Chris Paul calls it winning time -- the closing frames of a tight game, every possession drawn out, each play stretched to its breaking point. It’s when Paul purposefully pounds the hardwood, drawing the defender onto his hip, slapping the lead hand away. He pivots his body, extends the off leg to buffer the ball from the guard, turns the foot outward to open his stance and flip the corner, pinning the would-be thief to his back while he skates into the lane for a layup before the rotation realizes what’s happened.
Winning time can also be slow time. For the Clippers, the shift in relativity from Games 4 to 5 of their second-round playoff series with the Oklahoma City Thunder to the eventual elimination of Game 6 would bend even the sturdiest of psyches. To lead only for 59 seconds of Game 4 and somehow divine a miraculous victory. To lead for 45 minutes and 59 seconds in Game 5 and crumble in a stunning defeat.
Before Game 6, Doc Rivers expressed how he assuaged the team’s exposed confidence.
“I wanted them to know how well we played. We played 44 pretty much flawless minutes, and I thought they needed to hear that,” Rivers said. “You know, we’ve had this thing; I talk about it in life, but I’ve talked about it with our team all year. And, especially with the stuff that’s happened, about not playing the victim role. And I said to them, ‘we’re not going to have that.’ And I just wanted that to be clear. That we’re either going to win it because we earned it or we’re going to lose because they beat us. But we’re not going to play the victim role.”
Curious but telling phrases popped up in Rivers’ lexicon this past season: “emotional hijacking,” “victim role.” Euphemisms with an emphasis on what can be controlled. And there’s a lot the Clippers can’t control.
They couldn’t control Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Thunder in crucial moments of back-to-back games. They couldn’t control whatever questionable officiating colored their playoff run. They certainly can’t control the erratic actions of a seemingly anosognosic owner.
The Clippers lacked agency in so many areas, but one they’re able to take possession of is the on-court shortcomings. How do they address those personnel failings though? What is the offseason edict for Los Angeles Clippers basketball?
It reads like a carbon copy of 2013 training camp needs. Concerns remain eerily similar to last July: an unsteady perimeter defense faltering over shallow frontcourt depth. For all the praise Doc Rivers the coach received on retrofitting his strong-side pressure defense and streamlining a stagnant offense, the results of Doc Rivers the senior VP are more convoluted. Sure, when a veteran buyout hits the market, Rivers has his pick of the litter. After all, Doc is offering the chance to play under his tutelage.
But the splashy move to usher in Rivers’ tenure bore middling fruit. J.J. Redick was immediately penciled in for the Ray Allen role and, barring the unforeseen injuries, he’s filled that function neatly. Jared Dudley, thought to be an ideal floor spacer, ended the season more prominently featured as wall decoration.
In the finale, Rivers played a rotation that averaged 56.22 games in a Clippers uniform for the season; i.e., just two-thirds of a season. Injuries robbed the team of consistent playing time and the opportunity to develop the telepathic chemistry featured by some of the longer-tenured contenders. But it was also the product of a front office constantly shuffling through non-guaranteed contracts, hoping to plug gaps across the bench.
That’s not to say front office blame lay exclusively at Doc’s feet. Donald Sterling’s public vacillation between selling the team and standing down only hints at the amount of indecision that has plagued the Clippers. Simply the subtraction of such a dodderer would relax Rivers’ restraints. Doc struggled with ownership several times throughout his maiden season, beginning with the very first deal and all the way up to the trade deadline, where the Clippers’ charter sat on an LAX tarmac, stewing while yet another consummated deal collapsed under the insecure gaze of Sterling.
A franchise can only know so much about where it’s going with constant uncertainty hovering overhead.
The Clippers’ identity resides in one of process, and in the first season under Rivers the team consolidated those principles nicely. But what the Clippers had finally started to recognize in the playoffs was, frankly, they were a scoring juggernaut. Los Angeles shredded the the Nos. 3 and 5 defenses to ribbons in the first and second rounds of the playoffs. While the key players for the Clippers ranged from mildly subpar to adequate defenders, they are all sublime offensively.
Does a firmer grasp of “Clipper basketball” actually exist? Eighty-two regular-season games followed by 13 playoff appearances and the most identifiable roundball feature is still the improvisational moniker Blake Griffin coined upon Paul’s arrival three seasons ago: “Lob City.” It’s the middle pick-and-roll, CP with his choice of a rolling Griffin, who spawns a decision tree unto himself, or turning the corner and hanging the sphere up above the box for DeAndre Jordan to pluck.
What gets conflated in discussions about champions and title worthiness is that a contender has to be not simply defensively inclined, but defensively oriented. But what’s the brand of basketball most typically associated with the two members of this year’s NBA Finals? The Miami Heat’s pace-and-space system. The San Antonio Spurs’ ball movement and elegant off-ball design. Defense is the thread used to pick apart would-be contenders. With rare exception, offense is typically how a franchise is defined.
In this sense, maybe the Clippers can draw upon the San Antonio Spurs for guidance. Imitating the newly crowned champions is no easy endeavor. But when confronted with an agonizing loss in the 2013 Finals, the Spurs simply ran it all back, swapping players on the periphery that would become costly with similar stock. Nebulous and intangible things like “familiarity under pressure” and “time to experiment with the lineup,” those were the key differences for San Antonio a year later.
Los Angeles has its core players secured. There isn’t an ocean of cap flexibility for it to remake the roster. And, in truth, there is no need. For all their flaws, the Clippers had figured out who they were. They ran even with the elite in the NBA postseason.
But at some point, the difference in winning time is all simply a matter of pressure and time.
Andrew Han writes for ClipperBlog. Follow him, @andrewthehan.