The Los Angeles Clippers are the whiniest, least disciplined championship contender in the NBA — and that all starts at the top.
Through the first quarter of this season, we've seen that this year's Clippers have what it takes to win a title. Their extraordinarily talented starting lineup has reached new heights, thanks to the chemistry and familiarity that comes with playing together for years. The defense is better than it's ever been. Blake Griffin keeps adding new wrinkles to his already elite offensive game. Chris Paul remains arguably the game's best point guard.
Yet as Doc Rivers' outburst on Tuesday showed, this is still the same old L.A. team: a squad incapable of letting the slightest perceived grievance go unpunished. Until the Clippers can get over themselves, it's hard to consider them a real threat to the Warriors in the Western Conference.
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One can appreciate Rivers' frustrations, especially as his team was on the verge of losing to the moribund Brooklyn Nets (in double overtime, no less). He felt as if his first technical foul was unearned; with the outcome of the game well in hand, he decided to let the officials know exactly what he thought of the situation, promptly earning a trip to the locker room.
“I thought it was an awful tech,” Rivers said after the game. “I think you guys know why the tech was called. The official, who had nothing to do with the play, thought I was yelling at Lauren [Holtkamp] and I wasn’t. We weren’t.
“She said I was right and let’s walk back. We weren’t even arguing. It was the damnedest tech to give at that time.”
Official Ken Mauer explained to reporters that the first technical was a result of Rivers crossing the halfcourt line, which warrants an automatic call. Really, though, that's neither here nor there. What matters is Rivers' reaction.
He chose — chose — to erupt rather than let go of the perceived slight. And that's the choice the Clippers always make. When they feel they were fouled, they have to let the officials know. When they're whistled for a phantom violation of their own, they have to let the officials know. When they earn a technical foul by the letter of the law and still feel that they're in the right, they have to let the officials know.
That pathological need for immediate karmic retribution in turn dooms the Clippers. They get in their own heads, with each new affront amplifying the noise and distracting from the task at hand.
It's no coincidence that a team lacking the discipline to avoid confrontation with the refs continuously comes up short in the game's biggest moments. The same mental fortitude required in the highest-pressure situations is the same discipline required to shrug and run down to the other end of the court when a call doesn't go your way.
No one's perfect, to be fair. Tim Duncan was famous for his bug-eyed reaction to nearly every whistle that went against him. But there's a difference between bemused internalization of rage and the volcanic outbursts we've come to expect from the Clippers.
You have to pick your spots; Rivers seems to think every battle is worth escalating into an all-out war.
That approach trickles down, poisoning the well for the Clippers' on-court leaders. I love CP3. I think he's one of the all-time greats, and he gets an undue amount of criticism for his teams' failures to make even a conference finals, let alone the NBA Finals. However, there's no denying that he has played a big part in those losses. For every epic performance he's had to save the Clippers, he's responded with awful turnovers in an elimination game against the Grizzlies or watched as his team blew a 3-1 lead to the Houston Rockets.
All the while, Paul acts as an extension of Rivers, for better and for worse. Then there's that whole incident with Griffin punching a team staffer last year — simultaneously a bizarre outlier and perfectly in line with the larger trend.
The Clippers can fix this, if they want. They can make a concerted effort to embrace tranquility. And if they can pull it off, we can call them title contenders.
For now, this is a deeply flawed, incredibly talented team that can't get out of its own way. Come the playoffs, that's a recipe for disaster.