Lob City could never quite get over the hump. In their six seasons together, the triumvirate of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan failed to make the Conference Finals, and despite being one of the more consistent and exciting teams of the 2010s, their postseason success never matched their promise. It was the most successful era in franchise history, but it still felt like every season ended with some sort of collapse or a litany of injuries. In 2016, both Paul and Griffin suffered season-ending injuries in the first round against the Trail Blazers and the following season, in Lob City’s desultory last stand, Griffin was only able to play three playoff games before being ruled out for the rest of the postseason due to a toe injury. The era came to an end when Chris Paul was traded to the Rockets in the summer of 2017, and the Clippers traded Griffin in the middle of the following season, just months after signing him to a five-year deal.
If Chris Paul were to retire today, he would be an unquestioned Hall of Famer. He has regressed a bit since his late 2000s, early 2010s peak, but he remains one of the more steady and skilled point guards in the NBA even as his dynamism has faded. While the Rockets acquired Paul to be a co-star alongside James Harden, it soon became evident that, if Paul was once at Harden’s level, he no longer was, making him expendable to two teams in two years as they traded him to Oklahoma City this summer. For Griffin, it was less a decline in ability, as his performance last season proved, than a lack of on-court availability that prompted the Clippers to trade him, opting for future flexibility over having their fates intertwined with an injury prone big man with a massive contract.
Both Griffin and Paul have three years left on their contracts, making it likely that they will spend the next few seasons toiling for mediocre teams where they can do little more than fight to lend a semblance of respectability to otherwise forgettable franchises. Last year, Blake Griffin played arguably the best season — it was at least the most well-rounded — of his career, yet it was not able to lead the Pistons to any more than the eighth seed and a first round sweep at the hands of the Bucks. While Chris Paul was able to work wonders on an otherwise mediocre New Orleans Hornets team in the late 2000s, he is clearly not the MVP-caliber player he was in 2008, making hopes of the Thunder making the playoffs seem far-fetched. Griffin and Paul are still stars, yet ones neither with the teammates to have their abilities make much of a difference, nor are they any longer the rare few who can automatically elevate a team to contention with their mere presence.
Their failure to win a championship together, and a dash of recency bias, may lead many to instinctively claim that Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are a more formidable duo than Paul and Griffin were. However, it does feel important to also note that the Lob City Clippers were perpetually hamstrung not merely by bad luck so omnipresent that it felt like something straight from Aeschylus, but also by management’s lackluster team-building. They never had any competent wings and their bench, apart from Jamal Crawford, was an ever shifting wasteland. Now, it’s not necessarily that Leonard and George are better than Paul and Griffin, but that there is a more solid team surrounding them. They have Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell coming off the bench, a promising young sharpshooter in Landry Shamet, and Patrick Beverley playing the role of pitbull point guard, all of whom will be able to take the burden off their stars in ways that prior role players were not.
The twin fates of Griffin and Paul also speaks to the fickle nature of player power and to the boom or bust mentality that has taken over team management. While there is much talk of the empowerment players have today, it seems to only extend to the top handful of players in the league and whoever is a free agent at any given moment. With Paul and Griffin merely very good players, they are no longer able to control their destiny as they once could. And now, even if they were to demand trades, it would be difficult to find suitors considering how massive their contracts are. They were able to negotiate massive contracts for themselves, but then immediately became hamstrung by them. More likely, if they are traded, it will be because the Thunder or Pistons have decided to try to cut their losses and move on rather than risk being mired in mediocrity since, with talents like Paul and Griffin on their roster, it would be impossible to truly be a bad team.
Many teams have come to see mediocrity as the death knell of a franchise, far worse than bottoming out. At least when the latter occurs there’s lots of flexibility, cap space, and the chance of a high draft pick. Dating back to the earliest debates about the value of Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, championships have been the ultimate validation of a star’s value, but that has become more pronounced in recent years, which makes an otherwise successful team such as the Lob City Clippers appear like a failure. The fact that they were one of the best and most fun teams in the NBA for over half a decade is deemed irrelevant for they failed to overcome obstacles from within and without in order to win a title. It’s a shortsighted way to assess things in most cases, though it would be foolish to fault the Clippers for making the decisions they did. They are in an inarguably better position than they were two year ago, but Paul and Griffin are not, having been cast aside, forced into exile in order for the franchise to be reborn.