The great Earl Boykins once stated that pressure busts pipes. For the Clippers, pressure caused them to anchor into the seabed while simultaneously cracking the hull of their ship. And in their long, arduous voyage back to the docks in need of rest and repair, they had to unload Chris Paul off in a foreign land named “New Houstonia”—rough times. Once back in familiar waters, the leftover Clipper crew hopped out, jumped into their shiny Kia® Candenzas, and drove off into the sunset, unwilling to return to Clipperland until months later with vastly improved facial hair and five pounds of added muscle.
Oddly enough, when the inspection report of the ship came back, it was revealed that the damage wasn’t as extensive as one would estimate.
You have to look a bit closer than you did before, but there is still an immense, if not hidden collection of talent (relative to the hype of other Western Conference teams) on the Clippers—reminding me of an older, more seasoned recent Denver Nuggets team. They’re not as deep (which is actually more manageable for the coaching staff), and despite having great probability to be completely unraveled by injuries, the mix of compiled talent has a higher chance to be readily tapped and applied. Steve Ballmer has made it clear that he isn’t investing in Doncic stock or heading to Barnes & Noble to read the Book of Zion, and Clippers fans have previously survived the unbridled hope and excitement of Darius Miles and Lamar Odom, the “It” level horror show displayed by Kandiman, and the flowing, golden locks of Chris Kaman, so this is just a detour. They can even pretend that Chris Paul was a lost Laker that happened to spectrally sleepwalk into Clippers garb for the past six seasons and only finally found his way out of the dream (or nightmare).
Phantasm or not, the Clippers predictably haven’t fared well without Chris Paul. Then again, they’ve never deliberately crafted a style in anticipation of consecutive months without Chris Paul on the floor. Give Doc Rivers an offseason to devise schemes that allow Blake Griffin to flourish in an even more expansive offensive role, throw in a bunch of new wrinkles that complement the offense of their recent additions, and you’ll find a team that has a better chance to compete on that end of the floor without one of the top point guards in the league on the roster. The strange thing about Blake Griffin is that he’s almost forgotten in the larger scope of the league. His game is extremely flashy, he still does occasional questionable things that become national news headlines, he plays in Los Angeles, and still... I can’t seem to shake the feeling that he’s slipping through the cracks as his career plays out. He’s quietly been developing himself into a somewhat more offensively gifted (and less defensively gifted) version of Draymond Green—a forward comfortable handling the ball, racking up assists, and setting up the offense, and will get to do that more often without good ol’ Cliff around to call dibs on the ball.
Regardless, additional reinforcements have been added to help with the playmaking crater left by CP3. The Clippers signed the long-time prolific European guard best known for his court vision and steadiness—Serbian NT member x CSKA Moscow player Milos Teodosic. He and Beverley have finally been reunited on the Clippers eight years after their Olympiacos days together, and paired with Lou Williams and Austin Rivers form an intriguing foursome of guards. Teodosic is trying to eschew the pitfalls of the EuroLeague guards before him—players like Pablo Prigioni, Marcelo Huertas, Juan Carlos-Navarro, and Rudy Fernández. All of them have dipped their foot in NBA waters—and most only created a fender bender of force inside of the league. Milos enters a clear cut above the rest as a playmaker and leader, but the trust level is still at an arm’s length away until the receipts are printed that his game will translate from EuroLeague to NBA. To help with the adjustment, his old crony Patrick Beverley will stand proudly by his side. Beverley carries himself like the Chris Partlow of NBA point guards. Not from his hairstyle, or even his ruthless by-any-means-necessary-claustrophobia-causing defense—along those lines, but not quite. It’s because even though he’s one of the most tempestuous point guards in the league on the defensive end, he’s not an antithesis of the game. He’s just as efficient and comfortable shooting the ball from deep as he is playing defense (40 and 38% respectively his last two seasons), which is a rare combination to see in a point guard that isn’t considered to be much more than a role player. The Clippers certainly won’t be losing a step on the defensive end at the guard spot.
