Clippers, Bulls didn't make Finals, but commanded attention
By Matt Zemek
The Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers made the NBA Finals, and for that reason, they become two of the more fascinating teams to watch this next NBA season. However, one could make a very convincing argument that the two most fascinating teams in the Association for the 2015-2016 campaign are the Los Angeles Clippers and the Chicago Bulls.
Yes, fans of the Houston Rockets, Washington Wizards, Atlanta Hawks, and San Antonio Spurs could all make legitimate arguments as well. Yet, the Clippers and Bulls do seem to stand above the rest of the non-Finals teams in the crowd.
The Clippers are a little bit like the Cavaliers in that they’ve never won the NBA title. They also share a commonality with Cleveland in that they’re certainly part of an emotionally burdensome situation which won’t go away until thresholds are crossed. The obvious difference between the two franchises is that the Cavaliers have made the Finals and are in great shape for the coming season. The Clippers face a much more uncertain journey (largely of their own making), which is why they come across as a more fascinating team.
You’ve likely read this before, so we’ll just say it once more and move on with life: The Clippers confounded the normal workings of the NBA in these just-ended playoffs. Teams usually use wrenching losses to move up the ladder the next year. The Clippers — who gacked away Game 5 of the 2014 West semifinals to Oklahoma City — were about to graduate and reach their first West finals series in recorded human history.
Then Game 6 happened against the Rockets … with James Harden smelling the pine in the fourth quarter in Los Angeles.
The Clippers’ logo change is not merely cosmetic; it’s meant to wipe away an enduring history of failure with “Script Clippers” — that neat and clean cursive writing — on the jersey. Think of the Los Angeles Kings hockey team going to black jerseys to put the purple-and-gold misery of their first two decades behind them. Sure enough, they made their first Stanley Cup final in 1993 and have recently become one of the NHL’s elite teams.
The Clippers’ ghosts from the distant past were ghosts of incompetence and buffoonery, ghosts of Donald Sterling and Elgin Baylor and Michael Olowokandi. Now, though, the Clippers are accumulating the stomach-punch ghosts of playoff failure, of games they had no business losing but somehow managed to give away. The basketball biological clock is ticking for Chris Paul, and a tremendous playoff run for Blake Griffin was cut short because his supporting cast lost the plot in the final five quarters of the Houston series. The longer the Clippers go without at least making the West finals (the NBA Finals can wait), the more acute their failure will become.
Doc Rivers did such a remarkable job with the Boston Celtics in that five-season window from 2008 through 2012. This past season in ClipperLand would have been considered a success had he and his team finished off the Rockets as they should have. Since they didn’t, Rivers faces an ever more urgent task to take the Clippers where they’ve never been before. If Rivers fails, his legacy as a coach will take a profound hit … largely because Rivers the general manager will have failed to supply the coach with the right pieces.
CP3, Blake, Doc — three high-profile figures in the NBA face the burning need to deliver better days to a snake-bitten franchise. The Warriors’ bid to repeat and the Spurs’ attempt to circle the wagons one more time will be very compelling stories, but with that having been acknowledged, the Clippers represent a far more gripping story, precisely because it’s so thoroughly soaked in the hot, scalding waters of pressure.
Then consider the Chicago Bulls.
If the Clippers are like Cleveland in a few key respects (but wildly, sharply, divergent in others), the Bulls are more like Golden State.There’s no 0-for-history NBA title drought to deal with. An organization that once hit high notes has endured an intervening period of great dysfunction (Chicago’s being much shorter than Golden State’s, but long enough to cause more than a little discontent among the fan base).
Here is the most specific and striking similarity between the Warriors and the Bulls entering the 2015-2016 season: Much as the Warriors fired a coach who won 51 games a year ago and promptly found the right championship mix a year later, the Bulls fired a coach who won 50 games this past season, believing they could and should do much better.
Will the Bulls’ installment of Fred Hoiberg as the replacement for Tom Thibodeau be as impactful as the Warriors’ installment of Steve Kerr as the replacement for Mark Jackson? That will be the most riveting coaching drama of the season to come, even more than David Blatt in Cleveland, since his position with the Cavs is now secure to an extent it wasn’t in the middle of January.
The exquisite tension, so apparent in the Bulls’ situation, is that while Thibodeau was certainly a defensive coach, he lacked a roster with dependable knockdown shooters who could provide enough offense to complement his defense. This was true in the 2011 East Finals against the Miami Heat, and it was true in the second round against Cleveland a month ago. Just a modest measure of consistent perimeter shooting — enough to avoid the crippling scoring droughts that bit the Bulls in the backside far too often in the Thibs era — would have helped Chicago reach the next level.
Now that Hoiberg — far more an offense-first coach than Thibodeau — is guiding the Bulls, will Chicago’s front office provide him better pieces? Regardless of the answer to that question, we’re about to find out if the front office and the head coach in Chicago are able to work on the same page in charting a new course. We’re going to learn about Hoiberg next season, but we’re also going to learn about Gar Forman and John Paxson as well. Moreover, how the Bulls do (or don’t) mesh next season will begin to tell us more about Thibodeau, albeit in retrospect. The Bulls are such a laboratory of uncertainties and intrigues, the Eastern Conference version of what the Clippers will be in the West.
These two teams — the Los Angeles Clippers and the Chicago Bulls — might give us a lot of fun next season. They might give us nothing but misery. They will probably offer something in between.
Rest assured on this count, however: These two teams will be anything but boring, and will probably provide the soap-operatic elements that generate even more attention from onlookers.
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