The Los Angeles Clippers got eliminated on their home court by the Utah Jazz yesterday, in Game 7. The Jazz were the lower-seeded team, so nominally this qualifies as an upset—though of course it wasn’t really, in the dual sense that, A) even before the Clippers lost Blake Griffin to a season-ending toe injury in Game 3 of the series, the younger, deeper, more well-rounded Jazz had them outclassed, and also, B) nobody is all that upset by it.
The Griffin injury made undeniable what everyone already pretty much knew, which is that this would be the fifth straight year the Clippers reached or surpassed 50 wins in the regular season, crashed out of the playoffs earlier than their seeding ordinarily would predict, and left viewers feeling paradoxically scornful at their underperformance and relieved to be rid of them. (Another thing the Clippers did for the fifth straight year is take a lead in a best-of-seven playoff series and then lose. Very appropriately, they’re the first team in NBA history to do that.) About the only thing surprising about it is that they managed to turn crusty old Joe Johnson back into a star, for seven games. He even got his own highlight reel!
This could be the last of these playoff flameouts, though. Griffin, Chris Paul, and J.J. Redick will be free agents this summer. Paul and Redick are at or nearing the end of their primes. Griffin’s skeleton is made of molded sand and his once mind-boggling athleticism seems to have eroded dramatically; he’s like high-usage Tyrone Hill most of the time, these days. You can imagine why an organization with its head screwed on might at least pause to deliberate committing the quarter of a billion dollars retaining all three will cost. For that matter, given the choice, none of them might want to return, if the team’s interpersonal dynamics are as motherfucked as we’ve spent the past five years hearing.
ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz, who has covered the team up close for years, gives typically thoughtful and informed consideration to the organization’s quandary, in the best* of the handful of kinda-sorta eulogies the Clippers received over the past week. The questions are: Is there some essential reason why this core, with its through-the-roof basketball pedigree, can’t fulfill the hype that attended its assembly, and contend for championships? Or is it only that, through shitty misfortune—injuries and the sudden emergence of historically great opponents and the flukiest quarter of basketball in living memory—they just haven’t? And if the latter is the case, is it possible they still might, or has their moment passed? For that matter, if this is good as the CP3/Griffin/DeAndre Jordan Clippers can give, might an annual 50 wins and a puncher’s chance in a brutally stacked Western Conference be something worth hanging onto? Does the franchise really have reason to think it can do better than this at any point in the foreseeable future?
*The worst of these is Bill Simmons’s, of course, coming to us from the same bizarre alternate dimension as all his other posts, a nightmare place where the meaning and purpose of Chris Paul’s career is to convince Bill Simmons that he meets Bill Simmons’s criteria for inclusion in Bill Simmons’s Candace Cameron Memorial Pantheon of Great Point Guards™ or whatever the fuck.
I am glad I do not have to sort out the answers to these questions. For what it’s worth, my hunch is that the most depressing and least revealing of explanations is the truest one: That these Clippers, for all their flaws, mostly were undone by a series of unrelated bad breaks, and with a bit of the sort of mundane good fortune that befalls all eventual sports champions—the ones that did not have to face them at full strength, for example—probably could have gotten a ring to show for their efforts ... but also, their window almost certainly is shut now, so whatever they might have been with better luck three or four years ago doesn’t matter. (This basically is my hunch about the entire human race.)
But here is the thing. Yesterday, in a still not entirely unwinnable Game 7 on their home floor, the Clippers gave several insanely depressing fourth-quarter minutes to a lineup of Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan, Jamal Crawford, Austin Rivers, and Raymond Felton, and I am in favor of literally any course of action that ensures no one will ever be forced to watch that group of men play basketball together for the entire rest of time, up to and including outlawing of ball sports, so what the hell, they might as well let Chris Paul walk. My God, it was like a nightmare.