glorious, wildly promising, a sign of things to come once May rolls around ... and then a flameout in the postseason.
Saw it the first time. Saw it in the sequel. Saw it in the third installment. I'm not believing this reboot is any different until it's beyond doubt.
Time and again Paul, Griffin, Jordan and the teams they lead have failed to live up to their talent and expectations in any meaningful way in the postseason. They have never made the Western Conference finals, let alone the NBA Finals. They're serial underachievers.
This Clippers team is fun to watch, it's interesting and it boasts in Paul, Griffin and Jordan legit stars with incredible talent. Paul is still a marvelous floor general and offensive aficionado, Griffin's athleticism and improving jump shot are impressive, and Jordan is averaging 11 points and 12 rebounds a game in a role that perfectly augments his co-stars' needs and skills.
And yet, again, we're covering familiar territory. Behind the scenes Paul, as most sources will tell you if you bother to ask, is widely respected but not universally loved. That disconnect exists not only across much of the league but also on his own team. It's why, year after year, he'll say his relationship with Griffin or other teammates is fabulous and wonderful, as he told USA Today last week.
The man doth protest too much.
There's a reason. The tension between Paul and his teammates nearly led Jordan to leave for Dallas in 2015, something I reported at the time and was widely denied -- until, of course, it couldn't be.
In fact, before that, an NBA general manager told me the Clippers' frustration with their point guard inevitably would lead to a blown playoff game, or even a blown series. He said that kind of tension boils over under the harsh pressure of playoff basketball. I believed him on Paul, but thought he was getting carried away with such a specific prediction. Then the Clippers choked away a 3-1 series lead against the Houston Rockets. This stuff is real.
Has Chris Paul grown closer than ever to Griffin and Jordan? Have they bonded over past misfortunes? Have the revelations of their discord made them truly close? Has that trio evolved from a group of talented guys with awkward interactions to true teammates connected in the kind of way you need to chase a championship?
Could be. Maybe. I hope so.
But I won't believe it until I see it.
In 2012-13, the Clippers won 17 games in a row, finished 56-26 and got blown out in the first round of the playoffs. They went out in the second round in 2014. Had the meltdown vs. Houston in 2015. And last season lost to Portland in the first round.
It's always something. Injuries. Poor team chemistry. Blake punching his buddy in the head in the regular season and breaking his hand in the process.
Whatever. The ending always is the same.
There's a great maxim that fits relationships, from early stages of dating to decades-old marriages: People don't change.
Neither do some basketball teams.
This team doesn't have a scorer who can create his own shot in crunch time. They play good defense, but not the kind that can crush an opponent's will. Paul is a future Hall of Famer, but his inability to turn his talent into postseason greatness is indisputable. Rivers won a single championship in Boston with a loaded team, and not a one when Tom Thibodeau wasn't running his team's defense.
This team is what it is. They haven't changed.
And until they prove otherwise, count me among the doubters.
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