The Los Angeles Clippers are accustomed to things not going their way, but that doesn’t make this most-recent era of futility any easier to explain. Sunday’s Game 7 loss to the Utah Jazz meant the Clippers had done what seemed impossible but felt all-too-familiar: coughed up a playoff series lead. It marked an unprecedented fifth straight postseason in which the Clippers had blown a series lead before bowing out. The club has been one of the NBA’s best for more than a half decade, winning 60 percent of its games each of the past six seasons. Yet, during that span, it has somehow failed to reach the Western finals even once.
There will surely be a lot of soul-searching in L.A. about whether something is rotten at the Clippers’ core. There’s a chance the early exit this time could bring about a seismic personnel shift for a team that has enjoyed more top-end continuity than any club since 2013.1
Whatever is to blame, though, has nothing to do with point guard Chris Paul.
Paul’s lackluster 13-point, nine-assist performance in Game 7 — one in which he shot a dismal 6-of-19 and went scoreless in the fourth quarter — was horrible timing, yes. Yet even after Sunday’s dud, Paul averaged 25 points, 10 assists and five rebounds a game for the series while shooting 50 percent overall and 37 percent from 3-point range. Those numbers are more or less in line with the career postseason averages for Paul, who owns the fifth-best Player Efficiency Rating in NBA postseason history.
Those gaudy postseason numbers are also in line with his career postseason averages and his regular-season averages. He’s this good all the time. If his greatness flies under the radar a bit, it’s likely because he excels in areas that aren’t as sexy or noticeable in today’s game. In a league that has fully embraced the 3-point shot, he was by far the NBA’s best midrange shooter this season. At a time when players are piling up assists while collecting a ton of turnovers, Paul has maintained a 4-to-1 assist to turnover ratio. And even though he plays a position where not much is expected defensively these days, his career steal percentage2 rivals that of John Stockton’s. Add all that together, and Paul is, somewhat shockingly, neck and neck statistically with Michael Jordan by some advanced metrics.
Yet, with Sunday’s loss, Paul has now gone an NBA-record 76 postseason games without making the conference finals. The Clippers, too, have made history: No other team has won at least 60 percent of its games in six straight seasons and failed to make the conference finals, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Paul’s critics will more than likely hold these past six postseasons against him, saying that even if he’s the key reason the Clippers have been successful for this long, he should get more blame than anyone for the team’s failure to get past the second round. And it’s certainly fair to wonder whether point-guard led clubs — especially ones led by more traditional floor generals — are generally at a disadvantage and whether that has hindered the Clippers to some extent. But this club has had plenty of other weak spots.
The Clippers have leaned heavily on a pair of players who, in some ways, have been highly unreliable during the team’s stretch as a contender. Center DeAndre Jordan is a solid rim protector and ever-present lob threat, but for years, teams forced coach Doc Rivers to pull him off the court because of his lousy foul shooting.3 Meanwhile, Jamal Crawford, who has won three Sixth Man of the Year awards and for years has served as a secondary ballhandler behind Paul, has one of the least efficient track records4 of any shooter in playoff history, a distinction that becomes even more problematic considering that he doesn’t defend or rebound very well.5
The Clippers’ personnel problems rest with Rivers, who doubles as the team’s president and coach. The Clippers have been far too top-heavy for years, and Rivers arguably made the problem even worse by committing so much long-term money to Crawford, who was 36 years old when the team agreed to a three-year, $42 million deal with him. Far worse: The club has routinely gotten virtually nothing from its cheapest talent; contenders usually rely on those less-expensive players because they’re often over the salary cap and therefore unable to bring in star players via free agency.
Consider the fact that since Rivers took over in 2013, the Clippers have garnered just 0.42 win shares per rookie acquired through the draft,6 the third-fewest in the NBA over that span, according to data pulled by Mackenzie Kraemer, a researcher with ESPN Stats & Information Group. In fact, the only draft pick that the Clippers have made since then who has produced more than 0.1 career win shares over that time is Reggie Bullock, a player they traded7 a year and a half into his career.8
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Then there are the picks that were given away like candy as the Clippers sought a starting-caliber wing player (one it still doesn’t really have). Rivers unloaded a first to get rid of Jared Dudley and then parted ways with another first-rounder when he sent Lance Stephenson packing9 for Jeff Green. All in all, the cycle of trades, particularly the mismanagement of them, left the Clippers without the assets necessary to trade for someone like Carmelo Anthony, who could’ve given them a spark as they began to prepare for the postseason.
But still, even with all the managerial misfires and mistakes, it’s hard to believe the Clippers never managed to make the conference finals. Some of that seemingly came down to bad luck, mostly in the form of injuries. Blake Griffin got hurt this series, and last season, both Griffin and Paul suffered injuries in the same playoff game10 that would sideline them the rest of the postseason. In other instances, the Clippers simply couldn’t slam the door shut. In 2014, they blew a 13-point lead with four minutes to play that would’ve given them a 3-2 series lead over Oklahoma City. And even more notably, the Clippers blew a 3-1 series lead against Houston in 2015.
Whatever the reasons, consider this: The probability that the Clippers would reach the conference finals at least once in the past six seasons, with as much regular-season success as they had, was 85 percent,11 according to FiveThirtyEight’s NBA win projection model.
The question now is whether it makes sense to bring back the majority of the team’s core — including Paul, Griffin and JJ Redick — given its failures. Some organizations might have the courage to say “no” and blow things up. But when you’re the Clippers, who’ve never won anything meaningful and have the talent to potentially contend if healthy, that’s a far tougher pill to swallow than holding onto the status quo and merely hoping for the best.