Sisyphus in the NBA: The end of Lob City?

ByKevin Arnovitz ESPN logo
Friday, April 28, 2017

THE CARAVAN WILL BEGIN DEPARTING the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City at 5:30 p.m. and pull into the loading dock in the bowels of Vivint Smart Home Arena soon after. One by one, they'll disembark into the NBA's loudest concrete bunker where, a few hours later, 19,000 fans will scream for their extinction, like Romans at the Colosseum.

Chris Paul, the best player on the floor tonight and the league's most discerning film critic, will screen clips of the Jazz on a tablet. J.J. Redick will glide through a warm-up routine that would have America's high school basketball coaches swooning. DeAndre Jordan will work up a sweat -- catching, pivoting, lunging at the basket, a project big man all grown up. Blake Griffin will arrive in a walking boot, a victim in Game 3 of yet another freak injury. Doc Rivers will scheme with assistants, then regale the media at 6 p.m. on the dot, winning his 2,500th consecutive news conference.

Should the Clippers fall to the Utah Jazz on Friday night, one of the NBA's finest collections of talent of the last decade, one that seemed destined to be the feel-good story of a woebegone franchise made good, will face mortality. Paul, Redick and the injured Griffin can depart this summer if they conclude Clipperland is unfit for winning. Despite Rivers' insistence that he's staying put, rumors persist that he could bolt town ahead of the cavalry. And somewhere, Donald Sterling will be awaiting the verdict: Maybe he wasn't the Clipper curse after all.

They call it "the dynamic." Players. Coaches. People inside the organization. The schadenfreude brigade around the NBA. Though it has no fixed definition, its meaning is easily inferred: the interpersonal relationships that inform the Clippers' mood. Many critics, whether in close proximity or from a distance, cite the dynamic as a primary ingredient in the team's frustrations. If only the Clippers got along better, postseason success wouldn't be so difficult to attain. The personalities don't mesh. They bring out the worst in each other.

One recent veteran teammate calls the Clippers the most complicated team he's ever been on. There's a common level of intensity among the actors, even if it manifests itself in vastly different ways. Paul's bossiness. Griffin's temperament. Jordan's immaturity. The suspicion that the mythology of Rivers might be a bit grander than the recent results.

As the pressure mounted to prove the dynamic was nothing more than typical for a contending NBA team, the Clippers have not just been competing with the Jazz. They've been competing with their own nature.

THERE ARE MOMENTS in the Clippers' recent history everyone knows about: Blake jumping over a car, CP3 arriving from New Orleans, Doc arriving from Boston, the heart-wrenching loss to OKC in the 2014 conference semis, the V. Stiviano tapes, the team rallying in the playoffs in the shadow of Sterling's racist comments, Adam Silver banning Sterling, owner Steve Ballmer riding in, the calamity against Houston in a close-out game in 2015, DeAndre signing and then not with the Mavericks, Blake punching a friend and co-worker, CP and Blake going down in the same playoff game last year at Portland, Blake's season-ending injury last week. There are other moments that are every bit as important, like the honest conversation last summer when Paul and Griffin sat down to figure out how two dedicated, but distinctly different personalities could come together to anchor an NBA contender.

That the Clippers are good at all begins with winning the 2009 NBA lottery and picking Griffin first overall. Two-and-a-half years later they traded for Paul, and the instant the Paul-Griffin tandem hit the floor, the Clippers would never again win fewer than 60 percent of their games. Ink presses printed up "Lob City" T-shirts. Between 2011 and 2015, the number of NBA fans in Los Angeles who named the Clippers their favorite team more than tripled. Every game at Staples Center since Paul's arrival has been sold out.

Griffin has flirted with greatness -- he finished third in the MVP voting in 2014 and adapted to a league that has grown hostile to beefcake power forwards. While aspiring to combine the wisdom of Tim Duncan and the brainy comedians he hangs out with off the court, Griffin can seethe in self-judgment. He can talk himself into bad games and get sidetracked with minutiae when the proper response is "next play."

"Blake is as intense as anybody in this league," Rivers says. "The biggest thing is he's too hard on himself. Blake's next step is to give himself a break."

