PLAYA VISTA, Calif. – The Clippers’ ability to repeat this season’s success and avoid the awful stumble that took place in their first-round playoff loss will turn on the decision of one player.
No surprise there, right?
The 118-105 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday night remained a hot topic on Saturday as players cleaned out their lockers and did their exit interviews. But moving forward won’t begin until there’s a sense of whether Paul plans to re-sign or will test the waters as an unrestricted free agent.
“I’m going to let him make his decision,” teammate Caron Butler said. “But I don’t think there’s another place he’d be more happy than the Clippers.”
Even if that’s true, there was no consolation after the Clippers’ 4-2 series loss to the Grizzlies, a defeat that brought their banner season to a sudden halt. The Clippers set a franchise record with 56 regular-season wins and their first Pacific Division title, but they were outplayed and out-hustled by a Memphis team that recovered from a 2-0 deficit in the best-of-seven series.
“This is unreal,” Paul said glumly. “We only played two weeks longer that everybody else who didn’t make the playoffs. It sucks, it stings. We’re still supposed to be playing.”
Their disappointment comes because of failed expectations. The Clippers were among the favorites to advance far in the Western Conference playoffs after going on a team-record 17-game winning streak and starting 32-9. But they needed a late-season surge to claim the No. 4 seed and were crushed by a Grizzlies team that was tougher and more aggressive.
“I don’t care what kind of streak you go on,” Paul said. “It has nothing to do with the playoffs. December and May don’t go together at all.”
The Clippers couldn’t match the rugged interior play of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, who controlled the boards and made too many easy baskets. Clippers center DeAndre Jordan was a non-factor in the series after a regular season was that largely forgettable. Blake Griffin tried to play with a high right ankle sprain but was limited to 13 minutes.
Forward Matt Barnes, another potential free agent after completing his best season in the NBA, acknowledged the need for the Clippers to get tougher.
“I definitely think that,” he said. “That was exploited this series. … It’s a learning experience, but I think we’ve got to do a better job as a team. As a team, we’ve got to be tougher.”
The organization realizes it will have to fill that need in order to persuade Paul to return for five years and $107.3 million, more than he could get anywhere else. But he’s going to take his time, consult with his family and look at his options.
“I’m going to pray about it,” he said of his future. “Everybody knows my family is always around. My mom and dad are at my house right now. I’m going to keep my tight group that I always have with me.”
As for the L.A. lifestyle, Paul, who is from North Carolina, said he and his family adjusted well.
“Did I like it? Yeah, I liked it,” he said. “I loved it out here.”
Paul has already felt the push from some teammates, who understand that losing him would be a significant step backward after major gains the past two seasons.
“He’s a huge piece to our team moving forward,” Griffin said. “He’s going to know we want him back and would love for him to re-sign and keep moving forward with this franchise. But ultimately, it’s his decision. He has to do what’s right for him, what’s right for his family, but obviously we’re behind him.”
With a tight-knit group of teammates, Paul may choose to re-up if he believes the Clippers are continuing to evolve. That might include bringing in a new coach, but Paul said he enjoyed playing under Vinny Del Negro.
In the end, the decision will be Paul’s alone. But he’s going to know how his teammates feel about it.
“I think he’s found a good home here and a good situation,” forward Grant Hill said. “I know he likes it here. And he looks good in red, white and blue.”