End of an Era? The Clippers' season is over, and so too might be their core

Sporting News

The most impressive stretch of basketball in the history of the Los Angeles Clippers might have just ended this afternoon.

How do you fully even try to describe the possible end of an era? It’s not easy. Many will try, many will fail, and unequivocally this will as well. It’s never easy to talk about the end of something. Trying to put into words what has meant so much to a select few that have never experienced this level of joy in their lives before, at least when it comes to a basketball team, is not a simple task.

As the clock ticked down this afternoon and the 2016-2017 season came to an end for the Clippers, the daunting offseason questions started to permeate through the air. You know the ones I’m referring to.

Will the Clippers blow it up? Will they even re-sign Chris Paul and/or Blake Griffin? Will Doc Rivers even come back? What’s next for a team that can’t get over the hump?

All those questions will remain whether or not I try to dissect them. I’m not here to answer them. Frankly, I don’t care enough to answer them. My energy is best spent elsewhere rather than in a make believe world where I try to predict what’s going to happen. I’ve been there before, and it’s exhausting. Instead, there’s other things to get out there.


J.J. REDICK

Since J.J. Redick is an unrestricted free agent now, I figure we need to discuss some stuff. And I don’t mean about where he might go or if he’ll stay or whatever his next contract will be. I’m talking about stuff that matters outside of the realm of money. It’s emotional currency.

Since his arrival in Los Angeles during the 2013 summer, Redick has made 674 threes. That ranks second all-time in franchise history behind The Polish Rifle – aka Eric Piatkowski. His ability to shift the entire offense due to his nonstop motor as he runs around screens reminds some, at least a little bit, of Ray Allen with the Boston Celtics. If one player was the most quintessential Doc Rivers player during the last four years, it was Redick. Undoubtedly.

He was a sniper, and his knack for somehow creating enough separation while running left and shooting right is still one of the most ingenious and ungodly things I’ve ever seen on a basketball court. It just didn’t seem possible, yet Redick pulled it off time and time again because that’s just who he was. He was someone who gave it his all every time he stepped onto the court. Even on bad nights, he just didn’t stop moving. It was fun.

If this was the last time I ever see J.J. Redick in a Clippers uniform, I just want to thank him for the four years he gave to a franchise that he didn’t need to agree to a sign-and-trade to. The sheer brilliance of him on the court as he slalomed around DeAndre Jordan screen after DeAndre Jordan screen is a highlight that will be ingrained in my brain for a very long time. He was someone I’m proud to have rooted for.

Whether it was him roasting James Harden and the Houston Rockets for 40 points during a mid-January game or hitting a game-winner against Portland as time expired, Redick provided many memorable moments and many memorable shots. If this is truly the end for him, it was fun. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I had a blast, and I surely hope he did, too. While some will opine that the team should have kept Eric Bledsoe instead, I know what Redick brought to the team was not replicable. It was one-of-a-kind. And it should be praised.


DOC RIVERS

As anyone who has been following me for a while knows, I really don’t have much love lost for Doc Rivers as far as being a head coach goes. I’m not here to lambaste him anymore. The man was a guiding light during one of the most tumultuous and turbulent times that has ever happened in the history of the NBA. The entire Donald Sterling mess could be written about for the next 30 years, and it still wouldn’t come close to scratching the surface of the wide-ranging piece of feces that Sterling happens to be. But Rivers was the one who saved the Clippers when it happened.

Quite a few of the moves that ‘Doc Rivers the GM’ has made have not exactly worked out. There’s the draft picks and some failed trades, but I’m going to overlook all of that because there’s no reason to harp on it too much anymore. What Doc Rivers gave the Clippers franchise was stability it had not seen in quite a long time.

In the entire history of the franchise, which goes back to their days as the Buffalo Braves – or even as the Boston Celtics if you want to get really kooky about everything, and you definitely should – the team has only had four coaches that coached four consecutive full seasons. Doc Rivers is the latest one, and he’s been the most successful.