Paul, meanwhile, is the ideal companion on paper and has been as productive as anyone on the court. The individual numbers are astounding. Pick your metric. For example, only LeBron James, Kevin Durant and James Harden have accumulated more win shares (per 48 minutes) during Paul's six seasons with the Clippers. But his exacting, know-it-all style can be far from optimal if the trick is to keep Griffin from obsessing about mistakes.

A former teammate affectionately characterized Paul as the friend in the back seat of the car on a night out who just doesn't know when to stop barking out plans -- smart, responsible, the guy you need running point, but lacking the self-awareness to know that this would all be a lot more fun for everyone if he'd table every third decree. Yet without him, you'd spend the night driving in circles.

"With Chris, everything is organized, then we're out there," says Griffin. "There's direction and a plan. It just makes sense. And you know how it does and why it does."

In the NBA, co-superstars have a specific kind of accountability to each other on a contending team. When Griffin hurt his hand and got suspended for punching his own friend and team equipment staffer Matias Testi, Griffin had failed (by his own admission) many people, among them, Paul, who holds reliability as a cardinal virtue.

Griffin told Paul that he was a high school junior in suburban Oklahoma City when Paul won the 2005-06 Rookie of the Year award while the Hornets were temporarily housed in OKC. When Paul arrived to the Clippers from New Orleans, Griffin was only 21 years old and somewhat intimidated. But he wanted Paul to step into the Clippers locker room and say, "This is how we're going to do it," because the team needed it, and he needed it. Griffin said there was never a "Who's team is this going to be?" issue -- a premise he rejects ever existed in any meaningful way. Paul replied that thought never crossed his mind either. The conversation had an effect on both men.

"They both made a concerted effort this past summer to figure each other out," says a source who requested anonymity to discuss the relationship. "They've matured that way. They know they want the same thing. They're also very different."

The summer talk with Paul has affirmed something Griffin knew for a while but hadn't fully implemented as a life strategy: Communication is a logical way to bridge distance -- and there had been distance. The Toronto incident with Testi last year, combined with the demands of fatherhood, the maturation that comes with adult life, his foray into comedy whereby comics express themselves to be understood and the knowledge that, "Hey, this talking thing can work," pushed him.

The talk was constructive because it was necessary -- heart-to-hearts aren't the product of harmony. Some around the team portray the Clippers less as a unified group and more as a collection of disparate individuals. There's sound evidence that the divisions have been overstated, but the perception of discord has persisted.

Paul demands from his teammates a conformity and insists they absorb criticism at any moment, according to several teammates. Blow a coverage, you're going to hear about it, even after you've offered a "my bad" and even if the replay shows something to the contrary.

"He just can't be wrong," says a member of the Clippers. "But if I had to go to war, I'm going with Chris every day. I just wish he was wrong more. I wish he would say, 'My fault.'"

Chris Paul declined to comment for this story.

Almost to a man, Clippers teammates and staffers say that Paul has mellowed with age. They say Griffin's maturity and Jordan's growing confidence have reached Paul, as have some vets whom Paul respects like Alan Anderson and Raymond Felton, who help maintain balance in a locker room that can teeter.

By NBA standards, Paul and Griffin have been married a long time. Griffin says that in the past year, a certain level of appreciation of their vastly different approaches -- to the game, to the way one relates to people, to life in general -- has been established.

"I think differently than CP," Griffin says. "I'm big. I do things differently. That's been my biggest thing -- learning how to find that place where I'm, like, 'OK. Cool.' Because there's an instinct to go, 'Yeah, but' when you're discussing something. That was the biggest hump for me to get over -- the 'OK, cool.' Whenever you play with different people, you learn how to deal with them on the court, off the court. You have to learn to understand where they're coming from when they're doing their thing."

Though they play in maybe the league's most appealing market, and have compiled one of the highest winning percentages over a six-year stretch, and boast All-Stars at the positions that matter most, the Clippers have still struggled merely to cope with one another.

