The Los Angeles Clippers have pushed all of their chips into the center of the table in the pursuit of winning the 2016 NBA title, and perhaps it’s because the club recognizes that their window to win isn’t that far from closing. Despite retaining DeAndre Jordan after a free-agent flirtation with the Dallas Mavericks, getting the coup of the offseason in signing Paul Pierce and bargain bin depth moves like Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith, the Clippers face a mountain to climb in order to take advantage of their loaded, reshuffled roster.
After flaming out in the 2015 postseason in spectacular fashion, the Clippers have managed to raise the expectation bar as a result of the offseason they’ve enjoyed. Dealing away Spencer Hawes’s bad contract along with Matt Barnes’s expiring one to take a chance on Stephenson made all the sense in the world — especially with Doc Rivers as head coach — and the Pierce acquisition is a dream Rivers has had ever since the two were separated from each other in Boston. For Pierce, he gets to go home on his terms in the pursuit of championship, an incredibly rare feat in professional sports today. The Smith signing, at the minimum no less, was just icing on an already frosted cake considering what the Clippers had last season. Instead of relying on small-ball lineups featuring Hedo Turkoglu and Glen Davis, Los Angeles can now trot out Stephenson, Smith and Pierce to support its big three of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and Jordan.
It’s the best roster Rivers has had in Los Angeles, and it could be the best in Clippers history.
And it’s only part of the reason why the Hollywood spotlight has never been brighter.
Paul, who will be 31 when next postseason begins, doesn’t have time on his side. With a playoff reputation that’s going to be hard — if not impossible — to reverse anything short of winning it all, CP3 may never have a better shot than he has with these men. If he’s not able to lead this group of talent to the promised land as the best point guard in basketball, one would have to wonder how long he’ll wear that crown with universal power.
Griffin, who like Paul is just under contract through the 2016-17 season before an option of his choosing, has given no long-term assurances to the team that’s rebuilt a large part of its value through his personal ascension. After the dust from the Jordan free-agent fiasco had finally settled in both Dallas and LA, ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne and Tim MacMahon detailed the entire saga. Jordan, before initially committing to Dallas, had asked Griffin what his future looked like with the Clippers:
Griffin remembers the conversation slightly differently: It was more that he had to accept Jordan’s decision and he understood why Jordan would want to leave and grow into a bigger role. Earlier that week, Jordan had asked Griffin if he would stay in L.A. when he had the option of becoming a free agent in two years. Griffin told him to make his own choice. He would be happy for him either way because that’s what friends do for each other.
It’s an exercise in something foolish to attempt to project that paragraph as an indication of Griffin’s future because so much can change between now and then, but Jordan, who clearly wanted to feel wanted during his recruitment process, probably didn’t love that politically correct stance from Griffin — even if it was the right response. Your friends should want what’s best for you and not what’s going to benefit their own well-being. Imagine that — putting friendship over business. What a concept.
Now that the two are back together again, along with Paul, and whatever beef or non-beef has been settled, there isn’t much time for these guys with a ton of new parts to jell. Integrating Stephenson is no easy task as Charlotte learned last season, and while Pierce was brought in to help provide stability both on and off the floor, the Clippers will be relying on a lot of things to go right in order for things to work — and work quickly — even if they may have one key unhappy camper.
Rivers, long billed as an elite coach especially for his ability to connect with his players, enters a season where he doesn’t have an excuse if things go wrong (outside of major injuries). This is the same guy who built the roster since Rivers plays decision-maker within the Clippers’ front office, and he has to be hoping that Doc the GM hasn’t created a headache for Doc the coach with an explosive roster, both in terms of talent and personalities.
There are a lot of individual agendas in the mix and a Western Conference that’s only gotten tougher. The San Antonio Spurs came away as monster winners with Tim Duncan’s return, LaMarcus Aldridge’s arrival, the re-signing of Kawhi Leonard to usher in the new era and the bargain of the offseason in David West. The Houston Rockets rolled the dice on Ty Lawson’s future, and that could be a move that potentially shifts the landscape of the league. Kevin Durant (foot) should be back for the Oklahoma City Thunder and Anthony Davis’s New Orleans Pelicans are climbing. The Memphis Grizzlies kept their core intact with the Marc Gasol signing while adding versatile big man Brandan Wright, and we haven’t even mentioned those golden boys that won it all — those splashy Golden State Warriors.
It’s a crowded playoff picture before the games even start. And it’s not getting any easier.
Anything short of a title will be viewed as a disappointment, a near-impossible standard to live up to, especially for a franchise that doesn’t have a history of winning.
Hear that sound? It’s the Clippers’ window starting to close before it ever even opened.
Welcome to the new NBA.