During his four years here in Los Angeles, Rivers has amassed a .662 winning percentage. That puts the team as the third-winningest organization of the last four years. The only two that rank above them are the supernova Golden State Warriors and the consistently great San Antonio Spurs. That’s where he’s guided the team while being at the helm. You shouldn’t ever really lose sight of that.

Has he been a perfect coach? Not at all. Has he been a tough one to watch go through in-game adjustments at times? Of course. But he’s also someone who took them by the hand during a critical juncture and led them into the light. The fact this team never won a title shouldn’t really be held against him, or even the players, but rather illustrates how they were merely a victim of circumstance.

What he did for the franchise will never be forgotten. I’m firmly convinced that no other coach in the business could have molded the toxic vapor that hung over the franchise into the positive energy that he was able to generate. He was the voice in the locker room that got through to everyone. Rivers handled it all with poise, class, and a general calmness that you just wouldn’t have anticipated out of anyone during that time. It was beautiful.

There’s been rumblings that Rivers might entertain overtures from the Orlando Magic in the offseason to run their franchise, but whether or not he does is something that shouldn’t matter to anyone as of this moment. If this was the last time Doc Rivers ever mans the sideline for the Los Angeles Clippers, I want to personally thank him for the level of professionalism and incredible winning he brought with him. You were the voice the team needed. And it shouldn’t ever be forgotten or taken for granted.


CHRIS PAUL

I shouldn’t have to say it, but I’m going to say it anyways. Chris Paul is the single greatest player in the history of the Los Angeles Clippers franchise. While, yes, it’s not a storied history, he’s still over the likes of guys such as Blake Griffin, who we’ll talk about shortly, Elton Brand, and Bob McAdoo, who actually still holds the only Most Valuable Player Award in franchise history.

There’s really not enough space in this piece to talk about how much he’s actually meant to the franchise, and I’m not even talking about his contributions on the court when I say that. He’s an amazing person off the court, and it really doesn’t get talked about enough how much work he’s done during his six years with the franchise – a franchise, mind you, that he didn’t have to come to.

Chris Paul is the franchise leader in assists, assists per game, assist percentage, steals per game, Player Efficiency Rating, Offensive Rating, Offensive Win Shares, Win Shares, Win Shares Per 48 Minutes, Offensive Box Plus/Minus, Box Plus/Minus, and Value Over Replacement Player. He’s easily the best player that’s ever laced up a pair of shoes for the team. There’s zero debate about it.

Throughout the six seasons he’s controlled the team on the court, he’s averaged 18.8 points, 9.8 assists, 4.2 rebounds, and 2.2 steals while throwing up a 47.5 field goal percentage, 37.8 three-point percentage, and 88.1 free throw percentage. During those 409 games, he’s posted a 58.9 True Shooting Percentage and 52.9 Effective Field Goal Percentage. Paul has been a master in the truest sense of the word.

There have been plenty of ‘wow’ moments from him. His entire Game 7 performance against the San Antonio Spurs during the first round of the 2015 playoffs is one of the greatest displays of heart and toughness I’ve ever personally witnessed from an athlete. He was playing on one leg, and then he hit the game-winner to send the team to the next round.

When it came to the playoffs, he was even more sensational. The man was an absurd four-out-of-six with less than 30 seconds to play on shots to tie or take the lead during his Clippers tenure. If the team needed a bucket, they went to him. And he delivered. He was the big shot taker and maker for the franchise during these six seasons. When they needed him the most, he didn’t shy away. He embraced it.

His playoff career, as mentioned, was downright stunning. He practically averaged 21-5-9-2 on 48-40-88 shooting over the course of his stay. His Effective Field Goal Percentage and True Shooting Percentage both went up in the playoffs compared to the regular season. When the lights shined brightest, the Point God made sure his light shined just a tad brighter. Every single instance he took the court was a special moment, and it should be looked back on as such.