THE DISPOSSESSED IN THIS WORLD have, for centuries, attributed their suffering to supernatural forces, and so it has been for fans of Los Angeles' junior basketball franchise. The 35 percent winning percentage from 1984 until 2011, the procession of draft busts, the "worst franchise in sports history" cover of SI were all pinned on "The Clippers curse."

Yet like most earthly disasters, the Clippers' losing seasons weren't the result of divine decree. The failures were the product of organizational policy, and the Clippers curse had a face and a name: Donald Sterling.

Sterling saw the franchise as a buy-and-hold operation whose low overhead, lean payroll and meager capital expenditures would allow it to finish modestly in the black. Losing wasn't the stated goal, but spending to win compromised the strategy. The message from ownership was clear: Make do.

"We practiced at a community center in Carson," says Brent Barry, who played with the Clippers from 1995 to 1998. "If you got there at 9, you couldn't shoot until 10 because there were 10-year-old girls practicing rhythmic gymnastics -- with streamers. At a quarter 'til, they'd roll up the spongy floor, stick it in the corner, and practice would start."

Of course, there was no way to remove Sterling, until the eve of his 80th birthday, in April 2014, as TMZ released recordings of Sterling saying racist things with sexual overtones. As the sordid procedural drama played out, Clippers players, in protest, wore their warm-ups inside-out prior to Game 4 of an opening-round playoff series against the Warriors.

Somewhere over the following week, a future of infinite possibility emerged. The real Clippers -- the players and coaches -- won an emotional Game 7 and the series. Days later, NBA commissioner Silver did the once-unthinkable -- banning Sterling for life from the NBA -- and announced the league planned to force Sterling to sell the team.

That is the moment when the Clippers stood, momentarily, as an idealized version of a new better NBA brotherhood: No craven rich-guy owner, no meddling bean counters, no executives skimming off the purity that is NBA basketball -- just the game, the 15 guys in that locker room who play it and their coach.

For Clippers fans, 30 years of daydreams were suddenly reality. This market with this concentration of talent ... If only it were entrusted not to a scoundrel but a savior, the skies would part and the rays of good fortune would shine on this woebegone franchise. Curses would turn to blessings and humiliation to honor.

A lot of that has happened. The Clippers now compete for the top free agents and boast one of the larger local broadcast deals in the league. They sport all of the amenities of a high-class franchise. On matters of the fan experience and technology, Ballmer wants to make his franchise a research-and-development laboratory for the league. The Clippers are the only NBA team other than the Spurs to have won at least 50 games each of the past five seasons.

Yet the Clippers still haven't arrived. With Paul, Griffin and Redick entering free agency in a couple of months, Ballmer's hard-charging urge to win now must be realized sooner rather than later. With clocks ticking and rumors swirling that any number of those free agents -- and Rivers, too -- might seek safe harbor should the Clippers fail again, the awakening of 2014 and everything it was supposed to provide is at stake.

WHETHER YOU THINK the Clippers are a great success or failure, it's easy to make the case Rivers caused it.

One of many triumphs came immediately upon his arrival, in 2013, when he used a dinner at one of Jordan's favorite restaurants, Nobu Malibu, to shape one of the best defenders in the league.

"I came packing with a list," Rivers says. "I had all kinds of s--- with me. So, we were talking and talking and I asked him, 'Where were you last year?' That was the question. He said, 'What do you mean?' I said, 'Where were you?'"

"I said, 'Two years ago, I thought you were gonna be this next dominant big, and then last year,'" Rivers says. "He was like, 'Well, they told me to work on my offense, so I worked all summer on my offense and I never got the ball.' He admitted it, 'I went sideways.' I said, 'OK. All right.'"

In no uncertain terms, Rivers told Jordan that the notion that he'd ever see a touch at a big moment when Paul, Redick, Griffin and Jamal Crawford were on the floor was bananas. Jordan was not to invest any significant time working on his offensive game. Though it might seem counterintuitive, Rivers said, this strategy would net Jordan a huge profit.