The biggest question mark outside of the performance of the team’s offense without Paul lies directly at the size 18 feet of DeAndre Jordan and his future with the Clippers going forward. He’ll be one of only a few “top shelf” expendable players to potentially reach the trade block nearing the All-Star break, depending on how the Clippers fare during the regular season. This current offseason more than any has proven just how much this league is a business first and foremost. It’s easy to forget that DeAndre almost left the Clippers in 2015 with his nixed Dallas Mavericks signing (which spawned the great Emoji Wars), and came back to the Clippers after a change of heart. Even if you reward the game with loyalty, the game can still have a change of heart and trade you in return. (Anecdote: The actual Game didn’t have a change of heart). If a DeAndre Jordan trade should occur, it'll be interesting to see what sort of package the Clippers would be eyeing in return.
There's also situations that can just as easily combust as they can flourish. The most overrated-underrated (depending on the week) player in the league, Austin Rivers, continues to feature on the Clippers in a somewhat questionable role, and how he fits in with the other guards on the team will be a fun addendum to track (if only to see the dynamic that nepotism presents). But the most important players to keep an eye on this year are newcomers Lou Williams and Danilo Gallinari. Gallinari in particular can reach downright scary levels of offense when he’s “on”. To find that “on” on a consistent basis is the next step, and to switch off the injury bug that always seems to bite him during the season is a major goal in itself. Interestingly enough, Gallinari has never averaged more than 13 field goal attempts a season—and I can see a two man game with Griffin opening up parts of his game that he’s rarely searched for. Lou Williams is no slouch either, channeling the same energy as Jamal Crawford but in a younger body and with better court vision. Even the “spare parts” on the team have a chance to enthuse in their roles—notably Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell. Both of these role-players from Houston can stand to be useful contributors on a revamped Clippers team if used correctly.
What I’ve gathered over the last year or so is that now more than ever in the NBA is it about accepting your place in the league and thriving in your comfort, not in spite of it. Only the Warriors can do Warrior things, only can LeBron orchestrate an offense as LeBron does, and only can a coach like Popovich say Popovich things to his players and get away with it.
And bare with me for this analogy, but the Clippers are like the Waffle House of the league—it’s time for them to stop pretending to be some posh Gordon Ramsay Las Vegas restaurant or Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry. Leave that gaudiness for the Lakers. The Clips got away with the faux high-endery with Chris Paul at the helm, and it’s definitely not going to work anymore with him gone. Leave the seasonal Asian pears, the deconstructed apple pie, and the iSi canister filled with foie gras foam all at the pass. The Clippers are more like scattered, smothered, covered hashbrowns at 5 AM or pecan waffles deluged in syrup and scarfed down by drunken patrons after club hopping the entire night—and there’s something beautiful in embracing that. Jerry West, eat your damn heart out.
Still, this story ultimately lives and dies at the weathered hands of Doc Rivers. The raspy-voiced divisive sea captain who has become a much-maligned target for sports media while coach of the Boston Celtics and Clippers has been freed from his front-office duties, and with that freedom, combined with the immense pressure of a team expected to make the WCF every year being lifted off his shoulders, should make for an easier path to navigate. It’s been a decade since Doc Rivers has led a team that wasn’t expected to either have a puncher’s chance at getting to the finals, or do considerable damage in the playoffs. This upcoming year represents a season where he can finally coach a team with slightly muted expectations in a fiercely combative Western Conference. In essence, his best move would be to crack open an IPA, put his feet on the coffee table, and see where the sails guide him. This Ballmer-owned dreamship of theirs may have a few tricks up its sleeve yet.
It’s almost too simple to wax theory about how this team isn’t good enough to be a contender and why they should blow it all up in a flagellation race for Doncic the Conqueror, or to lament the loss of CP3 and grouse about how they will crumble without his wizardry at the point. But the fact is, and will remain, that no team will be as good as the Golden State Warriors. No team will be covered in print, TV, and social media as much as the Warriors, and nobody will be as sick of reading about any other team as they will with the Warriors. There are plenty of storylines to be gleaned from imperfection, and the Clippers are proving that. Undoubtedly there will be choppy waters when they set sail again, but the message in the bottle that washes ashore by season’s end won’t be an SOS.