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Few Teams Have Done Less With More Than The Clippers

Although it didn’t exactly come as a shock to NBA observers, both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin of the Los Angeles Clippers opted out of their contracts last week, creating the real possibility that LA’s recent run of relevance is coming to an end. And if the end is near for “Lob City, it would mean one of the sports franchises most associated with failure somehow managed to fail even when it was winning games. Few NBA teams have ever accomplished so little with so much talent.

With 313 wins since Paul joined the team for the 2011-12 season, the Clippers own the league’s third-best record over that span. They’re coming off what is unquestionably the best six-year period in franchise history. Paul is a bona fide Point God, and with Griffin and center DeAndre Jordan, he gave LA a Big 3 that could theoretically go toe-to-toe with the league’s other star-powered trios. In terms of personal honors, Paul has few statistical peers in history among point guards, while Griffin and Jordan made seven combined All-NBA teams. By numerous team and individual standards, the partnership has been a rousing success.

But when dissecting this Clippers squad, there’s always the unfortunate matter of the playoffs to address. Because despite all those victories and accolades, LA has won only three measly playoff series in its Big 3 era and never advanced past the conference semifinals — a truly weak performance for a team with so much regular-season success.

We can measure just how disappointing the Clippers have been with a system called “playoff success points,” which I’ve used before to judge a team’s performance in the NBA1 postseason. Teams rack up points for winning series and advancing further into the playoffs. A championship is always worth 1,000 points; losing in the Finals, 500; losing in the conference finals, 250; and so forth.2 Since 2012, the Clippers have accumulated only 562.5 playoff success points, less than half as many as we’d expect based on their regular-season record:

Going back to the 1976 NBA-ABA merger, no other team has won at least 320 regular-season games3 in a six-year span and accumulated anywhere near as few playoff success points as the 2012-17 LA Clippers did. (The next-closest were the David Robinson-led 1990-95 San Antonio Spurs, another team known for falling short on the cusp of greatness.)

And LA’s star power makes its shortfall even harder to understand. In the CP3-Blake-DeAndre era, the Clippers have been home to 17 individual seasons where a player logged at least 20 percent of available minutes and posted a Box Plus/Minus (BPM) of +3 or better (those cutoffs roughly give you a star-level season): Six by Paul, six by Griffin, four by Jordan and one by Matt Barnes.4 Only 17 times since the merger has a franchise boasted so many star-level seasons in a six-year span, and they usually come from dynastic teams (Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls; Tim Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs) or would-be dynasties like the Stockton-to-Malone Utah Jazz and the Philadelphia 76ers of the early 1980s. Once again, the Big 3-era Clippers have enjoyed the least amount of postseason success of any team in that group:

The Clippers have the stars, but not the rings

Most playoff success points over a six-year span for teams with at least 17 individual player seasons with +3 Box Plus/Minus (BPM) or higher, 1977-2017

SIX-YEAR TOTALS
YEARS TEAM WINS* +3 BPM SEASONS PLAYOFF SUCCESS PTS.
1991-96 Bulls 359 17 4250.0
1992-97 Bulls 367 18 4250.0
1993-98 Bulls 362 17 4250.0
1980-85 76ers 354 18 2562.5
2004-09 Spurs 347 17 2562.5
1981-86 76ers 349 17 2187.5
2012-17 Spurs 365 23 2187.5
2009-14 Spurs 347 19 2000.0
2010-15 Spurs 348 20 2000.0
2011-16 Spurs 365 22 2000.0
1994-99 Jazz 355 18 1687.5
1995-2000 Jazz 357 19 1562.5
1996-2001 Jazz 350 19 1562.5
1997-2002 Jazz 339 19 1375.0
1993-98 SuperSonics 357 17 1125.0
1998-2003 Jazz 322 17 937.5
2012-17 Clippers 323 17 562.5

*Wins in shortened seasons are pro-rated to 82 games. Box Plus/Minus (BPM) is an estimate of a player’s net points added per 100 possessions.

Source: BASKETBALL-REFERENCE.COM

None of this is to say that the Clippers’ core should be blown up; after all, players of Paul and Griffin’s caliber don’t grow on trees. Nor do the duo’s opt-outs necessarily mean either (or both) won’t be back in LA next season anyway. The Clippers can still pay each substantially more money than either could get elsewhere, should LA choose to offer them max deals. Griffin and Jordan will still be under 30 next year, and CP3 is coming off his best statistical season as a Clipper (when he was healthy).

So the tank is hardly empty in LA. But with fabled exec Jerry West leaving the champion Golden State Warriors to join the Clippers as a front-office consultant, a Big 3 breakup wouldn’t come as a total surprise, either. And if that does happen, the Clippers and their fans can only look back at the last six seasons with regret over what might have been.

Footnotes

  1. And NHL!

  2. The value of making the playoffs to begin with is in proportion to how many teams are in the league, and how many of them qualify for the playoffs.

  3. Pro-rating shortened seasons — such as 2011-12 — up to 82 games.

  4. I’m as surprised as anyone — but check out his 2012-13 numbers!

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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