Led by the Point-Guard Chris Paul, recently accumulating a career 8000 assists, the top draft pick Blake Griffin and the physical marvel that is DeAndre Jordan who just surpassed Shaquille O’Neil in games with 20+ rebounds (since 1983) are the Western Conference powerhouse Los Angeles Clippers. In the past years the Clippers seemed to have been in the Golden Era of their franchise history. Orchestrated by the highly regarded Doc Rivers, the Clippers seemed to have found a new groove to establish them firmly in the NBA. Specially in the much more competitive Western Conference. J.J Redick, leader in three-point field gold efficiency (47.9) in the last season, is one of the most lethal shooters in a league filled with elite marksmen like Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and a very under-rated Kawhi Leonard. Jamal “J-Crossover” Crawford, the 6th-Man and the often go-to guy and the closer also has his place in the mix. The 2016-17 season saw the addition of Mo Speights and Raymond Felton which brought depth to their bench (something that they lacked before) led by Austin Rivers and the former champion and veteran Paul Pierce.
These Los Angeles basketball alternates have had their share of success in the past and had a pretty good run early this season. However, they have yet to win two consecutive Playoff series in a season and have never as a franchise, witnessed a Conference Finals. Many prognosticated that 2017 was the year when this team would finally face the much anticipated Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals; this was something that was due for their fans for a long time now. One would argue that the reason for the sudden slump to their expectation defying start is because of the injury bug and they have enough time to recover and ease back into the season for a formidable playoff run. Nevertheless, their future is filled with uncertainties. With the impending free agency of Paul, Griffin and Redick, the also general manager Doc Rivers is facing more pressure than ever.
The Clippers have had their greatest window of opportunity since they acquired Blake in the draft and landed Paul. The Lakers on the other hand, around the same time gradually declined into a very sub-par team with an aging Kobe and a grueling re-building phase. With the rise of the Dub-Nation and the excellent pairing of MVP candidate James Harden with Mike D’Antonie, keeping in mind the perennial contenders like San Antonio, the Clippers have lost all but this one opportunity for a final hurrah. It is claimed that all the pieces for solving the Clippers puzzle are right in front of them and they need to grab it now since their window is now almost shut.
In order to briefly breakdown this anarchic franchise, we need to look no further than two games which they played this season; one against the defending champions in Cleveland (on the road) and the one where they hosted the Warriors.
Almost a month back on the 1st of December, the Clippers played at the Quickens Loans arena in a much anticipated match against the only team to overcome a 3-1 deficit team in NBA Finals history. The match had proven to long anticipating fans that by some miraculous way, Head Coach Rivers had finally brought the team together to finally buy into a system that made a statement by defeating the Cavaliers 113-94. The game also saw a 21 point performance by J.J. Redick in the first half alone and Blake Griffin mustering in a career high 11 assists. It was evidence enough, for the time being, that the clippers did have comparable talent and were indeed capable enough of standing tall in their conference.
Nearly a week down the road they faced yet another challenge against the Warriors at Staples Center, a match wherein they were expected to give a tough fight to the visiting team especially after their win on the 1st of the same month. The game had critical importance and the brutal 115-98 loss brought forward glaring holes. Astonishingly enough, the Clippers shot better from three (30.8% to the Warriors’ 23.3%) and the opposition bested them in the paint scoring 58 points to the Clippers mere 38. Clippers are known for their careless ball protection in crunch moments which was exploited to the best where Kevin Durant and company put together 27 fast-break points.
Chris Paul is a bonafide future Hall of Famer, the archetype point-guard. DeAndre Jordan is a fine big-man defensively and efficient offensively and on the boards. Blake Griffin is the Star of the franchise. But through several key failures and multiple playoffs, it is evident that the formula is not effective. J.J. Redick becomes a non-factor against perimeter defenses since he rarely generates his own shots and relies heavily on kick outs by the bigs or general catch-and-shoot opportunities receiving high screens. Jordan follows the same suite but offensively, where he has no post play whatsoever and is a liability on the free through line which begs him to get exploited by many coaches. Because of hacking he is unable to play in the final minutes of the game which hurts the team defensively as there is no rim protection. But the biggest question they need to address would be the real Superstar caliber of Blake Griffin. The Clippers need the Blake Griffin who has the ability to average a 30-10 on a daily basis. They need his superior ball handling and distribution skills which he has slowly but surely incorporated in his game. But, they need more.
Being the go-to guy, Blake needs to assert himself more in the game and carry them to the finish line. It’s something he has to start doing again, similar to the way he did against the Spurs in the 2014 Playoffs. He did develop a very lethal jumper from top of the key (something that he does exploit a lot in the supreme pick-and-rolls that they execute) but since has relied on it and to a fault. He needs to attack the rim and play with his back to the basket, in the paint, more often. Griffin’s attempts in the paint have reduced drastically all the while developing a decent three-point shot. Injuries have certainly been a factor but in order to do that, he tends to preserve his body through the regular season (which is justified as he was basically run down into the ground repeatedly during the same series game after game).
Blake Griffin without a doubt was a boon for a distraught Clippers fan base. But with his looming free agency alongside CP3 and J.J. Redick (whose Three point shooting skill is of utmost value in today’s era), Steve Balmer’s team needs to make a tough choice. With Griffin making a return from injury, the Clippers have a last chance to give it their best shot. If they do not win this time around, the core will indeed be broken up. Griffin is a good prospect at a ripe age of 27; he can be an essential component and a missing link for various NBA teams. On the other hand, Chris Paul is aging and is yet to see a Finals appearance. This will beg for change. Another possibility does exit; Blake gets traded while the trade window is open for pieces (instead of losing him for nothing) to make a final surge. But then again, as good as the NBA might be, there aren’t a lot of realistic compensations for a Star like him. And even if he does (leave), there’s a lot that can be done with the cleared of cap space for a probable road for Chris Paul to finally land a Championship Ring.