The scariest thing for the Los Angeles Clippers is that the Chris Paul and Blake Griffin era has peaked, that the Doc Rivers hiring didn’t really make them a better team, and that losing in the conference semifinals is as good as it gets for them, which means pretty soon it’s time to start over.
The numbers suggest nothing has changed since Rivers arrived via trade from the Boston Celtics, sending a first round draft pick for him, and putting Rivers in full control of basketball decisions within the organization. The ownership change seemed to strengthen his standing in the team. But while Rivers continues to ride the glory days of winning an NBA championship with a team of experienced stars doing the heavy lifting, most of his choices for players to put around Paul and Griffin haven’t really worked out.
The Clippers changed the moment Blake Griffin started playing, but they started winning when Paul arrived. They made the playoffs (conference semifinals) in 2012 for the first time since 2006, and began a streak of five postseason appearances, something the franchise has never seen. Not in Buffalo, not in San Diego, not in Los Angeles. They’ve become the best team in the city of Los Angeles, but with nothing but player posters to show for it.
In 2013, still coached by Vinny Del Negro, the Clippers were stunned in the first round by the Memphis Grizzlies, and so the way out was shown to the head coach, with Paul reportedly helping show him the door. Rivers came and got absolute power. All that’s happened since is him complaining about his players when the Clippers don’t do well, nepotism giving his son Austin Rivers an NBA career, while the team has remained an athletic, often fun to watch group, but with the same intelligence and decision making problems that were there before Rivers arrived. Shuffling bench players around Paul and Griffin hasn’t really changed anything. The conference semifinal, including an epic collapse against the Houston Rockets in 2015, is a ceiling that’s never been breached.
Chris Paul is 31. He can leave at the end of this season, and opting out makes sense considering the salary cap rising, if he has a healthy and productive season. Griffin, four years younger, is constantly attached to trades linking him to the Oklahoma City Thunder, despite Rivers denying it. He can also opt out of his deal at the end of this season, and he will, unless the injuries from last season (And for more than that with Paul) return, and he doesn’t seem as valuable again.
The problem for the Clippers is that they only seem to be getting older, not wiser, with different players around DeAndre Jordan, Paul, Griffin and J.J. Redick, who is also a free agent at the end of the season. Jamal Crawford got a raise despite declining as a player. Paul Pierce should retire. For some reason Austin Rivers is making $11 million a season. Raymond Felton, Brandon Bass, Marreese Speights, Alan Anderson. It doesn’t seem like the Clippers really improved, only added a bit of depth.
Maybe the decay process has already began. They won 53 games last season, and winning 64.6% of their games is their lowest in the last four seasons. Not much of a change, but they can’t seem to even bother the Golden State Warriors. No matter what they do, the premise, the ability, and the final result stays the same. If this year doesn’t offer a change, not to mention a good reason for Paul and Griffin to stay, Rivers might have to make room for someone new too.