For about an hour in 2011, Chris Paul was a Los Angeles Laker. Paul had been traded to the Lakers in a blockbuster deal that would have sent Pau Gasol to Houston, and Lamar Odom, Luis Scola, Kevin Martin and Goran Dragic to New Orleans. Then NBA commissioner David Stern—acting as de facto owner of New Orleans at the time—nixed the deal amid pressure from other owners. The vetoed trade not only gave way to one of the greatest NBA “What ifs?” of all time, but set the stage for one of the most infuriating and intriguing collections of talent of the last half-decade: The Lob City Clippers.
It looks like that era came to an end Tuesday, when the Clippers announced Blake Griffin would miss the rest of the playoffs after re-aggravating a quad injury, while Paul will be out indefinitely with a broken bone in his right hand. Paul can be a free agent after next season, and Griffin the year after. Last fall, coach and general manager Doc Rivers admitted his current team—if it couldn’t find a way to win this year—was nearing the end of its shelf life.
“We’re right on the borderline,” Doc Rivers told Grantland’s Zach Lowe. “I have no problem saying that. I’m a believer that teams can get stale. After a while, you don’t win. It just doesn’t work. We’re right at the edge. Oklahoma City is on the edge. Memphis, too. We just have to accept it.”
For many fans, the Clippers’ act has certainly gotten stale. Their constant complaining to referees. The lack of joy on Paul’s face during every single game. Doc’s head-scratching decisions on how to fill out the roster. In a few seasons, the Clippers quickly went from a young, exciting team to one of the NBA’s villains, and they are now in danger of becoming one of the forgotten teams of this era.
It’s been a hell of a ride to this point.
It started with the trade for Paul, snatching the point guard from their in-arena rival and immediately vaulting a woebegone franchise into relevancy. It was Griffin who nicknamed the team Lob City, reacting to the news of the Paul trade as DeAndre Jordan found out the details over the phone.
Los Angeles, then under head coach Vinny Del Negro, made the playoffs in its first season with Paul, Griffin and Jordan, quickly establishing a rivalry with the Grizzlies in the first round. Remember that series? Blake and Zach Randolph went at it, with many questioning if Griffin was tough enough to handle Randolph. Oh, and the Clippers came back from a 27-point deficit in Game 1, led by the fourth-quarter heroics of Nick Young. The Clips led that series 3–1 and ended up winning in seven games. The next round, they were outclassed by the Spurs in a four-game sweep.
The following year, the Clippers matched up with Memphis in the first round again. This time, the Grizzlies would get the better of the matchup, rallying from a 2–0 deficit to win in six games—assisted by injuries to Paul and Griffin. The questions began for Los Angeles. Could they win with Paul as their best player? Is Blake only a dunker? Is Jordan a starting-caliber center?
Los Angeles fired Del Negro after the Memphis loss, and brought over Rivers in a trade with the Celtics. Rivers also tried bringing over Kevin Garnett from Boston, but the NBA wouldn’t allow that deal. It probably worked out, as Los Angeles would have traded away Jordan.
The roller coaster ride continued in the Clippers’ first year under Rivers. The coach earned personnel powers in Los Angeles, and immediately made moves with mixed returns, trading away Eric Bledsoe and Caron Butler for Jared Dudley and J.J. Redick. Rivers tried signing veterans to fill out the roster, but Danny Granger, Antawn Jamison and Stephen Jackson hardly worked out. The lack of a viable bench options was always a glaring problem for the Clippers, increasing the pressure on their starting five, and highlighting how the team was always slightly short of what it needed to be.
In their first year under Doc, the Clippers defeated the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the playoffs. The backdrop of the series was the Donald Sterling saga, with TMZ releasing his racist recordings on April 25, 2014. Clippers players considered a boycott, and warmed up for the first game after the tape with their shooting shirts turned inside out. After winning their hotly contested series with Golden State, Los Angeles lost to Oklahoma City in six the next round. The Clips had a chance to steal Game 5 and take a 3–2 lead, but Paul made a devastating turnover in the final minute to spur a Thunder comeback.
Last season, the Clippers vanquished the Spurs in a thrilling, seven-game series, but blew a 3–1 lead over the Rockets in the second round. L.A. had a 19–point lead late in the third quarter of Game 5, but collapsed down the stretch and never recovered.
Almost every year, the Clippers came tantalizingly close. There’s no guarantee L.A. beats the Warriors to make the Finals last season, but the Clippers are also the team that eliminated the past two NBA champions in the playoffs. Who knows what happens if Paul doesn’t turn the ball over in Game 5 vs. OKC, but the Clips would’ve likely been heading home with a 3–2 series lead. Even Monday, the Clips of this year were given a glimmer of hope in the form of Stephen Curry’s sprained knee, but their own injuries derailed any chance at a run for the conference finals.
The Clippers have been a great team. Their starting five the last three seasons put on an offensive display nearly on par with Golden State’s aerial attack. When L.A. was locked in defensively, the team played on a taut string, led by the athletic brilliance of Paul and Jordan. Paul especially deserves better than this, one of the best guards of his era, who has maximized his talent, found a contending team but couldn’t get them over the hump.
The Clippers and Paul, perhaps better than anyone, embody the ugly side of basketball’s championship-or-bust mentality. Will history choose to remember the Lob City Clippers? They never made a conference final, but they were always great. You may have grown to hate them, but they almost always found themselves mixed up in the league’s most interesting storylines.
If this really is the end for this iteration of the Clippers, and they make big changes in the off-season, it probably makes sense for a team founded on one of the most fascinating scenarios in NBA history to make us always wonder, what if?