It's now or never for CP3, Blake and the Clippers

ByZach Lowe ESPN logo
Monday, December 5, 2016

On the team plane late Sunday after a dismal loss to the Pacers -- the second of three straight -- Chris Paul strode to Blake Griffin's seat for a chat about what had befallen the mighty Clippers.

The talk was brief, and happy. "We'll be fine," Griffin told Paul, the two men recalled to They had to play harder, and trust in their system. Paul agreed, and the two chuckled about how uncomfortable the same conversation might have been even just a year ago.

"It used to be, if we lost, everyone might be, 'It's his fault! We need to change this and that!'" Paul said.

"There's no finger pointing now," Griffin added.

There is some disagreement as to how ugly things got in the Clippers' locker room during low points in this half-decade of unfulfilled contention. But there were bad times, especially when Griffin and Jordan were younger -- and in Paul's eyes, perhaps not ready to win. "We won 17 straight in [2012-13]," Paul said, "but the spirit wasn't right."

"We had rifts," Griffin recalled of that team.

Paul is always yapping at teammates; a basket microphone caught him telling DeAndre Jordan to "wake the ---- up!" early in that Pacers loss. Eight-plus months of that can grate on anyone. Some with the team miss Matt Barnes, because Barnes was the only player crazy enough to tell Paul -- in profane terms -- to stop talking.

"That's me," Paul said. "I gotta be who I am. I try hard to say stuff in different ways to different people."

Griffin's rise to superstardom muddled the team's hierarchy, since he needed to siphon some ball-handling duties from Paul. "When you have multiple alphas, multiple guys in a lot of TV commercials, there is always going to be some tension and clashing,"J.J. Redick told

It's not completely gone. Griffin smashing his hand in an after-hours fight last season jolted the team. But everyone swears the vibe is the best it's been since Paul's arrival five long years ago. "I never had a problem with Chris," Griffin said. "Sometimes it was better than others. Our spirit as a team is great now."

It had better be. This may be the last, best chance for the cursed L.A. stepchild to bust through the second round and chase the sort of success they've never experienced. More than a year ago, Doc Rivers, the team's coach and team president,told me that teams who fall short over and over grow stale-- and that the Clippers were "on the borderline" of needing a shakeup.

Three of their core four players -- Paul, Griffin, and Redick -- enter free agency this summer, assuming Paul and Griffin exercise early termination options. Paul and Redick are on the wrong side of the aging curve; Jordan and Griffin, bouncy types who rely to varying degrees on their athleticism, aren't that far behind.

Rivers the president has left the cupboard nearly barren of young players and draft picks. If Paul or Griffin leaves, it is unclear how the Clippers can maintain a 55-win team. The Clippers present perhaps the best human drama of the 2016-17 season: can a great team heal its fractures, and find the best version of itself, before it's too late?

Divided teams rarely survive the playoffs. The Clippers showed real mettle in outlasting San Antonio during their epic seven-game series two seasons ago, but they have quaked in other pressurized situations-- including in their inexplicable collapse against a plainly inferior Houston team one round later. In frantic moments, great teams find calm -- a collective trust, and a desire to win for each other.

"With us," Paul said, "it will all be about how we respond to adversity."

The true Clippers are much closer to the juggernaut that started the season 14-2 than the tired patsy of the past week. They've already played 19 games, second-most in the league, and they rested Griffin during their bizarro loss in Brooklyn on Tuesday. Even after this dip, the Clips rank fifth in points per possession and second in points allowed per possession -- markers of an elite team.

Zoom out, and it looks like this nucleus is approaching the apex of what it can be. Their core can put up 110 blindfolded despite intractable spacing issues. Griffin and Jordan clutter the paint, and no one guards Luc Richard Mbah a Moute -- the name upon which Rivers' "Wheel-O-Random-Small-Forwards" apparently landed.

Talent can trump fit. Griffin and Paul are so good, and so smart, they don't need much space to destroy you. They think one step ahead of defenses, and acting early allows them to thread pinpoint passes through narrow corridors before those gaps close. They've been zig-zagging the ball through overcrowded lanes for years:

Their four key starters have run through north of 10,000 offensive possessions together, and the shared knowledge allows them to make those wink-wink improv reads that only come with time. Look how Paul and Griffin abort a scripted handoff and zoom into an unconventional pick-and-roll:

"We're as familiar with each other as you can be," Paul said.

