Every year, the Clippers conversation has followed the same patterns. In October and November: “Can the Clippers do this?” Then someone gets hurt. “Can the Clippers survive this?” They survive. Then, we hit the trade deadline. “If the Clippers don't win, should they blow it up?” Then the playoffs arrive. “Are people overlooking the Clippers?” Then when they're just about to lose… “Is this is the end of Lob City?”
No more. Please. The Clippers were officially eliminated from the playoffs as of Sunday afternoon, and it's time for this to be over.
They went about this series in the most Clipper way possible. From giving away Game 1 to falling apart in Game 7, the past two weeks hit every beat that has made this team maddening since it began. Inexplicable losses, cruel injuries, ultimately meaningless CP3 heroics, closeout failures… Now Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, and J.J. Redick are free agents this summer, and if this is the end, we should be honest. Nobody will miss the Clippers. Even the Clippers won't miss the Clippers.
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This is a team that always worked better in theory than in practice. “Lob City” may have lasted a year or so, but soon enough the team's identity was given over to long jumpers, angry CP3 takeovers, and playoffnightmares.
All told, the most enjoyable Clippers season was probably the year before any of this began. That first year of Blake. The Clippers were rolling out a backcourt rotation of Eric Bledsoe, Eric Gordon, and Randy Foye, Blake and DeAndre were trying to dunk every touch they got, Vinny Del Negro was coaching, and they almost killed Timofey Mozgov. It was wonderful.
The Clippers were 1-13 and still firmly terrible when that Mozgov dunk happened, but that wasn't the whole story. Blake put up 44, 15, and 7 that night, and he did something incredible in almost every over game he played that year. It didn't matter that they were still losing. There was an energy to those Clippers games that made it impossible to root against them.
It changed when Chris Paul arrived, but that's not really a criticism. I struggle to criticize CP3 for anything, ever. He's one of the five greatest point guards in history. He's LeBron-level smart and LeBron-level consistent, and it's been this way for a decade. In the playoffs he turns into a madman, and it's one of the best spring traditions the NBA has. Even after it was clearly time for this Clippers team to go away, it was a joy to watch him perform surgery on the Jazz in Game 6.
In L.A., he professionalized the Clippers in a way that's hard to quantify. You could start with an extra billion or so dollars that went to the Sterling family after CP3 had raised the team's profile, but he also made them good enough to change every conversation surrounding them.
Paul brought real expectations—is own, and those of everyone else. The baseline went from “Holy s**t Blake!” to “Can this win a title?” almost overnight.
Expectations made things complicated. Flaws were exposed. Clutch genes were questioned. Three-and-D small forwards never materialized. And all of this was compounded by a nucleus that never completely fit together. The on-court chemistry wasn't bad enough to make a change imperative, but it was never good enough to feel natural, either.
It's telling that the most exciting stretches of Lob City basketball came when someone was hurt. When Paul got hurt in 2014, Blake turned into a one-man offense who kept them afloat almost by himself. He averaged 30 and 11 through February, gave us a classic night going toe to toe with LeBron, and it was a reminder of how great he could be on a team that ran everything through him.
The next year, when Blake got hurt, Paul responded by unleashing on 22 and 11 on 50 percent shooting through March, weaponizing newfound spacing to torture anyone who tried to stop their pick-and-roll. Meanwhile, DeAndre Jordan turned into a monster—he averaged 16 points and 17 boards in February and held together the Clippers D with his bare hands. In one Sunday afternoon ABC game, he limited Pau Gasol to 3-14 from the floor and grabbed 26 boards. It was a revelation: DeAndre can do this? And of course, Chris Paul had 28 and 14 in that game.
The two baselines that made those games fun were 1) a sudden freedom from expectations and 2) little changes to the lineup that left superstars looking a lot more comfortable on the floor. The inverse of the equation explains everything else from the past few years.
That's why it's hard to get sentimental over any of this. The problems in L.A. are not new; the past few years have only deepened the cracks in the facade.
Every Clippers star would be more enjoyable on his own than this team has been together. Send CP3 to San Antonio. Let Blake go spread his wings in South Beach. Let J.J. Redick go get a long overdue raise. Let Doc go play golf and give great interviews. Get DeAndre back to the Team USA Bench.
Individually, all of these guys have always been better and more endearing than they get credit for. Together they have been tough to appreciate. That's the Lob City era, this weird stretch of basketball history where we all had the same Clippers arguments for about five years straight. If Sunday was the end, the only thing left to say is that it didn't happen soon enough.