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NBA Sunday: Finally Time For The Clippers?

Will 2015-16 finally be the year for the Clippers? Or will Chris Paul continue to fall short?

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His solid grey crew neck sweater appeared to be choking the life out of him. His eyes appeared to glisten as brightly as the gold chains dangling from his neck.

And to everyone who had their eyes on Chris Paul, the most appropriate word to describe both he and his Los Angeles Clippers was “stunned.”

For just the ninth time in NBA history, a team had successfully dug themselves out of a 3-1 playoff series deficit to come back and win it, and this time, the Clippers just so happened to be on the wrong end. In these trying times and in these moments, a basketball team either finds itself or falls victim to its own mental weakness.

“So close? I don’t even know what that means anymore,” Paul said in the aftermath of the Game 7 loss back on May 17.

“If you’re not first, you’re last,” he said. “Being close ain’t good enough.”

And as he sat there, stunned, detached and seemingly with no answers and even less words, Paul publicly admitted what I had already known was one of the motivating factors for him through all of last season.

“I’m getting old, too, to tell you the truth,” Paul said.

During the first round battle with the San Antonio Spurs, Paul admitted to being nervous to the point where he had trouble sleeping. Yes, Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich kept him awake at night, but James Harden and Dwight Howard have been giving him nightmares.

One year from now, I wonder what we will be saying.

* * * * *

Although not to the extent of either Kobe Bryant or Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul has emerged as one of the more polarizing figures in the National Basketball Association. There are those, like me, that believe that Paul is one of the most talented point guards in the game’s history. I have made the argument that if Paul had found himself playing with a player the caliber of an in-prime Kevin Garnett or even the aforementioned Anthony, he may have already won a championship or two. That class of Paul supporter–of which I am one–would tell you that Paul’s talent and drive, even without hardware, is enough to give him a unique place in basketball history.

Others, however, feel differently. There is a healthy and growing segment of the population that look at Paul, the dearth of his success, and his failures and judge him in the same manner they judge the likes of Kevin Love.

How can you consider this man to be one of the greatest when you consider the lack of accolades and accomplishments on his personal résumé?

And the truth is, that is a magnificent question.

Heading into the 2015 NBA Playoffs, before Paul publicly admitted it, I wrote about him and his fears. Paul never has and never will play the game to get a participation trophy. Since he entered the league from Wake Forest University back in 2005, he has worked tirelessly not in pursuit of riches, flashing lights, branding opportunities or status. No, Paul has worked to elevate the likes of Morris Peterson, Bonzi Wells, David West, Emeka Okafor, Jamal Crawford, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and now, Josh Smith.

Still, whatever side of the Paul equation you are on, one thing we all agreed on was that he needed to find a way to defeat the Spurs. Thanks in part to the officials swallowing their whistles on the final possession of the Clippers’ thrilling Game 7 victory over the Spurs, Paul did just that.

But alas, the crashing and burning of his team’s title hopes after squandering a 3-1 series lead has not only opened a fresh wound, it has also given Paul and his detractors something more to think about as he begins yet another journey alongside the likes of Doc Rivers and what seems to be an ever-changing cast of running mates.

* * * * *

Doc Rivers sat at the podium. He was humbled. And as he shrugged his shoulders and searched for answers, he couldn’t hide his disappointment. As the first head coach to yield a 3-1 series lead on two different occasions, Doc felt that “it” was on him. And secretly, Doc knew that if DeAndre Jordan left the Clippers for Dallas, that there was no way his team would ever recover. Rivers felt that they were on the brink of breaking through, which is why, without hesitation, he immediately did all that he could do to reenlist the services of Jordan.

He swallowed his pride, broke unwritten rules and has become the ire of quite a few around the NBA, but like Paul, Doc’s only concern is leading this Clipper team to the promised land. As much as wanting to prove to the world that his leading the Boston Celtics to the 2008 NBA Championship wasn’t the result of him being handed a ready-made team, Rivers wants to prove himself to reward the loyalty of Paul. After all, it was Paul who led the charge against Vinny Del Negro and advocated for the hiring of Rivers.