Marreese Speights provides a workable backup -- and a nice fit with Griffin -- when teams hack Jordan. (The Clippers have explored virtual reality technology to remedy Jordan's horrid foul shooting, per league sources.)

Their offense has hummed right along in the postseason, even with that gaping hole at small forward. Opposing defenses ignored Barnes, but the problem will be more severe with Mbah a Moute; Barnes is a zippy cutter who slashes across the floor in unpredictable diagonals. Mbah a Moute is slower, and chills in the corner.

In the playoffs, defenses will force the other Clippers to pass to him. They are already doing it.

"My job is pretty simple," Mbah a Moute told "Stand in the corner and make plays." He's doing just enough so far; Mbah a Moute has canned 42 percent of his corner 3s, and he looks more comfortable pumping-and-driving.

The Clippers appear ready to ride or die with Mbah a Moute. Wesley Johnson, who started nine games last season, has logged zero seconds alongside L.A.'s other four starters; the team prefers him as a small-ball power forward on its revamped bench mob. Paul Pierce is on a retirement tour, and for reasons no one can explain, Alan Anderson can't even get in during garbage time.

The Clippers are almost out of trade assets after their predictably disastrous Hail Mary for Jeff Green. They could package Crawford and a first-round pick in search of an upgrade on the wing, but that offering won't net much, and the team loves Crawford. Wings don't come cheap; the Bucks surrendered a former Rookie of the Year to snag Tony freaking Snell, and Jerami Grant fetched Philly a protected first-round pick. It is almost impossible to find a gettable wing who moves the needle.

(As an aside, the Clippers can indeed trade a 2021 or 2022 first-round pick despite owing a lottery-protected 2017 pick to Toronto and a first-round pick that goes to Boston "two years after" they flip the initial pick to the Raptors. The league quietly tweaked trade rules over the summer so that teams could simultaneously owe two picks with that "two years after" language attached. In the past, a team could owe only one such pick.)

The Clips will need Mbah a Moute's stout, switchy defense against Kawhi Leonard and Golden State's army of wings. "For us to win, he's got to be on the floor," Redick said.

Even with Mbah a Moute entrenched, every measure of scoring punch has nudged in a healthy direction, anyway. The Clips are shooting enough 3s, and they're working their way to about four more shots per game in the restricted area after generating the second-fewest such attempts last season, per

Griffin has been hunting tin again. A full 41 percent of his shots have come within three feet of the rim, a huge jump from last season, and he's traded out a bunch of long 2s. Griffin expanded his range to accommodate Jordan, and it's easier on his body to drift for jumpers. Sometimes it's the right choice. But if there's enough time on the shot clock, the Clips often find something better if Griffin presses the case.

The Clippers unleash Griffin's coast-to-coast game in transition, and when he doesn't have the ball, he sprints into deep post position before the defense can get set. The Clippers are fourth in fast-break points, a big number given Paul's slow-poke tendencies. They should probably run more.

Their interior scoring numbers will look even better when Griffin's post game picks up. The Clips are going to him on the block a bit less this season, and Griffin is shooting 37 percent on post-ups -- while drawing way fewer shooting fouls than usual, per Synergy Sports. (Griffin is plainly frustrated by the lack of calls; he might have taken the league lead from Dion Waiters in most "AND-ONE!" shouts. "I yell it now even when I'm not getting fouled, just to remind them for next time," Griffin said, laughing.)

But a lot of bunnies are just rimming out, and the Clippers know this is a weapon they'll need in May.

One way to unlock it: switch pick-and-rolls on defense, slide Griffin onto a guard, get a stop, and rush to the other end so that little guy is stuck jostling with Griffin. They switch more late in the shot clock, and against big men who can't hurt their guards in the post.

"I love switching," Griffin said. "It creates so much chaos."

The big-picture signs are good, too. The Clippers are coaxing opponents away from the most profitable spots. Only 28 percent of opponent shots have come from 3-point range, the fifth-lowest rate in the league -- the best L.A. has ranked in that category over the Paul-Griffin era. Only four teams have allowed fewer shots within the restricted area, per

And after years of hacking the hell out of everyone, the Clips are a middle-of-the-pack foul team.

These are all fringe changes -- the redistribution of a half-dozen enemy shots, and fewer freebies. One or two would mean nothing. But if a bunch of tiny trends point the same way, it adds up. "You take a little bit here, and a little bit there," Crawford said, "and it makes a difference."

