Lob City is dead. Long live Lob City.
On December 14, 2011, the Los Angeles Clippers traded for Chris Paul, the preeminent point guard of this – or any – generation. He was paired with Blake Griffin, a burgeoning superstar fresh off of jumping over a 2011 Kia Optima, and DeAndre Jordan, a springy seven-foot granite mass, and they seemed primed to transform the NBA’s saddest sack into a Death Star of winning, dunks and rollicking good times.
And they almost did.
For the next five seasons, the Clippers proceeded to win at least sixty percent of their games, their offensive rating never fell below eighth in the league and, for the first time in franchise history, they mattered. Despite their obvious talent, the Clippers never advanced past the second round of the playoffs, but that was mostly irrelevant: not only did this Charlie Brown miraculously manage to kick the football, he went to the blacktop and dunked all over Lucy’s smug, stupid face.
On April 29, 2016, the Clippers were eliminated from the NBA Playoffs, undone by fractured metacarpals and the Rivers Family Dynasty. For the first time in a half decade, they are rife with uncertainty, confronted with the fact that their current roster is just not good enough to topple the Ultralight Beam in Oakland.
And they know it. Last fall in an interview with Grantland, Doc Rivers admitted that this was potentially the last season of the Clippers of recent vintage: “We’re right on the borderline. I have no problem saying that. I’m a believer that teams can get stale. After a while, you don’t win. It just doesn’t work…We just have to accept it.”
While the Los Angeles Clippers may elect to keep their core together for one final second-round exit, they’ve probably alley-ed their final oop, so join me, won’t you, in saying goodbye to the NBA’s most fascinating team.
Sports – moreover, our consumption of them – have become increasingly polarized. The narratives are clean and reductive. The takes are scalding hot and the complexity is smoothed down into easily digestible bites of simplicity. Skip Bayless just became Scrooge-McDuck-rich while Grantland was shuttered last year. We conceive of players and teams in absolutes, often ignoring nuance or tact. And this is precisely why the Clippers were so intriguing: they flew in the face of these artificial labels rather than slavishly adhering to them; they were more interested in defining themselves than letting themselves be defined. First, they were the ascendant heroes too miserable to fully love. Next, they were the villains too fun to hate.
On their best days, the Clippers were perhaps the sole team that could equal, and maybe even surpass, the Warriors’ weightless joy, a whir of carefully choreographed set plays (J.J. Redick’s off-the-ball movements are nothing if not deliberate) and beautiful spontaneity (Jamal Crawford plays basketball with the chutzpah and panache of a rodeo clown). But then, as if to issue a reminder to the world that they were no cyborgs, they’d suddenly morph into a Venice Beach edition of the Sacramento Kings: a muck of leaden-footed industrial stagnancy and technical fouls (they led the league with 84) as Chris Paul berated everyone and everything within berating distance and Doc Rivers shouted himself hoarser.
They were as flawed as they were talented, equally capable of conquering the San Antonio Spurs in a seven-game series and choking away a 3-1 lead to the inimical fart joke known as the Houston Rockets. Even the two defining moments of a Clippers’ game, a perfectly calibrated fast break and the inevitable Hack-a-Jordan sloggery, existed at opposite sides of the excitement spectrum.
Retrograde and avant-garde, the Clippers straddled the two sides of the NBA’s technological revolution. While over the past five years the rest of the NBA has downsized, favoring shooting and quickness over sheer girth, the Clippers have regularly trotted out a starting lineup that features DeAndre Jordan, whose shooting range is best measured in decimeters, Blake Griffin, a big man who neither spaces the floor nor protects the rim, and Luc Mbah a Moute, who is very bad and not good. Despite their outdated starting frontcourt and Doc Rivers’ proclivity to sign the desiccated husks of the mid-Aughts Eastern Conference All-Star teams (Danny Granger, Antawn Jamison, Hedo Turkoglu, Paul Pierce this year), the Clippers have recently become one of the more innovative franchises in the NBA. Owned by Steve Ballmer, a fairly successful and highly combustible computer man, the Clips have beefed up their investment in advanced stats, recently hiring a new director of analytics, purchasing software to collect and analyze data and implementing a new schedule founded upon research on the importance of sleep in NBA players.
Most of all, though, the Lob City Clippers were human, worthy of both our contempt – once again, Blake Griffin broke his hand on another man’s friggin’ face – and our sympathy (would somebody please give Austin Rivers a hug?). They were the best team in franchise history and they were a bitter disappointment. They were lovable and loathsome. So go hurtle a Kia or hit Kevin Durant in the groin or get your boss fired for being a shameless racist. Honor Lob City however you see fit. Just don’t forget them.