Last season was one of the most successful, if not the most successful, seasons in Los Angeles Clippers history. The team finished 56-26, good for its best record ever, won its division for the first time (in 32 years!), and advanced to the playoffs for just the sixth time since residing in Upstate New York. Two Clippers started the All-Star game and finished All-NBA for the second year in a row.
From a purely statistical standpoint, 2012-13 was a banner year. The Clippers posted either a top-10 offense and a top-5 defense (the eighth most points scored per game and the fourth fewest points allowed) or a top-5 offense and a top-10 defense (the fourth most points scored per 100 possessions and the eighth fewest points allowed per 100 possessions), depending on your metric. By all accounts, LA led the league in highlight plays and backhanded high-fives, and, for what it’s worth, it had higher attendance than all but six teams.
Add to that a 17-game win streak, the dunk of the year, and the presence of a certifiable basketball master craftsman, i.e. one Chris Paul, and it seemed inevitable the Clippers would end the season feeling good about themselves, even if the team fell short of a title. This was a new era! And then this happened…
…and then this happened.
It’s not so much that the Grizzlies popped the Clippers’ balloon, it’s that the Grizzlies stole the Clippers’ balloon, wrung it out until it popped in a dying squeak, then dipped the rubber remains in kerosene and lit them on fire. What began as a season of hope and felt, for the most part, pretty great, ended up a charred lump, discarded somewhere behind a Memphis convenience store. If winning a playoff series 4-1 is a “gentleman’s sweep,” going up 2-0 before losing 2-4 is a “carnie sweep;” the kind of thing that usually only happens when you’ve had one too many funnel cakes and you just lost $20 trying to win a giant stuffed Pikachu at a carnival game that seemed easy but left you empty handed.
That’s how maybe the greatest season in Los Angeles Clippers history ended. Not great.
But that was then, a whole three months ago. And this is a new era:
No more remedial gameplans, no more veiled bickering, and, all due respect, no more Odom-Billups end-of-game scenarios. Los Angeles splurged on a bona fide coach, a guy whose proficiency and chutzpah have already begun to define the team. Doc Rivers’ reputation and the appeal of playing alongside Paul and Blake Griffin was enough to convince Matt Barnes, J.J. Redick, Jared Dudley, Darren Collison and even Byron Mullens that the Clippers are a franchise they should want to play for. This season, Los Angeles has a real, complementary roster, albeit one that’s a bit thin in the frontcourt, and it has the know-how to make that roster function optimally.
If you squint, you can almost see this group standing, arms wrapped around each other, on the elevated stage at mid-court next July, hooting, draped in confetti. This team, the Clippers, could win the championship this season. At press time, they have the third-best odds (behind Miami and Oklahoma City). I mean, it could happen.
Will it happen? We shall see.
In case it doesn’t, though, in case LA fails to win the championship, what else constitutes a successful season for this year’s team? What’s the new barometer for Clippers success?
After last year’s playoff disappointment, anything short of a competitive appearance in the Conference Finals is likely to feel unsatisfying. Were the Clippers to make it that far only to be swept unceremoniously by OKC, San Antonio, or – GACK! – Memphis, the franchise and its fans would be frustrated; that sort of underwhelming result was expected with the former regime, but not now, not with Rivers and Alvin Gentry. That said, if the Clippers duked it out over six or seven games with one of the West’s best and barely missed the Finals, everyone associated with the team would be upset, but it wouldn’t feel like failure – it’s Doc’s first year at the helm, after all, and Blake and DeAndre Jordan’s first season of defensive grooming.
But if the Clippers stall out in the second round, or worse yet not even make the second round, it’ll be hard to view 2013-14 as a success. Likewise for the regular season,failing to finish with 50+ wins, another division crown, a top-three seed. LA reached those benchmarks last season, and even though the Western Conference improved in the offseason, again – does the West ever get worse?! – they still seem like reasonable goals, especially given the team’s upgrades.
Is it reasonable to expect 60 wins? The top seed in the West? A ticker-tape parade led by the Clipper Spirit and a Dudley-driven convertible? It’s certainly possible. In the end, we’re all but guaranteed a great season, and it speaks highly of these players that terrific entertainment, wins, individual honors, and an appearance in the playoffs are a foregone conclusion. With such guarantees come increased expectations and loftier goals, the likes of which the Clippers have never approached. Now they can.