No other player that the team acquires both now and in the future will ever come close to the level of passion, leadership, and never say die attitude that a six-foot point guard from North Carolina was able to muster for a franchise that didn’t understand what any of that stuff meant until he arrived. There’s a bar that Chris Paul set, and it’ll take a very long time for anyone to ever come close to touching it with their fingertips.

The common fan or fans from other teams won’t be truly able to understand why someone who never made it out of the second round meant so much to a team that itself had never made it out of the second round, but I promise you the fans that gathered at STAPLES Center during his six years there will be able to tell you the stories of how much he meant to them. He was the heart, and he gave everyone his.

If today happens to be the last instance he laced up the shoes as a member of the Clippers, he should get nothing less than a standing ovation from every fan that ever bought a ticket or watched a game or cheered from afar. There are an entire slew of fans who will have grown up watching that man dominate a game from start to finish on both sides of the court. We’ll never forget that tenacity.

There will never be another point guard like Chris Paul for this team, and I pity the man who takes his place whenever he leaves. Whether that’s this offseason or a future offseason, it does not matter one bit. The madman who manically dribbled the ball, flung passes around the court, and pissed off both opposing players and referees equally was one of the most likable and genuine people the team will ever have. If this is truly it, what a god damn hero he was.


BLAKE GRIFFIN

Whew. This is the tough one. As hard as the Chris Paul thing was to write, this is more personal for me. While Paul is the single greatest player the franchise has ever had, Blake Griffin is the single most important player the franchise has ever had. Without him, there is no trade for Chris Paul, there is no keeping of DeAndre Jordan a couple years ago in free agency, there is no Doc Rivers on the sideline, and there are no sold out crowds every game.

I remember the sheer shock and jubilation that struck when the Clippers won the draft lottery and eventually selected Griffin. It was the first time the phrase “this could finally be the turnaround” entered my mind. Little did we know, Griffin would be the most Clippers player of all-time. Injuries robbed him of his would-be rookie season, and then came his debut.

That debut came against the Portland Trail Blazers on October 27, 2010. I was actually at the game. I cannot even adequately sum up my reaction to his first career basket. It was an alley-oop dunk that was thrown to him by Randy Foye. It happened right in front of me. It felt like he soared so high that he could touch the heavens and physically grab a deity down from the clouds and demand the franchise start winning games through divine intervention.

There have been ups and downs for him in Los Angeles. At every juncture where you think he’s about to take his rightful place as a top five player in the league, an injury jumps up and bites him. He punched a team manager and friend, tore muscles, and broke bones. He’s ended the last two postseasons on the bench in a suit, which in a sickening way seems like a fitting conclusion to his run in Los Angeles at this point – if it is the end.

But damn there were so many downright fantastical moments that he provided. From the absurd dunks to the flashy dribbling for a big man to the incredible passing acumen that he put on display, he was a dynamo. He even added a three-point shot as this season drew to a close. The man literally shot 38.5 percent from beyond the arc since February 1, and did so on 96 attempts. Griffin was evolving, but then the evolution came to an abrupt halt. Again.

His two-way dominance throughout the 2015 playoffs was one of the most ridiculous displays of basketball I’ve seen. He averaged 25.5 points, 12.7 rebounds, and 6.1 assists on 51.1 percent shooting during those 14 games. In the final two games of that Spurs series, with the team down 3-2 and facing a daunting road game, Griffin put up 26-12-6 and four blocks. In the deciding Game 7, he had 24-13-10. The hulking power forward delivered on the big stage, and it was mesmerizing.

As much as there will never be another player like Chris Paul in the history of the franchise, there will definitely never be another Blake Griffin. Ever. No one worked harder than him. No one. He was constantly working on ways to improve his game on both ends of the court, and the true shame of it all is that his body stopped letting him stay healthy enough to make it last. He became a victim of his own hard work.

There’s a large swing of emotions when it comes to Griffin and the fanbase. Some love him to death, some have soured on him, and others are just here to enjoy the ride as long as it goes. Griffin is the living embodiment of those entire overarching mindsets. There are the displays that make you love him, the odd plays that make you sour on him, and then there are the occasions that you just enjoy the ride for as long as he’ll let you. It was the full experience.

