After everything — the depth, the deals, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the false promise of Doc Rivers and the deep pockets of Steve Ballmer — we are left with this: The Clippers are still the Clippers.
The holders of yet another historic collapse.
Stars dimmed, and then recast as the butt of jokes, in a postseason that makes fools of all of us who believed.
It's hard to do justice to just how stunning and bitter Denver's 104-89 dismantling of the Clippers truly was in Game 7 of the second-round playoff series, but here's a brief attempt.
Up 3-1 in the series, the Clippers, the odds-on favorites to win it all just a week ago, and loaded with Kawhi, supposed superstar Paul George and supposed super-coach Doc Rivers, preceded to: Squander a 13-point lead with 1:25 left in the third quarter of Game 5, give away a 19-point lead in the third quarter of Game 6, and then in Game 7, after another double-digit lead, abdicate of any hope, effort or excellence as the fourth quarter unfolded.
Kawhi Leonard was 6-of-22 on the night and — hard pause to take this in — 0-for-5 in the fourth quarter. Arguably the game's second-best and second-most sure postseason closer, a man with two Finals MVPs with two different teams, had gone full Clippers. What, truly, is in the water at the Clippers home base?
Paul George was worse: 4-for-16 for the game and 0-for-6 in the fourth quarter — including 0-for-5 from the 3-point line. The guy who talked about Portland going to Cabo earlier in the postseason ended his own with a highlight reel led by getting outplayed by the side of the backboard.
There's more, but you get the picture: Denver was phenomenal. And the Clippers, who gave away so much of its future to pry George from the Thunder for a shot at this year and next — he and Leonard can hit the open market next summer, and who wouldn't, and hasn't, once they've learned what it means to be a Clipper — are where they always are.
Nowhere. Looking older, and less dangerous, then when all felt right. A walking mirage that promises one thing but always ends up as the opposite.
At the center of this, always, is Doc Rivers. So let's start with the likable, media-savvy coach, the guy who won a championship well more than a decade ago. Even that begs a closer look: How did that Celtics team fail to win more?
Same question, L.A., or maybe a different question with the inevitable same answer: How have you failed to make even a conference finals in seven seasons with Rivers at the helm? There have only been 13 3-1 comebacks, and therefore collapses, in NBA history. Denver has two this postseason, and that's astounding.
Do you know what else is astounding? The Clippers have been on the receiving end of that historical fact twice, in 2015 against Houston and this year. Each series had a conference finals appearance on the line.
Rivers has coached three of the 13 teams to ever lose an NBA playoff series after going up 3-1 and six teams that have blown a 3-2 lead, including the 2010 NBA Finals when Boston took a 3-2 series lead only to allow the Lakers to storm back to win an NBA championship behind Kobe Bryant.
Speaking of the Lakers, can we stop with the Clippers-vs-Lakers showdown? They share a city, nothing more, and only barely that. Here in L.A., you can find Clippers fans about as easily as you can find Padres fans: A few, here and there, but not a trend. They're an afterthought, at best, probably in part because the Clippers do a great job talking about matching, meeting and eventually beating the Lakers but they've never actually, you know, won the requisite series to do that.
Steve Ballmer is a fine owner, with good intentions and a lot of money. But the institutional malaise of this team stretches far back, before his tenure, to a collection of failure and choke-jobs and nights like the one they suffered through in Orlando.
That's a fact.
This Clippers team should have been the best in the NBA this year. Kawhi, before he arrived, was a surefire playoff Terminator. This season, they had the game's second-best offense and fifth-best defense. They had depth. They had P.G. as a right-hand man, Lou Williams as a sharpshooter, Patrick Beverley as a defensive mind-game machine — on and on it went, pieces to praise, reasons to believe, weapons to employ en route to glory.
But these are the Clippers, still.
These are Doc Rivers Clippers, still.
Already, reports have trickled out that players were so tired Tuesday night they had to ask out of key stretches of the game. If that's not a coaching issue — minute management, and the discipline and leadership to make sure guys are conditioned and ready to go — nothing is.
But why make excuses for the man? Why is it never his fault? In a business where head coaches are usually hired to be fired, and blamed, Doc has been Teflon. Nothing has stuck. But success, like blame, has failed to attach itself to him, too, during his time in L.A.
It turns out, for the Los Angeles Clippers, the sound and the fury still signifies absolutely nothing. Because that's what they're left with after Tuesday night. And that, yet again, looks like what they'll be left with when this version of Clippers basketball goes where all those before it have gone: Away, maybe as soon as next summer, with nothing substantive — not even a conference finals appearance, ever — to show.
Terrible cultures linger. That film of failure, that layer of loserdom that can haunt any place that's been infested by it for too long, is not easy to exorcise.
Maybe it's time the Clippers do what all resets require: Start by resetting the person in charge, likable though they may be, the person who's underperformed, the person coaching the team itself.
The Clippers are still the Clippers. But would they be if someone else had been coaching them this season?