There’s so much contemptible mediocrity and outright awful stuff in the world that anything demonstrating some craft is worth appreciating. Tom Holland histories, Nicole Holofcener comedies, Wendy’s spicy chicken sandwich. These things aren’t life-changing, but they do make living more bearable. This, more than apocalyptic showdowns for supremacy, are what sports amply provide: the pretty good, the acceptable, the better-than-bad. You’re shambling through the work-week, nothing to do on a Tuesday night and behold: Bucks-Wizards, Blazers-Jazz, Raptors-Nuggets. You paid that League Pass fee for a reason after all.
Without these middle-class matchups, the NBA would be only fractionally as enjoyable as it thankfully is. We’d tune in for primetime national TV games and pay scant attention to everything else. It’s strange to have to point this out and argue for franchises bother to assemble decent squads in years when they have no kind of shot at a title, but in this age where we’re all amateur general managers, the merits of a star and a serviceable bench and a winning record are obscured by the now-conventional wisdom that if you’re not great, you might as well suck, and that team-building should be a boom-or-bust venture. Like it’s a waste of time to be worse than the very best.
I’ve made this case for pretty goodness before, and I believe in it, but there’s another side to it, which is the Los Angeles Clippers are the most depressing team in the NBA and I wish they would get rid of everybody and start over. Their past few seasons, as they’ve declined from their collective peak and the Warriors have arisen as an unbeatable force in the Western Conference, have been tough to watch. Chris Paul has been disappointed and aggrieved. Blake Griffin has been in out and of the lineup with various months-long injuries that have taken taken away the explosiveness that once made him special. As a personnel manager, Doc Rivers hasn’t been able to build the robust rotation the team requires and as a coach, he’s all sideline lawyering and histrionics. The Clips’ championship window closed a while back and since then they’ve been going through the miserable motions, putting together at least one stretch of beautiful basketball per season, to remind us of their talent, but always tripping over themselves against the Warriors, or more recently, simply getting annihilated. By March of every season, they’ve already lost some desultory first- or second-round playoff series and we’re only waiting for it to actually happen and for the inevitable Doc quote about how he still believes in his guys.
Paul finally asking to leave was a gift—a mercy-killing the organization didn’t accept. They instead threw $173 million and five years at Blake, who’s still a fine player but is unlikely to ever replicate the MVP candidate form he flashed in his mid-twenties and is trapped in a continual cycle of missing games and recovering his sea legs. The Clips also signed up for three years and $64 million worth of Danilo Gallinari, who’s a wonderful player during the twenty contests per season he’s not suffering from some kind of leg ailment. DeAndre Jordan is still kicking around and it remains to be seen what he’ll be without the best playmaker of his generation feeding him several dunks per night. Austin Rivers and Patrick Beverley in the same backcourt is intriguing from a combined peskiness standpoint but also like trying to survive on Parliaments and Irish coffee alone.
If you could wipe the memories of everyone involved—Doc, the players, the fans and neutral spectators—Men in Black-style, it might be a perfectly okay team, but familiarity has bred so much contempt by this point that a complete teardown would have been preferable to whatever the Clippers think they’re trying to accomplish this year. The path to a rebuild was available. They could have let Blake walk or signed and traded him wherever he wanted to go. They could have kept the 2018 first-rounder the Rockets gave them in the Chris Paul deal. Jordan could have been moved on at whatever the trade market deemed fair value. The Clippers have their 2018 first round selection and will keep their 2019 pick if it lands in the lottery. Steve Ballmer has the money to fire Doc Rivers and bring in a general manager with some vision and a coaching staff well-suited to working with young players. Instead the tech billionaire ran back what nobody wanted, confusing fading relevance with status.
It’s understandable that the Clippers, given their dismal institutional history and their little brother relationship with the Lakers, would cling to success, not take winning seasons for granted, and do everything possible to remain competitive. Steadiness is underrated, and sports world is overrun these days with cowards and hucksters repackaging destruction as hope, but it is also permissible to give a championship push all you’ve got, admit you failed, and begin a new cycle. A lack of perspective can sink you just the same as trigger-happiness or premature fatalism can. This new post-title contention era the Clippers embarking on—which they’re locked into for the next little while—looks like a delaying of the inevitable, a way of cratering more slowly. Not knowing when it’s over only makes the absolute end more agonizing. The Clippers will learn that lesson in time. And we’re going to get dragged into their wretched education.
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