Six games, 10 days and 5,160 miles.
Three wins and three losses.
For the gross majority of NBA teams, going 3-3 on a six-game road trip would be considered a rather decent showing. But for the Los Angeles Clippers, there’s a different standard.
Most believe that the Clippers are whiners and babies. To a man, the club has never met an adverse officiating decision it liked, and to many, they are nothing more than a gang of underachievers that don’t have what it takes to come out on top.
To first ballot Hall-of-Famer Paul Pierce, though, they’re something much more—they’re diamonds in the rough. And he feels that way despite the fact that many consider them to be the most hated squad in the NBA.
In what he has declared to be the final season of his career, Paul Pierce sat down with Basketball Insiders to discuss the Clippers, their trajectory and his belief in Doc Rivers, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and the rest of the team.
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“I think the world was reminded that the regular season is what it is,” Pierce told Basketball Insiders when asked about the team’s recent three-game losing streak.
“You can win a lot of games, but it really don’t mean a lot,” he said. “As you saw last year, Golden State won 73 games but didn’t come away with the ultimate prize. So we want to be good—we want to be great—in the regular season, but we know we want to be our best in the playoffs.”
That the franchise can take a playoff berth for granted says a lot about how far they have come. Long the laughingstock of the NBA, the Clippers seemed to turn a major corner when the franchise won the 2009 draft lottery and the right to select Blake Griffin. Since then, with the progression of DeAndre Jordan, the acquisition of Chris Paul and the hiring of Doc Rivers, they have steadily rounded into a perennial contender. It made Pierce’s decision to spend the final chapter of his career in Los Angeles all the easier.
“I thought they had championship potential when I looked at the pieces,” Pierce told Basketball Insiders when asked about his decision to join the Clippers prior to the 2015-16 season. “There’s no better way to end your career than winning a championship, not only winning a championship, but doing it in a place where I grew up [near Inglewood].”
What’s interesting about Pierce is his declaring that the pieces on the Clippers are what convinced him that they had championship potential. There’s no denying that, on paper, it appears that Doc Rivers’ team has everything it needs. We have learned a long time ago, though, that there is something intangible that truly makes a champion.
One wouldn’t have to search too far to find a team that appeared to have everything it needed on paper, only to fall short. For that reason, both Rivers and Pierce—who won a championship together in Boston in 2008—preach “process” to the rest of the unit.
“You just can’t get bored with the process throughout the year,” Pierce said. “Everybody understands that it’s a long season and sometimes, you got those days when you’re tired, you don’t want to practice, or you get bored. You don’t want to get bored with the process. [You have to] understand it’s a journey to get where you want to be.”
For the Clippers, the future is anything but certain. Chris Paul will turn 32 years old before the season ends and both he and Blake Griffin are likely to become unrestricted free agents this coming summer. With each of their past two seasons ending in heartbreaking fashion, nobody knows for certain what’s ahead.
During the 2015 playoffs, the Clippers famously squandered a 3-1 series lead against the Houston Rockets in the second round and last year, injuries to both Paul and Griffin undercut a season that seemed to have so much promise. Now, the team is eager to get back to the postseason to have an opportunity to exorcise those demons. But if there is one thing that Rivers and Pierce preach to their team, it’s that there are no shortcuts.
“A lot of guys wish they could just fast forward to the playoffs and start the playoffs, but there’s a process in getting there,” Pierce said. “There’s no instant gratification when you go through a season like this, so you can’t just fast forward.
“We got to continue to build and grow throughout the season. You got to understand there’s gonna be heartaches and good times. How we respond to the bad times throughout the course of the season is gonna tell what kind of character this team is gonna build up for the playoffs.”
All things considered, it’s easy to see the wisdom in Pierce’s words. Entering play on December 4, the Clippers are 16-5 and have the third-best record in the entire league. The team’s first six-game road trip, though, caused quite a stir. Before heading out for Dallas back on November 23, the Clippers left Los Angeles at 13-2, which was good for the best record in the league. While most onlookers expected the Clippers to be good, it was their dominance that caught most off guard. They were one of the top two teams in the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency and had one of the highest average point-differentials in the entire league.
Then, with three straight losses to the Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers and Brooklyn Nets, it all seemed to come crashing down. Immediately, we began hearing stories about their demise, about their immaturity and about the team’s propensity to complain – the latter being highlighted by Rivers’ being ejected from the team’s November 29 loss at the Nets.
Through it all, though, the Clippers continue to quietly chug along. And Pierce is enjoying the ride.
“We definitely have a lot of the characteristics of a championship team,” he said.
He is someone who would know.
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Having lost to the Nets just two nights prior, the Clippers paid a visit to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers on December 1 in what was supposed to be a meeting of the Eastern and Western Conference leaders. By virtue of their three-game skid, though, by this time, the Clippers had yielded the top spot in the conference to the Golden State Warriors—a team they will likely be jousting with all season long.
As the two teams prepare to meet for the first time on December 7, the Clippers would certainly like to come away from that game with a win. The Warriors, after all, are the heavy favorites to win the conference for the third consecutive year.
However, what this team does know, especially Pierce, is that what transpires during the course of the regular season is just background noise. Truth be told, most winning teams consider the regular season to be a seven-month long preseason that’s intended to prepare them for the playoffs.
One day at a time, one game at a time. That always has been and always will be the mantra of Doc Rivers, and as Pierce prepares to ride off into the sunset, he has learned to appreciate each of them.
During our conversation, Pierce mentioned that, aside from having the opportunity to sit back and watch the Clippers continue to grow, the other thing he was looking forward to was his team’s only visit to Boston this season. In all likelihood, on February 5, Pierce will play his final game in Boston’s TD Garden.
Pierce knows what it takes to win in the NBA, and if he believes that the Clippers have what they need to become a champion, it’s wise to believe him.
As he follows Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett and rides off into the sunset, he believes the Clippers have a legitimate shot of hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy at the end of the season.
He’s Paul Pierce—the Truth. And hopefully for the Clippers, in declaring them ready to be champions, he can deliver it one more time.
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