Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 17, 2020

Another Year, Another Clippers Collapse

Here in New England there is abrupt and deep concern among fans of the Boston Celtics. When the local heroes finally dispatched the defending champion Toronto Raptors at the end of last week, more than a few of the C’s faithful allowed themselves to think that the hardest part of the road to the NBA Finals had been traveled. For instead of overall top seed Milwaukee waiting to oppose Boston in the Eastern Conference’s last round, the opponent for the Conference Finals was Miami, thanks to the Heat’s shocking five-game rout of the Bucks. But the Heat rallied to an overtime victory in Game 1 Tuesday night, and rallied again on Thursday to take Game 2. Suddenly no Celtics fan is taking anything for granted. Still, whatever happens, Boston fans should remember that the lesson of the old folk tale still applies – it could always be worse. They could be fans of the Los Angeles Clippers.

Born as the Buffalo Braves in 1970, the Clippers celebrated a half century of existence this season. From bitter winter snows blowing off Lake Erie, the franchise decamped to the sun and surf of San Diego in 1978, acquiring a new name along the way, before finally traveling up I-5 to L.A. six years later, a move made without NBA approval by renegade owner Donald Sterling. Three decades after relocating his franchise, Sterling himself was moved out by the league, banned for life and forced to sell the Clippers after his long history of racist language and actions finally spilled into the public domain. Enter longtime Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, an avid fan who brought deep pockets and an absence of controversy to the team’s front office.

Through three home cities, five owners, and an eye-popping twenty-five head coaches, the one constant for the Clippers has been mediocrity. Even after the recent success of nine consecutive winning seasons, the franchise’s winning percentage since its founding is an anemic .406, which translates to a 32-50 finish over a normal 82-game NBA schedule. The Clippers current run has included postseason play in eight of those nine seasons, which more than doubled the total number of playoff appearances by the team in its first forty-one years of existence. After winning a first round series at the end of the 1975-76 season, the Clippers didn’t notch another postseason series win for thirty years, although in fairness there weren’t very many opportunities to do so during that span. The true measure of the Clippers futility is not the absence of a title after a half century of play, but the sorry fact that L.A. has never even made it to the Conference Finals.

That was all supposed to change this season, though it’s not as if Clippers fans had never heard that before. But this team truly appeared to be different. The days in which L.A. was the butt of jokes from fans of other teams were in the past. Under head coach Doc Rivers, who arrived from the Celtics in 2013, Los Angeles had established itself as a consistent winner, at least during the regular season. There have even been years during Rivers’ tenure in which the Clippers threatened to become the most popular team at the Staples Center, displacing the mighty Lakers. The remaking of the roster prior to the current campaign, with the additions of 2019 Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and six-time All-Star Paul George, led the franchise’s long-suffering boosters to replace the eternal emotion of hope with the far more dangerous sense of expectation. This year, the Clippers were supposed to deliver.

It was not official until the final horn sounded, but surely sometime well before that during Tuesday’s Game 7 of the Western Conference Semifinals between the Clippers and the Denver Nuggets, the awful moment when expectations turn to ash must have arrived for most L.A. fans. Perhaps it was at halftime, when a late 16-6 run by the Nuggets had cut a twelve-point Clippers lead down to just two. Maybe it was just over three minutes into the third quarter, when Denver’s Nikola Jokic grabbed another rebound and eventually fed Jerami Grant for a three-pointer from the corner that put the Nuggets on top for good. Or perhaps it was with still almost nine minutes remaining in the fourth, when Denver’s lead stretched to double digits, a rude precursor of the 111-89 final.

Few will admit it, for to do so would be an act of disloyalty, but among longtime fans the dawning sense of dread probably crept in even before the opening tip of Game 7. After all, the Clippers led the Nuggets three games to one in this series and needed just one more victory to advance and play for a conference crown and an inaugural appearance in the NBA Finals in this, the team’s fiftieth season. But L.A. wasted a sixteen-point lead in Game 5, and an even heftier nineteen-point advantage in Game 6. And those hardiest of fans were watching this year’s implosion with knowledge of their team’s history.

Four previous times in the last seven years – the years when the Clippers have finally been good – L.A. has led a playoff series, only to come up short. Sometimes it’s been only a one game margin, and in 2016 a 2-0 lead was undone by injuries. But two years earlier the Clippers had a seven-point lead and were just 49 seconds from defeating the Thunder in the Conference Semifinals, only to lose by a point. The following season a three games to one lead over Houston had been cut by one, but L.A. still led by nineteen in Game 6, only to lose the contest and eventually the series.

Now it has happened again, in the spectacularly ugly fashion that is typical of the Clippers. The franchise may have new stars, but still seems unable to escape its sorry history. A statistical analysis by the numbers mavens at FiveThirtyEight.com confirmed what one doesn’t really need a computer to know – by a wide margin the Clippers have underperformed in the postseason more than any other team in the NBA over the last decade. So much for great expectations.


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