When a couple of months later the Clippers hosted their media day, a third chair stood on the stage for the marquee session -- one for Paul, one for Griffin and one for Jordan. He was now, at least nominally, a member of the Clippers' big three, and he has spent the past four seasons making good on his deal with Rivers. Since their great sushi summit at Nobu, Jordan has twice led the NBA in rebounding. The past two seasons, he's been named to the NBA's All-Defense first team. In 2015, he made third-team All-NBA, and last season he was the first-team All-NBA center. That lunch was a huge cause of the Clippers' team success.

"[DeAndre] felt like he was given something that was his," Griffin says. "Doc gave him purpose. He believed him. He said, 'Defense -- that's your thing. Go do it.' DJ ate it up."

A year later, as the Sterling saga threatened to derail a team on the rise, Rivers galvanized the locker room like never before, wowing league executives in New York looking to fill a void left by Sterling until a new buyer could be found. By the time Ballmer had signed the papers as owner, Rivers was far more central to the franchise than most and quickly commanded a new five-year contract worth more than $50 million, with an elevation in title to president of basketball operations. This made him one of the most powerful men in the NBA, almost making what one source calls "Pop Money."

For critics of Rivers, the case against him isn't difficult: Despite inheriting a roster of Paul, Griffin, Jordan and Eric Bledsoe and the license to spend on infrastructure, the Clippers have been stuck in neutral. The catalog of botched transactions and missed opportunities is lengthy, from sending out a first-round pick to unload Jared Dudley to waiving Joe Ingles, who has hurt them in the first round this postseason. While rivals have unearthed value draft picks like Draymond Green and Rudy Gobert, or hidden gems like Patrick Beverley, or any number of the Spurs' regulars, the Clippers brought in a series of retreads to fill out the roster. Though they finally made good with Luc Mbah a Moute and, this season have solid bench additions, the star-rich Clippers still haven't gotten past the second round.

"IT WAS SO UNLIKELY ON SO MANY LEVELS," Rockets general manager Daryl Morey says of the 2015 second-round Game 6 that he missed in real time because he walked out, unable to bear watching his team eliminated by the Clippers. He has since watched the fourth quarter several times. "Besides the normal if-you-have-a-19-point lead question, it was the ... It was the how. There were five 3-pointers made by the the most unlikely shooters. And it was in Los Angeles, on the road."

Says Rivers, more bluntly: "It was a disaster movie."

Late in the third quarter, as the Clippers built a 19-point lead with just over 14 minutes to play, Morey, a disciple of probabilities, had done the math. It was time to take a walk. He exited Staples Center and paced the street as the game unfolded inside.

When Redick nailed a 3-pointer off a cross-court pass from Griffin with just over eight minutes remaining in the game, the Clippers still maintained a 12-point lead over the Rockets. On the ensuing possession, Jordan ripped the ball furiously from a driving Trevor Ariza in the heart of the paint, then instinctively leaped over the baseline to save the remains. The ball landed in the hands of a surprised Corey Brewer, the Rockets small forward and a career 28-percent 3-point shooter, who wouldn't see a better delivery all night. When his shot went in, it cut the lead to single-digits.

Austin Rivers responded with a driving layup-and-1, and when he checked out nine seconds later for Chris Paul, with the Clippers still holding a 10-point lead with 7:28 remaining, he looked intently at the coaching staff. "I'm telling y'all right now," Austin Rivers said, according to a person on the bench who now sees the remark as prophecy. "The game is changing. We better do something about this s---."

Spring 2015 had the aura of the Great Clipper Exorcism in its first season under its new ownership. They had already extinguished the Spurs, a team Paul has long revered as the paragon of professionalism, in a series for the ages. And now against the Rockets, what happened? Was it an act of the basketball gods? The restoration of the Clipper curse? An epic choke job? Donald Sterling performing voodoo up in Malibu? Simple chance?

A Rockets team designed by an executive who worships at the altar of probabilities got five 3-pointers in the game's final eight minutes from Brewer and Josh Smith, two of the three worst 3-point shooters in NBA history. Jordan, the league's most prolific dunker, missed an uncontested one. Clippers small forward Matt Barnes, wide open from beyond the arc, drew air. Griffin, a phenomenal finisher, missed a couple shots at point-blank range.

