It was all there for the Clippers – the opportunity of a lifetime.
They won 56 regular season games, beat the Lakers in all four meetings, won their first Pacific Division championship and drew sellout crowds for every home game.
Meanwhile the Lakers floundered, barely made the playoffs and then lasted only one round, losing four straight games to the San Antonio Spurs.
I have some Clipper friends and they were gloating. I couldn’t blame them. They had suffered for so long.
The Clippers’ first round opponent was the Memphis Grizzlies, a team the Clippers had eliminated in the first round a year ago. The Clippers won the first two games. They seemed on their way to bigger things.
But in the NBA there is no greater disappointment than failing in the playoffs. And for the Clippers in this of all seasons there could be nothing worse than losing the next four games to the Grizzlies.
Now it is a few days later and, predictably, the Clippers aren’t saying if Vinny Del Negro will get a new contract to coach. And Chris Paul, a free agent, isn’t saying he will or won’t be back to trigger the offense.
It is a nightmare for the franchise. And let’s inspect how the collapse occurred.
Blake Griffin: With Paul lobbing passes and Griffin soaring for dunks the Clippers represented pure entertainment. They even won 17 consecutive games.
But veteran NBA watchers wondered if this style would succeed in the playoffs, when defenses are tighter and the pace is often slower.
Well, there were few dunks in the first round when the Grizzlies simply overpowered the Clippers. Although Griffin is sensational and deserves every cent of his five-year contract he has weaknesses. Zack Randolph, a less spectacular power forward, dominated him and that was before Griffin suffered an ankle injury.
Despite all his assets Griffin is a work in progress. More tutoring from with Clippers’ shooting coach Bob Thate is required if he is to realize his potential.
DeAndre Jordan: If we’re pointing fingers let’s aim one at the Clippers’ center, and deciding his fate might be the Clippers’ most important off-season decision.
Jordan, like Griffin, is a spectacular dunker. But he has few offensive moves and against the Grizzlies he was badly outplayed by the ever improving Marc Gasol.
It cannot be minimized that Jordan hasn’t progressed as much as the Clippers hoped and he has two years, for $22 million remaining on his contract. Will they trade him? It’s a possibility.
Donald Sterling: Year after year the Clippers’ owner prevailed over a franchise that failed miserably. No championships, not even a division title, an embarrassing history o firing coaches.
Then, for the last two seasons the Clippers did things right. They advanced to being respectable then even darn good.
What now? With the unexpected playoff defeat, will Sterling revert to his past? Or will he realize a lot has been accomplished.
Will the Clippers make a strong bid for their free agents, a list that includes Matt Barnes, who had a great season.
Gary Sachs: The long-time scout was promoted to a decision-making position and has a lot to do with the Clippers’ improvement the last two years.
Does he have enough clout to get what he wants? What if he and Sterling disagree on the club’s direction?
Chauncey Billups: A one-time MVP of an NBA Finals championship victory over Kobe Bryant and the Lakers when Billups played for the Detroit Pistons, he was brought in last season to provide the Clippers veteran leadership.
It was a great idea. Besides his talent Billups had big-time playoff experience, a perfect fit for a young team. Paul called him the best backcourt partner he’d had in his career.
The trouble was Billups’ age. And sure enough, both last season and this one Billups missed many games with injuries and wasn’t much help in the playoffs.
Do the Clippers bring him back for a third year? Not likely.