Now, here they stand, side-by-side, fighting for each other. The only question they now must face is whether or not it will all ultimately go down as being in vain.

“I thought this series was over in Game 5,” Rivers said back on May 17. “I thought [the Rockets] were ready to go home if we supplied the pressure and we didn’t,” he admitted.

“Obviously, what happened in Game 6, I’ll think about for a long time, and so will our players.”

Indeed, the memories of that playoff series will stay with the Clippers the same way that the memories of Ray Allen’s fateful three-pointer in the waning seconds of Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals will always stick with Gregg Popovich. The memories will stick the same way that Kawhi Leonard thinks about the free-throw that he missed that would have made all of the difference in the game.

And that’s the thing–memories never go away. Memories are never replaced. In the NBA, when you are haunted by a collapse or a shortcoming, it never stops hurting. The most you can hope for is somewhat alleviating the pain by avenging the shortcoming and exorcising the demons.

Indeed, coming up short in a huge moment is when an NBA player and coach are at their lowest moment. The best one can do is hope to have an opportunity for vengeance. And of all things, retribution feels best. This powerful image taken immediately after the Spurs defeated the HEAT in Game 5 of the 2014 NBA Finals says it all.

So as the 2015-16 season sets to tip off, you can rest assured that the Clippers, deep down inside, are hoping to have a shot at the Houston Rockets.

And next time–smarter, wiser, and much more talented–the Clippers should deliver a different result.

* * * * *

After a productive offseason that was highlighted by the re-signing of DeAndre Jordan, the additions of Paul Pierce, Lance Stephenson, Josh Smith and Pablo Prigioni have easily made the 2015-16 version of the Clippers the most talented team the franchise has ever assembled. Pierce, a former NBA champion and a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer, still has plenty left in the tank. Over the course of last season’s playoffs, he would have certainly made a difference for the ball club, the same way he did for the Washington Wizards.

In Stephenson, Rivers has acquired a talented knucklehead who he will try to reach the same way he was able to reach the likes of Tony Allen and Rajon Rondo in Boston. Stephenson gives the Clippers a dynamic wing player who can create plays off the dribble and has a versatile scoring ability. And in Josh Smith, Rivers now has at his disposal one of the best front court defenders in the entire league. Though he has not done much for us lately, Smith is still regarded as a very talented two-way player and, with an astute offensive IQ, exquisite timing and explosive athleticism, he will fit right in with Paul.

Prigioni is a pesky and determined on-ball defender who takes excellent care of the basketball and has never met a pass that he does not like. At the very least, he will provide Rivers with an experienced hand to run his offense and someone who will excel at finding Stephenson, Jamal Crawford and J.J. Reddick off of curls and screens.

Back in May, when Paul sat on the podium and thought about all that went wrong, he probably wondered whether and at what point Rivers would begin to believe that his team had plateaued. Deep down inside, he was probably concerned that Jordan would take his talents elsewhere and that his Clippers–at least in their current iteration–had just had their last dance.

Yet, less than six months later, the Clippers are restocked and reloaded. Paul, still in search of his basketball immorality has the best opportunity of his career to fulfill what many of us feel is his destiny. And from here, what we will witness, is the Clippers either taking a brick-by-brick approach and rising up to eventually emerge as champions, or Paul eventually going down in history as the second coming of Patrick Ewing. Of all superstars to never lead his team to a championship, it is Ewing who is afforded the least amount of respect.

One day, Paul may join that conversation, but for now, the fight continues.

And as I look back to May 17, the day he admitted to the world that his time is running out, Paul knows that there is still sand left in the hourglass.

Come the end of the 2015-16 season, together, he and Rivers hope that sweet retribution will have been theirs.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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