It’s had the meaning drummed from it by repetition, and nothing lives for more than six months in sportsworld without becoming a joke, but it’s worth remembering that Lob City first became a thing marketing folks saw fit to emblazon onto t-shirts because Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan couldn’t contain their astonishment and glee upon learning Chris Paul was about to be traded to the Clippers. This was December of 2011. DeAndre got a text from his agent—”great trade!”—phoned him to see what was up and spent the next five minutes slack-jawed, losing himself from his trance only to wave over Blake, who gave DeAndre a happy shove and made dunk pantomimes like a candy-plied grammar schooler. Gonna be Lob City!
Nearly five years later, the Clippers evoke a grim, distinctly adult sense of hopelessness. They’re the league’s great dilapidated Super Walmart, the dry riverbed the cowboy dies in at the end of the book. Pathos runs amok, here. Blake snapped and pummeled a friend/co-worker last winter over some (apparently) high-stakes joshing. Paul, as his prime slips away, looks more like a put-upon vice principal by the day. Doc Rivers is acting out some anachronistic Old Testament yarn where a man loses his son (the son being a second quarter block/charge call, not Austin) and decides to fight God (the NBA’s officiating office, not Yahweh) by emptying a shotgun into the sky. Doc could lose his car keys and find a way to blame it on Bill Kennedy. DeAndre almost fled to Dallas last summer, ostensibly because Rick Carlisle sold him on an expanded offensive role, but is it beyond the realm of possibility that DeAndre just wanted to be on a team where the vibe wasn’t wracked with sadness and anger? Dirk seems friendly.
Something happens to teams that inhabit a narrow strata of very goodness for too long. Let’s call it the Arsenal Corridor, after England’s foremost not-quite-title-winners. It’s not the worst place to be, except for the precise moment it is, when the heights the team has reached become miles of falling to scream through after the trapdoor opens. (For Arsenal, this is drawing Crystal Palace at home in April while three points off the top of the table; for the Clippers, it’s being reminded each postseason that they are upper-middle class, not rich.) This continual process of ascension and splatting onto the pavement is traumatic; it wears fans and players out.
This isn’t to say rooting for the Clippers for the past half-decade hasn’t obviously been more fun than supporting, say, the Hornets or Kings. Chris Paul is a dense text. He does thrilling stuff—his handle and vision are absurd; that midrange pull-up he shoots off the pick-and-roll seems to go in whenever he needs it to—but he also exudes an air of control, like the court is a simulation he’s both moving through and twiddling the knobs on, that you can only understand through watching him regularly.
Blake Griffin has grown subtler too, adding a point forward’s repertoire of bounce passes and high-post maneuvers to a game that was previously dependent entirely on staggering athleticism. DeAndre Jordan mostly just dunks and guards the rim, but he’s really good at those two things.
Then there is everything that doesn’t work. Blake has limited range and DeAndre has no range at all, which clogs the lane. Paul delivers advice exclusively in the tone of a paternalistic harangue, which alienates his teammates. The front office has never assembled a capable cast of role players to help their three stars. The Western Conference elite has shuffled somewhat since Paul arrived in Los Angeles, but two or three squads have always been a little bit better than the Clips. They’ve been bounced from the playoffs by every team that has mattered except the Warriors. They head into this season as doomed as the rest of the league is in the face of a Bay Area juggernaut, but even if the Dubs hadn’t added Kevin Durant, the Clippers weren’t going to beat them in a seven-game series without Steph Curry bending a knee in the wrong direction.
This would be the place where we ask what the Clippers could do to fix themselves, but the Arsenal Corridor’s defining characteristic is that it’s about as difficult to escape as one’s own consciousness. Doc Rivers could trade Blake Griffin, but his stock is lower than it has ever been. DeAndre Jordan is more valuable to the Clippers than he would be to any other team. The Clips are capped out, so they’re basically locked into a support squad of J.J. Redick and a bunch of unreliables. The best available option for the team née Lob City is as dissatisfying as any other, and probably the most painful: run this thing back and die a death so routine it feels like a trip to the dentist.
Stasis, if you’re not inclined to appreciate it—which professional athletes, the world’s buffest status-obsessors, certainly are not—can make you depressive and mean. Chris Paul is a prickly perfectionist at his core, but he wasn’t this weary back in New Orleans. The lines in his face that turn to trenches when he scowls have become more defined over the years and the instructions he barks carry the weight of having been repeated (and not properly heeded) many, many times. When Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan hang their heads and walk away from Paul, you can see the thought that maybe things would be different this go-round evaporating from their minds. Each offseason, the Clippers fill with ambition, are drained of it, then the following offseason, are filled a little less.
This is a phenomenon Garrison Keillor weaponizes in “When This Is Over, You Will Have Nothing That You Want,” in which he pegs Donald Trump’s presidential run as a damned last-ditch stab at commanding respect from folks who have spent decades laughing at him, and it’s the element that makes the story of every intensely ambitious person who doesn’t succeed exactly as much as they want to poignantly pitiful. Sometimes, there is no way out of the Arsenal Corridor, and you don’t get to be happy. This is the lesson these Clippers impart. It’s not knowledge we can use; it’s more like a solemn wail than wisdom, but all the same, it’s true.
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