• The Clippers are competing about as well as one could expect from an eight seed against the Warriors, but they're winning in one important category: Proving to be a superb future free-agent destination.
By Rob Mahoney
April 21, 2019

As the Warriors took a commanding 3-1 lead in a series they were fated to win, the Clippers continued to make their pitch. Consider their case as a destination franchise: a team based in Los Angeles, run well, backed by incredible wealth, coached to empowerment and carried to extraordinary success by their capacity to give a damn. What was once thought to be a forgettable team instead smashed its way into the playoffs and the history books. There are times, as in Game 3, when all of that feels irrelevant for a team under the thumb of a dynastic opponent. There’s only so much that can be done to keep the Warriors down, just as there’s only so much that can be done to contain Kevin Durant or Stephen Curry. Still, the Clippers fight, largely with a cast of rookies and career role players.

On Sunday, an overmatched Clipper defense began Game 4 by disrupting one of the most unguardable fronts in the league. The off-ball action that makes Golden State such a difficult cover was stifled completely: first by pressure on the pass, and then with well-schemed prevention to stop Curry, in particular, from catching in rhythm. He would finish the first quarter with a single point. Yet despite their best efforts, the Clippers trailed by 10. So they rallied. Every push was rebuffed but that hardly stopped them. “That’s a tough team down there,” Klay Thompson said. “They’re not gonna give in.” The Warriors would work the ball from one All-Star to another, building a lead with slick passing and spectacular individual play. Then, once settled, the Clippers would respond with a run of their own—similar, save for the star power and the ease involved. 

Imbalance lies at the heart of every series between the first seed and the eighth. It’s to the Clippers’ credit that they have never once used it as an excuse. JaMychal Green gave an honest go at checking Durant on Sunday, knowing full well what that responsibility would entail. First-year guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander turned in his highest-scoring quarter of the season on his way to a 25-point night, all by refusing to be intimidated by Golden State’s length and style of coverage. With the game on the brink, Lou Williams continued to probe for offense, ducking and weaving through waves of defenders for any opening he could find. There weren’t enough. The best efforts of the Clippers kept them within 12 points throughout Game 4, and even earned them a second-half lead. It slipped away to a 113-105 loss because the Warriors are the Warriors, and because the Clippers are so clearly incomplete. 

Stardom isn’t some invention of the basketball aristocracy. It is the fundamental difference between competing in a seven-game series and controlling one. The great irony of this Clipper run is that their complete investment—the defining character of their play—only makes it easier to look forward at the expense of the present. The resolve is already there. What if, when the offense begins to sputter, this same Clipper team had Kawhi Leonard to drive through the lane like a battering ram? Considering how small L.A. has been forced to play in this series, how different might their matchups look if Doc Rivers had Jimmy Butler to work with? Or, for a more immediate example: What might the Clippers become if the seven-foot scoring singularity lifting the Warriors were to switch jerseys?

All three stars will be free agents in a matter of months, and the Clippers are a perfectly logical destination. Some might prefer a blank slate roster to shape in their own image, but L.A. has built a fascinating alternative: a playoff-proven team, culture included, that is unusually non-threatening. There would be no established star to meet with to clear the air. Danilo Gallinari could swing between forward spots as needed. Gilgeous-Alexander is a promising young guard, but not the kind who would threaten to dominate the ball. Where stars on other teams watch from the bench as their team falls apart without them, a Clipper star would hand the offense over to Williams and Montrezl Harrell, an elite pick-and-roll duo in every sense. A lead would feel safe.

“I think Harrell and Lou are probably their two best players,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr noted earlier in the series. “How many teams bring their two best players off the bench?” Even a basketball decision as simple as who starts and who doesn’t can have sales implications. Every factor matters, from team ownership down to the most cursory on-court exchange. It’s in the sum of those elements that a franchise finds its collective identity. And it’s in watching that identity manifest—through the spunk of Patrick Beverley, or the faith in Landry Shamet, or the purpose the Clippers find in playing for each other—that some star player might wonder just how they’d fit.

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