Without Griffin, there is no recent run of success. He changed the culture just by showing up and being a fire-breathing dragon that knew no bounds. Never forget what he did for the franchise during one of its darkest times. Chris Paul loved him so much that he joined him. Doc Rivers loved him so much that he wanted to coach him. DeAndre Jordan loved him so much that he opted to stay for him. Love is what you should feel for that man.

Don’t choose to focus on only the negatives and sadness that his injuries have brought you, but rather opt to view his entire seven-year run as a member of the organization through the prism of admiration and affection. Blake Griffin gave it his all on the court every single time he stepped foot on it, and in the process it broke his body. He destroyed his body. For you. The fan. He was the microcosm of the Clippers. God bless him for it. We love him for it.

If he chooses to sign elsewhere in the summer, you won’t get angry words written by me. You were never going to get those in the first place. What an athlete chooses to do is up to him and his family. The fans shouldn’t take it personally, and they certainly shouldn’t lash out at the athlete for doing what he perceived to be in the best interest for himself.

Blake Griffin very well could have played his last game for the Clippers. It ended in injury, and the season ended with him on the bench looking on while his team played their hearts out. It ate at him, and it ate us all, too. The ‘what ifs’ that surround everything with this franchise screamed loudest with him and his injuries. But god damnit he gave every ounce of willpower that he had.

Should this be the end of the line and should he sign with a different team in July, the man should not ever get booed or criticized or looked down upon by anyone. He gave the team everything he had, and he deserves to be happy – even if that’s not in Los Angeles. No one player changed the feeling of the team more than him. No one person changed the feeling of myself as a fan more than him. Thank you, Blake Griffin. You were a Clipper. And the best Clipper we ever could have asked for.


END OF AN ERA?

The team comes to a crossroads now that the season has ended. If you count on the fact that Luc Mbah a Moute and Marreese Speights will surely opt out of their player options for next season, the Los Angeles Clippers will have eight free agents this offseason. That includes Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, Raymond Felton, Brandon Bass, and Alan Anderson. Not everyone will be back. That’s a fact.

The only direction that makes sense for the team to go is to keep chugging along and attempting to re-sign both Griffin and Paul, as well as Redick. There’s no telling who decides to re-up. There’s no telling who decides it’s not worth it. It’s all conjecture at this point. This team will either look vastly different heading into next season, or it’ll look somewhat the same.

At the end of the day, the team that has taken the court for the last six seasons has featured Blake Griffin and Chris Paul. It’s featured J.J. Redick and Doc Rivers during the last four seasons. All four could be gone by the end of July. It signals a monumental teetering point for the franchise, and also for owner Steve Ballmer. You don’t pay $2 billion for a franchise and just let your biggest stars walk without making an attempt to bring them back.

There’s a possibility – however minute and odd – that the Clippers could enter next season with a lineup consisting of Austin Rivers, Jamal Crawford, Luc Mbah a Moute, Brice Johnson, and DeAndre Jordan. That’s in one of those worst-case-scenario type situations. But it’s still a possibility, and possibilities are all we can go with right now.

In the meantime, as everyone writes their obituaries for one of the greatest teams to never go substantially deep in the playoffs, I just want to say that I love each and every one of these players for the feeling that they invoked in me as a fan. Would a title have been incredible? You damn right. But I wouldn’t trade any of this. This feeling I have inside just feels so Clippers. Maybe that doesn’t make sense to an outsider, but it does to those who went through this year after year.

You gave us all highs and lows. There were times of great sadness but also great joy. None of that matters now. What matters is how perfect you were for this organization and this fanbase and the feelings you gave to us all. Thank you, each one of you, from the bottom of my heart. There will never be another team like you. At least not for the Clippers. You were what we needed; what we cherished.

July 10, 2013 – April 30, 2017?