"Looking back on it, I think we did play poorly," Griffin says. "At the same time, every series you're willing to give up something and accept something else. We have to contain James [Harden] and keep Dwight [Howard] off of the glass and contain Corey [Brewer]'s transition, you know, whatever it is. And if Josh Smith and Corey were going to beat us from behind the 3-point line, OK. That game, it was like a slow motion, just like a bad dream happening that you couldn't ..." Griffin trails off. "You knew it was happening, and you couldn't do anything about it."

By the 4:20 mark, the lead had expired. There were no late heroics or last gasp -- the Clippers laid down gently. They lost the game 119-107 and the fourth quarter by a 40-15 margin, all of it with Harden on the bench.

"I have thought about and talked about this so much that at this point I can't even offer a decent theory or rationalization," Redick says. "Sports happen."

The loss still looms large for the Clippers, a mark they've carried around since. For the past two years, it's the reference point for any blown lead, four-game skid or blowout loss to the Warriors. It's the shadow that hovers over tonight's game.

"Whether we win or lose tonight, we're gonna be back here!"

Rivers was mounting his charge in the visitors' locker room at Quicken Loans Arena on Dec. 1. About three or four times each regular season, he'd go full tent revival in his pregame speeches, and this night marked the height of his fiery sermons.

"We're there, like, 'Holy s---, he brought it,'" Griffin says now of Rivers' signature performance this season.

The Clippers had limped into Cleveland having dropped three games in a row on the road to sub-.500 teams, the most recent an embarrassing double-overtime loss at Brooklyn. The glow of the team's 14-2 start had faded. Doubt and the Clippers share an intimate relationship, and the two entities were becoming reacquainted.

"They own us," Rivers said to the team, which hadn't beaten the Cavs during LeBron's second reign in Cleveland. "They have ownership over us. I've learned in my life, if you give someone else ownership, they're gonna always own you."

Rivers professed his belief in the team, but asked how it is that a coach could see the guys more clearly than they could see themselves. He then went down the row of lockers and articulated each player's larger meaning to the team. If the team ran up against adversity tonight? Next play, next moment.

"It was motivating," Griffin says. "It got us to believe. It refocused us. We came out of there thinking, 'We have a chance to win a championship. We'll be back here in Cleveland.' That was the theme, and he clearly reached people."

Most of all, Rivers implored the Clippers to play with unbridled freedom. If you come down the floor and feel like shooting the ball, do it. If one of your teammates gives you a side-eye, tell him to go f--- himself.

In front of a national broadcast audience, the Clippers laid waste to Cleveland. It was a resumption of their early-season run, when the Clippers knew exactly what they wanted out of each half-court possession and precisely how to get it. A dancing pick-and-roll for Paul with Redick curling up from the baseline yielding a catch-escape-jumper. Griffin sprinting the floor to bully J.R. Smith into an early deep seal, and after Paul delivered the entry, Griffin lobbing an over-the-shoulder alley-oop through the double-team to a waiting Jordan.

They got anything they wanted, with an accompanying defense reminiscent of the weeks before the skid when it ranked third in the league. When attacked by James, Mbah a Moute held his position on the edge of the paint. When forced aside by a screen, he pushed his way back into the play. Jordan barked stage direction from his residence in the paint. Griffin swiped at Kevin Love like a big cat one-on-one out on the wing, poking the ball away, then diving through Love to save it.

The Clippers, up 20 points after three quarters, won the game going away 113-94. For a night, the Clippers took ownership and embodied the purest form of their design: What if you take the best distributor and game manager in the league and give him one of the league's best finishers and most skilled 4-men? What if you pair them with a shooting guard whose perpetual motion and sweet stroke gave the offense a rhythm and structure? Add the most athletic, durable center of his generation who can catch lobs from the surgical point guard and also defend the rim. Then you place them under the spiritual direction of a coach who had managed a tangle of egos to a championship and who can bring it when a hot wind is slapping them in the face. Thrown together, could anyone own them?

