The NBA regular season is long. I don’t mind it – we get to see teams face each other multiple times in a season, which presents the opportunity to see many different matchups. With mid-March approaching, we probably have an idea of what these teams look like come playoff time. (Or, come lottery time.)
Key word: probably. We’re roughly 4/5ths of the way there. After the Clippers win Friday night over the New York Knicks, the team is 42-22. Even if the Clippers uncorked an 18-game losing streak to close the season, they would still finish with their fifth straight winning season, extending the franchise’s longest streak of winning seasons.
#Clippers record by 16-game splits this season:
Good, but a drop-off lately.
— Law Murray (@LawMurrayTheNU) March 12, 2016
Remember, before this current five-year streak, the Clippers had only four seasons of at least a .500 record or better since moving from Buffalo in 1978.
If the Clippers win at least eight more games, then the team will have racked up a win percentage of at least .600 for a fifth straight season. Entering Saturday night’s games, only six other teams have a win percentage of at least .600 this season. Of those six, only two of them have been winning at that level at least as long as the Clippers: Memphis (this year would be the fifth year in a row) and San Antonio (The Spurs have won 60 percent of their games every season since drafting Tim Duncan).
Despite this, the Clippers don’t get the benefit of the doubt as a good team. They’re not even mediocre! They’ve been consistently good for half a decade! That is the price that the franchise pays for failing to win more than one postseason series in a season, having such a long history of on-court struggle, and having the bad luck that comes with failed lottery picks and destructive injuries.
The Clippers are playing solid basketball – top-10 offense and defense despite several new players, Blake Griffin’s injury, and trades involving Josh Smith and Lance Stephenson. The Clippers haven’t lost consecutive games with Griffin out of the lineup this season. But it takes a real leap of faith to think that they’ll finally break through and reach the Conference Finals – a spot the Spurs have done three of the past four years, and a spot the Grizzlies made in 2013.
The Clippers’ combination of success and plight reminds me of another formerly forlorn franchise that has seen its struggles (and narrative of failure) shift to the postseason: the Cincinnati Bengals of the National Football League.
Being a sports fan is tough pic.twitter.com/LPKtJssHw6
— The Cauldron (@TheCauldron) January 10, 2016
The Bengals missed the playoffs every season between 1991 and 2004. In that span of time, the team lost a league-most 153 games – during that same timespan (1991-1992 through 2004-2005), the Clippers lost an NBA-high 718 games. The Bengals went through four head coaches in that time, which arguably may have been too few. Owner/GM Mike Brown oversaw a disastrous run of 1st-round draft picks in that time that included QB David Klingler, RB Ki-Jana Carter, and QB Akili Smith. Standout players such as RB Corey Dillon and WR Carl Pickens became so disenchanted with the franchise that they questioned how much they really wanted to play pro football.
Flash forward to the present. Head coach Marvin Lewis got the Bengals out of the cellar, and he just finished his 13th season as the team’s head coach. Lewis ended the Bengals’ 14-season playoff drought in 2005 (the Clippers also made the playoffs in 2005-2006), and this past season, the Bengals made the playoffs for the fifth straight season! Only four NFL teams have more than the Bengals’ 52 wins over the last five seasons: the Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers, Denver Broncos, and New England Patriots. All four of those teams have won a Super Bowl since the 2010 NFL season. But only the Patriots and Bengals have won at least nine games each of the last five seasons.
The Patriots are the greatest organization in the NFL this century – they haven’t had a losing season since 2000. The Bengals? They’ve matched this incredibly difficult run of winning by going to the postseason and coming up empty.
The Bengals haven’t won a single playoff game since the 1990 postseason. What?!
Yup. That’s stressful. Imagine doing work on teams all year long, with a core of established players on both sides of the ball, and bearing the cross of past failures the whole time. That’s the Bengals franchise.
And you know what? That’s the Clippers franchise as well. Look at our comment section – winning games doesn’t matter. Qualifiers like Griffin’s injuries and Paul’s 2013-2014 injuries that opened folks’ eyes on Griffin during Doc Rivers’ first season in L.A. are dismissed. The fact that the Clippers compete at a top-10 level on both ends of the floor isn’t impressive anymore. Some people think the regular season is long, but there’s no waiting like the kind the Clippers have to do just to get a shot at redemption in spring.
Even the circumstances of the lack of postseason success is hard to deal with. The Bengals should have beaten their division rival Pittsburgh Steelers even without Pro Bowl QB Andy Dalton this past January. Dalton was injured in December when he tried to make a tackle against the Steelers. He broke his thumb, ending a breakthrough campaign where he looked like a consistent asset instead of a mistake-prone adequacy. But after getting a late lead and possession, the Bengals melted down. RB Jeremy Hill lost a fumble, and two personal fouls by LB Vontaze Burfict and CB Adam Jones put the Steelers in game-winning FG range. The season before, Dalton had to play in Indianapolis without his top two WRs (including star A.J. Green) and top two TEs.
I can make the parallel of Dalton’s hand injury with Griffin’s hand injury, but the Clippers are expected to have Griffin back – even though his quad injury is still giving him problems. The Clippers would be fortunate to have Griffin back; their misfortune has come in the form of blowing a 3-1 series lead against the Rockets last May, lighted by Smith and Corey Brewer 🔑 one of the most unlikely exhibitions of 3-point shooting in a Game 6 4th quarter comeback. The postseason before, you had Paul’s failure to secure the basketball late in Game 5 against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
There are only five weeks of calm before the Clippers storm. It’s easy to avoid the pain of past defeats when you are winning regular season games. But the chatter is going to ramp up over the next month, a month that the Clippers will spend trying to clinch a fifth straight playoff spot and preparing to reintroduce Griffin to a lineup that is going to have to theoretically cut a player or two from the rotation. The team should feel accomplished as they wrap up another successful regular season. Instead, the focus will be on a task that seems so daunting, yet so simple: Keep winning after the regular season.
For the Clippers’ sake, they better hope the comparison to the Bengals ends in five weeks as well.