A Swan Song for the League’s Ugly Duckling
Remembering the 2011-12 L.A. Clippers.
by Marcus Arman
Three days removed from a series ending Game 4 loss to the San Antonio Spurs, the Los Angeles Clippers franchise (and fans) find themselves in an unfamiliar position. Though now an afterthought to most fans and analysts—who have no choice but to quickly turn attentions to the next round of match-ups—the Clippers are far from through thinking of the 2011-12 postseason. But should they be sad it’s over or merely glad that it happened? After all, this is a franchise boasting a whopping total of four winning seasons since moving to Los Angeles 28 years ago. The same franchise that has made the postseason only five times in that span while never getting within two rounds of playing for the O’Brien trophy.
But this season changed everything—kind of. With the arrival of Chris Paul, L.A.’s little brother became Lob City. A Playoff birth seemed more an expectation than an almost-shocking surprise. More so, the Clippers were finally relevant! Once a league laughingstock, they transformed into a national piece of interest and primetime ticket. At times, they showed glimpses of brilliance. Other times, they made you forget all about their pre-to-mid season hype. And on Sunday, it all came to a blistering end as the San Antonio Spurs scorched the freshly assembled Clipshow four games to zero.
Let’s start with the best. The Clippers made the playoffs. Not only that, the Clippers advanced to the second round of the Playoffs for the first time since 2005 – 06 and only the second time since their arrival to Los Angeles in 1984. Ticket sales are up. It’s perfectly common to see a “32” or “3” jersey alongside the familiar gold “24.” Their nucleus—Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan—is young, gifted and exciting. And their supporting cast of Caron Butler, Nick Young, Reggie Evans, Randy Foye, Eric Bledsoe, Mo Williams and Kenyon Martin can compete with the best benches in the league on any given night. Their coach is learning—albeit at what some would suggest is a rather slow pace. And there’s a general feeling of optimism engulfing the Clippers community in ways not seen since Danny Manning was thought to be the Savior.
Any of this is extremely unlikely without the preseason acquisition of Paul. But to take it a step further back, any and all of this—including said acquisition of Paul—is impossible without Griffin’s arrival, performance and promise for the future. If successful in coming years, fans will acknowledge the Clippers in terms of periods BB and AB; that is, Before Blake and After Blake. As the mightiest pen holder in the rewritings of Clipper folklore, Griffin summed up his game following their Game 4 defeat by saying, “I got a lot of work to do this summer.”
Which brings us to the worst of times. The Clippers were swept out of the postseason in the West Conference semi-finals. This followed a first round in which they struggled but ultimately rallied to victory in seven games over the Memphis Grizzlies. It’s not the fact that they lost to the 18-game streaking Spurs, but how they lost. This series was a four game lesson in fundamentals for a team drenched in flash. In three of the four games, the Clippers allowed the Spurs 100+ PPG. Just as bad, they only surpassed 90 PPG in two of the games, compared to a regular season average of 97.5 PPG.
Individually, the tale of the tape is even more disheartening. With the exception of the final game, Tony Parker outplayed Paul on both sides of the court. Griffin’s defensive inconsistency was again on display with a series high of 16 rebounds and a low of one. And Jordan looked cement-footed guarding Tim Duncan around the basket. But if you sat through any or each of the four games, stats or not, one thing was clear: the Clippers were in way over their heads.
The most telling moment of the series came before the start of the second half in game three as Parker and Greg Poppovich shared a laugh next to a cool, calm and collected Timmy D. The smirk seen around the NBA made ESPN highlight reels and clogged Twitter-feeds well into Monday morning since, at the time, the Spurs were still battling to overcome a 24-point deficit. It’s this sense of comfort that sets teams like Spurs apart from the Clippers. At times, their exciting play comes off across as overcompensation for the Championship basics they lack: night-in, night-out defense, reliable shooting and strong vocal and by-example leadership. They may be headed in the right direction for the first time in franchise history, but make no mistakes about it, the Clippers are still far from a championship team.
However, that’s not to say this season deserves to be written off. On the contrary, this is meant to remind you to sit back, relax and bask in the fact that we are witnessing a beautiful transformation of the league’s ugly duckling. You probably won’t read or hear another peep about Lob City from analysts, bloggers and social media chatterboxes until next October. Though a huge discredit to this team’s strides towards total franchise image repair, the Clippers surely aren’t fazed by this. The only thing left o do – as their star forward emphasized in the postgame press conference—is to work on a lot of things.
And who knows what the future holds? Maybe, just maybe, a red and white banner will soon decorate Staples Center rafters amid the current tyranny of purple and gold pennants.