What, exactly, were the Clippers supposed to be this season? Possessing neither an All-Star nor a stockpile of young talent, they were at best a natural experiment, a petri dish of fire-bellied dudes ranging from meh to pretty good in what was shaping up as the toughest Western Conference in recent memory. Most of the players were on expiring deals, a pair of rookies still seemed a couple years away, and Marcin Gortat was starting at center. Folks, they claimed Rodney McGruder off waivers on April 9th as a rhetorical flourish!
Their season became, happily, a stage for one of the league’s great sorcerers and a supporting cast animated by his mythology. Five years ago, Lou Williams was washing out of the league, or at least weighing a lifetime coming off the bench against a tenure-track position at Magic City. Now he’s got the universal admiration of his peers, a picture his daughter drew hanging in the corner locker and lifetime equity in the number six. The universe is cold and unforgiving, and we cannot expect fulfillment even for our greatest heroes. But Lou Williams is even colder than that, and for one season—his thirteenth in the league, still coming off the bench—he got his own team.
It was only fitting that a roster led by the NBA’s all-time leading bench scorer would have little in the way of NBA-caliber starters. Danilo Gallinari had the talent for it, but never the health; for the other vets, health wasn’t the problem. (Tobias Harris was the exception, so they shipped him out.) But the absence of blue-chip talent became their competitive advantage. Their reserves hit in the game’s off beats, preying on thin benches first and then pedigreed starters who had hoped to wait them out. No matter that the Clippers never matched up on paper: they played on blacktop. Down 25 in Detroit, 28 in Boston, and 31 at Oracle Arena, they got comfortable.
Under Doc Rivers, guys also just got better. Patrick Beverley took about 40 games to get his engine warm coming off a torn ACL, but he’s now a useful floor spacer who fits in any lineup. Montrezl Harrell is a hustle player; the pick-and-roll he and Williams perfected was visibly demoralizing. The tadpoles, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Landry Shamet (who came over in the Harris deal), have been each other’s sea legs, and gamely withstood the sport’s most fearsome backcourts. Gallo only missed one two-week stretch, and JaMychal Green—let’s see—hits threes and plays the five now? Vegas had this team losing 47 games. They’ve won 49. And Garrett Temple is still dope in the community.
The heady run the Clippers have been on this season is being held up as a free agency pitch, a learning experience, a model rebuild, and a territorial claim on a city that has long regarded it with scorn and ridicule. At practice after the biggest comeback in postseason history, reporters chuckled at the changing fortunes of the Clipper franchise. All the pieces were falling into place.
Indeed, it’s become habit to evaluate NBA teams with respect to their process. In a league whose seasons and postseasons are too long to sustain any notion of parity, it’s not the weird, gallant, futile campaigns of middling teams driving interest, but vaguely defined timelines that look more or less the same for every club. If the Clippers bow out in five in the first round, process brain offers a rote way to appreciate them.
But contextualizing their performance in management’s long-term objectives—or even in the wildest dreams of tortured fans—takes away from a group that thrived in spite of those grand designs. Lou Williams didn’t get a team because the front office gave him one, per se, but because that front office sent everyone else who could run one away. This has always been a placeholder roster, built to maximize cap flexibility for the impending free agency of the league’s transcendent few. Rather than fortify themselves for the playoffs at the trade deadline, the Clippers traded away their leading scorer, their secret weapon, and their best tattoos.
No, context is a crutch under a locker room that never limped, under labor whose product is as thrilling as it is unconventional, and whose triumph a playoff berth only approximates. Assembled to be forgotten, they became unforgettable in a way championship teams can only aspire to. The Clipper franchise may very well be on the cusp of successes more broadly recognizable and lucrative, but could next year’s victories ever be as vividly enjoyable—as precious—as this season’s have been?
In the liminal space between Starting Over and Going For It, the roster of spare parts turned mercenary: Williams killing teams in every direction, all of them to his left; Harrell’s Samsonesque vendetta on NBA backboards; Beverley the giant-killer’s manic heartbeat. Adding a max player doesn’t make any of these elements go away, but it makes all of them less essential. It restores their collective value to the sum of their parts.
And it fixes the stakes. The NBA’s competitive landscape has quarter for only one team’s satisfaction, and the Clippers will re-enter it this summer looking for more prosaic returns. It’s not really a choice they have; only a fool would take a 94-foot swish for a repeatable shooting motion, and besides, it’s hard to imagine the players not wanting to load up for a playoff rematch. This year’s group will live on in brand campaigns, free agency pitches, and season ticket drives—in the long tail of corporate memory. But make no mistake: these are the good times, and they are just ending, not beginning. Savor these Clippers, then, as they bring hell to their opponent for 48 more minutes. They aren’t playing for anything else.