There is a certain irony that the most expensive NBA franchise ever purchased is bereft of usable trade assets. So when the Clippers compiled and dealt what little they did possess in exchange for Austin Rivers on Thursday, an alert must have notified the Federal Reserve that the franchise was in distress. It was a transaction that spotlights a misevaluation of circumstances, a failure to frame the negotiation before their position was defined for them.
Doc Rivers had a penchant to reuse and recycle certain calculated phrases last season: “process,” “building identity,” “emotional hijacking.” Words that have since been made scarce in conversations and debriefings this season.
Which isn’t to say that the symptoms that prompted such language are gone. In a Dec. 19 loss at Denver this season, the Clippers were charged with seven technical fouls, including five in the fourth quarter and three in one possession. They boast four players on the top-40 leaderboard in technical fouls, second only to the Phoenix Suns (five players). The composure, it’s fair to say, has been uneven for a team that returns its top six players and head coach.
That doesn’t mean the Clippers have been bad this season. Far from it. Through 39 games, they are 26-13. At the same point last season? 26-13. Even their net efficiency through 39 games is near identical -- plus-6.4 in 2013-14 vs. plus-6.7 in 2014-15. The Clippers rank third in Hollinger’s Power Rankings and fourth in expected win percentage. For all the troubles with their defense and crunch-time offense, the Clippers are elite by most metrics.
But something has been missing this season, and even though the Clippers haven’t been able to put a finger on it, the fans sense it. During the Jan. 11 matinee loss to the Miami Heat, “Let’s go Heat” chants echoed loudly enough at Staples Center to reverberate onto the court. It caused enough of an annoyance that DeAndre Jordan quipped sarcastically after the game that it’s tough to “get a road win.” It was the Clippers' 23rd sellout of the season and 165th in a row.
How does a team riding high off the ousting of one of the most repugnant owners in professional sports -- a team that was mere moments from seizing control of last year’s second-round series against the Oklahoma City Thunder and earning a bid to the Western Conference finals for the first time in franchise history -- reach a point where they felt turned away by a home crowd? Even for a moment?
Attendance is high and sales are brisk. But the season has left a palpable uncertainty in the air. And uncertainty breeds anxiety. And anxiety breeds resentment.
It’s no secret that the Clippers have rarely been good in their tenure as California residents. To be a fan of the Clippers is to be a fan of potential; that was the implied pledge -- the team typically struggled, pinning hopes that “tomorrow” gave new opportunity. They were a carousel of young players and journeymen, all with the visage of untapped abilities waiting to be unlocked, reclamation projects of misunderstood talents.
Spring traditionally brought the start of scouting season for fans. Which college prospect would finally usher in a winning era for the franchise? What undervalued player would somehow ignite the underperforming franchise? No team has had more lottery selections since 1985 than the Clippers (21). The trade deadline and offseason would bookend management’s surrender of prospects that didn’t miraculously revitalize the franchise, swapping them for other faulty assets that “just need a change of scenery.” The only coherent strategy to improve was maintaining a promise that they would improve. It was a vicious cycle.
Yet fans have openly expressed distaste with how this season’s campaign has progressed, one going as far as to say that this team has been the hardest to root for in some time. At worst the Clippers are now a fringe contender. Were the bad old days really preferable?
Resoundingly no. But for a fan base that has gulped nothing but continuity and process for the past 18 months, the Clippers have shown very little of either, vacillating between Spursian precision and Keystone Cops, sometimes within the same game. The schizophrenic identity of the team has manifested itself as manic behavior from its supporters. Off the court, it gets no better.
Rivers, on balance, has leveled the scale since his arrival; brushing aside troublesome losses that no doubt sting, downplaying wins that are typically elating. He resides behind the shield of a championship ring -- a title buys impunity, it buys political capital. Hold a franchise together through an ownership crisis? Even more capital. But for all the calmness he brings to a locker room, very little has translated in composing the lineup and filling the margins.
There is no precise roadmap to improve the deficiencies that stymie the team. No perceivable methodology or insight to help understand how Doc is preparing the roster to improve and grow. That is, unless the thesis is that the starters will carry the burden or Rivers simply plans to attract the staunchest Celtic opponents from 2009. And there lies the root of fanatical angst: that a path to glory is claimed but for an obscured reach.
Journeymen and veterans are sliding through their Playa Vista facility like plates on a lazy Susan: Dahntay Jones, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic, Stephen Jackson, Antawn Jamison, Byron Mullens, Darius Morris, Maalik Wayns. Farmar was waived on Friday after being awarded the bi-annual exception, meaning the Clippers bound themselves to the hard cap in 2014-15 (incurred along with the Spencer Hawes signing) and gave up the ability to use the exception next season for nothing. Reggie Bullock, their 2013 first-round pick, was traded to Phoenix after failing to develop in limited minutes.
Something is missing from the Clippers this season. And while the team sifts for the intangible, fans are starting to feel the creep of a familiar cycle.
Follow Andrew Han, @andrewthehan.