They've had issues during this downturn, and against pick-and-pop bigs who feast when Jordan drops into the paint to corral a pick-and-roll; Myles Turner, Marc Gasol, and Brook Lopez have all rained fire from deep.

They might be due some good luck here; opponents have hit 40 percent of wide-open 3s against them, one of the beefiest marks in the league.

Regardless, they'll adjust in the playoffs. The Clippers transitioned last season from a hyper-aggressive trapping scheme into their current drop-back system, but they can still bust out the frenzy against opponents who require it. They blitzed Damian Lillard 30 feet from the rim in the first round last season. If LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol start swishing midrange pick-and-pops, the Clippers will stick closer to them.

The switching scheme will be a necessity against the Warriors. "Switching is good practice for them," Griffin said. "To get where you want to go, you have to get by them."

They'll switch off-ball screens all over the floor, and Griffin is fast enough to hang with both Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. Switching Jordan onto a guard is dicier, but sometimes it's the lesser-of-all-evils.

If Paul stays attached to Curry's hip on the dread Curry-Draymond Green pick-and-roll and chases him into 2-point range, Jordan can hang back -- and then recover before Green rumbles for a dunk:

Jordan may not guard Green at all when Golden State goes to its Death Lineup; the Clips slot him onto Andre Iguodala, so either Griffin or Mbah a Moute can take Green -- and switch onto Curry.

In theory, the Clippers have the tools to be a problem for the Warriors. Griffin will go at Durant in the post when the Warriors downsize, and he and Jordan can crash the hell out of the offensive glass. Their approach to offense -- low turnovers, selective fast-breaking, careful floor balance for transition defense -- mirrors what Cleveland did in the Finals.

It just hasn't worked. Golden State has shredded L.A.'s defense in every recent matchup. The Clippers will negotiate the first two switches fine, and then break down on the third or fourth action. Someone will back-cut Crawford. Curry's shoulder-shaking has juked Paul. Klay Thompson is cool shooting right over Redick. Two Clippers will chase one Warrior, leaving another naked. Griffin isn't quite long enough to bother Curry on those step-back 3s. Jordan is too slow to pivot into emergency response mode when Curry has daylight:

Expecting perfection against the Warriors' gauntlet is unfair. Every team messes up a dozen or so possessions each night. But to have any chance, you have to minimize that number, and the Clippers haven't shown they can do that. "When you defend them," Redick said, "it's almost like every play has the intensity of the last minute in a close game. You have to defend so many actions. Fall asleep for a second, and it's over."

Mbah a Moute might help. The Clippers have discussed pairing Paul with Raymond Felton and Austin Rivers in quicker lineups that might skitter through the Golden State labyrinth. It is hard to play Crawford against Golden State's core groups, though he is adamant he can manage. "That's always the question with me," Crawford said. "I can look you dead in the eye and say I can do it."

Even if he can't, it's unfathomable -- without fathom! -- that the solution to upsetting the Warriors involves extra heapings of Felton and the junior Rivers.

The Clippers should at least get a crack at Golden State in the West finals. They are better, and deeper, than the Spurs, though home-court could decide that potential second-round matchup. If the Clippers are healthy, anything less than a conference finals appearance counts as a failure. I'd take Golden State over the Clippers in a theoretical final four showdown, but there's no shame in losing a competitive series to these Warriors.

And then, the eternal question: Run it back again? There isn't much of an alternative; they won't have cap flexibility unless a big fish leaves. They are not positioned well for a rebuild, and Rivers has no interest in one. The Clippers are awesome, and there is no guarantee the Warriors rampage through the next three-plus seasons. Hell, a year ago, some NBA team executives -- actual humans -- talked about keeping their powder dry to wait out the Golden State dynasty. How's that look now?

Steve Ballmer, L.A.'s moneybags owner, has already said he'll pay the cost. Maxing out Griffin is a no-brainer, and the team expects Paul to demand the full five-year max (or whatever the longest possible deal ends up being in the revised collective bargaining agreement) to stick around, per several league sources. That would take him well past age 35. Gulp. Suitors will line up for Redick.

Rivers was right last fall: teams grow stale. People decide to move on. If the ending is unhappy again, I'd bet on at least one big change in Clipperland. For now, the team is trying to enjoy the journey -- and the clean locker-room air.

"The spirit is right," Paul said. "You can't take that for granted."

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