The mourning process for the 2012-13 Clippers is a complicated one. Of course it’s sad to see great potential remain unfulfilled, especially considering the circumstances in the Western Conference. At the same time, it’s a relief to see a wholly unsustainable process get outed as just that. Moving back to go forward feels wrong, but plowing ahead and ignoring the signs all around you is wrong.
Of course, the obituary for “the best season ever” that ultimately ended in regression isn’t an easy one either. You can probably describe this season as satisfying but not filling — dessert instead of dinner. And you know what? Maybe this is to be expected when a team doesn’t come about organically. This current group skipped the growing pains and got right to the success, punctuated by a 17-game winning streak in December. The cart was always before the horse — success brought about the “culture change” and not the other way around.
Remember when Vinny Del Negro played the under-21 lineup extensively ages ago? We applauded him regularly for his patience, his nurturing, his willingness to let players make mistakes. But all that went out the window when Chris Paul came on board — the primary objectives changed.
It’s silly to put this all on Del Negro, even though he’s offered himself up as a convenient scapegoat. Del Negro, to be fair, was never given any assurance that his patience would be rewarded. Only wins. And so he helped sign, and play, the guys he felt gave him the best chance of winning right now regardless of anything else. Can you blame him?
Well, of course you can. And you should. The team was enabled by Del Negro this season with freedom on the court, but it’s hard to say they were maximized — with the exception of Matt Barnes. That Barnes ended up with 30 points in the final game of the season is sort of fitting in that way.
But again, it’s not just Del Negro. Chauncey Billups should not have made $4 million dollars for 22 games because Chris Paul really likes him. He should not have had a starting spot kept warm by Willie Green all year. He shouldn’t even be in the league at this point, as much as it hurts to say, and yet he’s already said he wants to come back next year. And who is going to tell Chris Paul he can’t play with Chauncey?
It’s hard to imagine anyone will, which again, puts things in a gray area. You don’t want Donald Sterling to tell Chris Paul “no” if he comes with a coach recommendation before signing a new deal, but you do want someone to tell Paul no when he pines for veterans clearly past their primes in favor of younger players. Even the Point God needs to be saved from himself. Separation of church and state and all that.
Memphis serving as the vanquishers of the Clippers is fitting as well, isn’t it? That’s a team and a franchise with a plan, and even if Lionel Hollins and management butt heads every now and then, there’s a mutual sense of self-awareness throughout the organization. The Grizzlies know what they are because they grew up to be that. The Clippers just became something.
And what did they become? A team with two great players that rolled the ball out there and was as good as their best players were. But what happens when you lose one of your best players to an ankle injury? What happens if, god forbid, you lose one of your best players to free agency? What’s left? What was left when the Grizzlies said “stop this” and the Clippers couldn’t?
Blake Griffin and Chris Paul are unquestionably the core of the franchise, but resting all hopes on the ankles and knees of overworked athletes is a dangerous proposition. They need support, not only to maximize their own abilities, but that of the entire franchise. That expands further than just getting more good players and slapping it all together.
In a way, the first round loss for the Clippers is promising. There’s no growth without pain, and there’s no change without undesirable results. A new window of opportunity opens up with this loss that might have stayed shut. This is a problem that Chris Paul can’t solve just by being Chris Paul, and while that may sound daunting and maybe a little too reminiscent of his New Orleans days, it’s easier to deal with truths than it is illusions.