In the NBA, title windows aren’t forever ajar.
As Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Kevin Durant emerge as arguably the frontrunners for this season’s Most Valuable Player Award, in earnest, the NBA world has been reminiscing back to a more pleasant time. In the not so distant past, the Oklahoma City Thunder featured the three rising superstars (as well as Reggie Jackson and Serge Ibaka).
When it’s all said and done, don’t be surprised if 15 years from now, that Thunder team is looked upon as the finest example of not assuming that success awaits around the corner.
The second finest example, unfortunately, just might be the Los Angeles Clippers.
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Chris Paul’s arrival to the Clippers in December of 2011 was one of the most important trades in franchise history. Now, after five years, it’s obvious that it was probably the most successful. When Doc Rivers joined the team about 18 months later, with the emergence of both Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, it seemed that the club had everything it needed to become a true contender. And they did exactly that.
What makes pro basketball unique from all other professional sports is the degree to which position specialization doesn’t limit an individual’s ability to impact a game. In other words, in hockey, having the best goalie will only take a team so far; his offense must produce in order for him to win. In baseball, having a hitter who blasts a home run every other at bat is only a guarantee to get a few runs scored. If there isn’t any pitching to back him up, he will lose. In football, it’s the same exact principle: a 500-yard game by Tom Brady will only carry the team so far, because Tom Brady doesn’t play defense.
In that regard, basketball is unique. One man is capable of dominating a game in a way that others in other sports are incapable. So when history looks back at Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, John Stockton and Patrick Ewing and wonder why they weren’t able to lead their teams to titles, the answer can be summed up easily: Michael Jordan. When we wonder the same about Allen Iverson, Vince Carter, Reggie Miller and Tracy McGrady, just point to Kobe Bryant. And years from now, if Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George and Russell Westbrook happen to join that list of great players that were never able to win, the same story would be told.
So as the championship window for the Clippers appears to be closing before our very eyes, blame not Doc Rivers. Blame Kobe Bryant. Blame Tim Duncan. And yes, blame Stephen Curry.
But more than anything else, blame attrition, because the Clippers had their opportunity, and unfortunately, they squandered it. And you know what they say about opportunities: often, they come just once in a lifetime.
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As Chris Paul addressed the media for the final time—after his team had squandered a 3-1 series lead to the Houston Rockets—he probably wondered how he got here. From converting a series-clinching shot in Game 7 to topple the mighty Spurs, to licking his wounds after his team had come up on the short end of this Game 7, he admitted that he no longer knew what the term “close” meant.
Had the Clippers managed to close out those pesky Rockets, they would have punched their ticket to the Western Conference Finals and had a date with the Golden State Warriors. In all likelihood, the winner of that series would have won the NBA Finals, and that’s exactly how it played out—all while the Clippers were watching at home.
Since then, that has been their quiet motivation.
From afar, it appears that the Clippers have the requisites of becoming a champion—superstar talent, tons of experience, the pain of heartbreak, good head coaching and solid leadership. The one thing they don’t seem to possess any longer, however, is young legs. As he closes in on 32 years old, Paul is no longer a spring chicken and the freak injuries and limiting ailments that appear to be hampering him are no coincidence. He’s used up a lot of the tread on his tires.
Blake Griffin, on the other hand, hasn’t played in as many as 70 regular season games since the 2013-14 season. And without both he and Paul playing at a high level, the Clippers probably won’t have a realistic shot of being a top three team in the Western Conference, not so long as Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard and James Harden have anything to say about it.
With Paul, Griffin and J.J. Redick all likely to become unrestricted free agents this summer, Rivers has vowed to open Steve Ballmer’s checkbook to keep his team intact. He knows that without Paul and Griffin, the Clippers have virtually no shot of winning the Western Conference. But Doc is smart, he probably also knows that this team has already squandered what was its best opportunity to win a championship.
So, as the Clippers spend the next several weeks trying to stay afloat without the injured Paul, whether or not Doc ultimately re-signs Paul, Griffin and Redick this summer, understand that this team has probably already piqued. And without something substantial happening for these Clippers, their championship window will likely continue to shrink.
Unfortunately, that’s just how it is in the NBA. Opportunities come around but so often, and when they do, you’ve gotta grab it and hold it tightly.
Now, in hindsight, the 2012 Oklahoma City Thunder appreciate that quite well. And as Doc Rivers and his Clippers team face yet another season whose promise and potential appears to have been undercut by injuries—and as the core of the team continues to age—they now know that, as well.
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As he took a power dribble toward the rim, his New York Knicks carrying a two-point lead, Carmelo Anthony mustered all of the strength in his legs, but didn’t have much lift. With Roy Hibbert between him and a potential trip to the Eastern Conference Finals to battle LeBron James and the Miami HEAT, Hibbert threw Anthony’s dunk back in his face and helped to spark a spirited rally that saw the third-seeded Pacers pull off the upset over Anthony and his second-seeded Knicks. Ousted in six games, Anthony’s Knicks haven’t returned to the playoffs since.
It’s safe to say that he also knows a thing or two about missed opportunity.
As the Knicks continue on during a season that began with much promise, the questions about Anthony’s future in New York are becoming more and more plentiful. Wielding a no-trade clause, Anthony has the power to determine if, when and where he decides to pursue greener pastures.
For more reasons than one, the Clippers would make a lot of sense.
With none of them strangers to disappointment, at this point in time, Doc Rivers, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Carmelo Anthony—they all need each other.
They need each other the same way they each desperately need another opportunity to exorcise the demons that have haunted them.
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In the NBA, without question, opportunity knocks only so often. And when it does, you have to be ready. Truth is, you never know if, or even when it’ll knock again.
Just like the 2012 Thunder, the Clippers are learning that the hard way.
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