"THERE'S PAIN IN THIS LOCKER ROOM," Paul Pierce says. Indeed, the Clippers seem to carry a burden, which has become more pronounced since that Friday night in May 2015. Too often there's a fatalism that shrouds the Clippers. It was on display in Game 1 of the first round against Utah, when despite losing Gobert on the first possession, the Jazz owned the night. Then in Game 3, Griffin was lost for the remainder of the postseason with a freak toe injury.

There's a long-standing belief in the NBA, one that's been popularized again with the emergence of the Warriors and the endurance of the Spurs: An NBA team must play with joy to win big.

"I've always felt the best teams play with joy," Redick says. "For some teams, joy is evident just by watching their faces. But it doesn't always have to be outward, expressive joy in the form of laughing or smiling."

During a Clippers' slump just after the All-Star break, Jordan and Austin Rivers exchanged barbs following a loss. Rivers attacked Jordan for not playing hard enough, with Jordan responding, in essence, that Rivers' defensive lapses didn't earn him the right to criticize. Paul respectfully, but assertively, came to Rivers' defense, as did Felton, who sources say has been "terrific" at defusing tension. A tough loss at Dallas in late March before the Clippers caught fire prompted another tense moment, this time in the huddle, where Griffin was kvetching about the officiating. Austin Rivers yelled at Griffin to knock it off, harkening back to a recent conversation in which the team pledged to maintain its focus in moments of adversity. Griffin was ready to pounce, but immediately calmed himself. The source cited the brief episode as an example of Griffin, and the team as a whole, learning how to accept these as teaching moments. They also capture a team for whom tension constantly simmers below the surface.

In crunch time over the past two seasons, including the 2016 playoffs, the "core four" had posted an offensive efficiency rating in crunch time (defined as five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter and overtime, the score within five points) of 118.9 with a defensive rating of 103.5, per ESPN Stats & Info. Yet they still couldn't beat the "the dynamic" rap. Whatever internal growth they've charted, the world won't consider it until it's actualized in the postseason.

"There are times, I'm being honest, when we are looked at through a different lens," Doc Rivers says. "For whatever reason, if we don't play great, it's through a different lens, and I don't get that."

THE CLIPPERS FACE A RECKONING this summer when Paul, Griffin and Redick enter free agency. Ballmer says the Clippers don't have any interest at present of blowing it up. "I love those guys, and I want those guys back," Ballmer says, adding that he's amenable to swallowing a large luxury-tax bill, which would come due with new contracts for his players.

"If we're in it and we're playing for a championship, I don't mind the tax," Ballmer says.

If the Clippers lose in the first round, though, that premium might be steep for a man who excels at investment strategy. Paul and Griffin haven't declared their intentions. Sources close to the Clippers say that they expect Paul to re-sign with the Clippers. He'll be eligible for a five-year contract in excess of $200 million. Griffin's return is less certain, sources say. This summer is his first foray into unrestricted free agency. Given his snakebitten tenure with the team and the possibility of another early exit, the prospect of exploring what's out there will be alluring. One premise volunteered in good humor suggests that Paul is more likely to take a slew of meetings in a public process but ultimately re-sign with the Clippers, while Griffin is more likely to mull the decision privately under the guise of night, but announce he'll be playing elsewhere in 2017-18.

The decision of whether to blow it up is fraught with complicated questions. The definition of insanity resides on one side of the ledger: The Clippers would be crazy to bring back a team that has disappointed for six straight postseasons and expect a different outcome. A counterargument can be posed that few teams can be penciled in for 50-plus wins, as the Clippers have achieved for six consecutive seasons despite variable health, and annually be in a position to contend.

The Clippers still can't shake the idea that a verdict on their talent and mettle has never truly been rendered. The past two postseasons were the products of freak occurrences -- the first a cosmic tragedy that defied all reasonable probabilities, the second is terrible injury luck. Why should four Josh Smith 3-pointers, a broken hand and a quad dictate a team's timeline?

"There's something to be said for being a 50-win team every year," Redick says. "Maybe you make the second round, maybe you make the conference finals, or even the Finals, but you're not quite good enough. But I don't think that's the aspiration here, so the question becomes: Can our group get over the hump?"

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