Monday, May 18, 2015

Chris Paul, the Clippers, and the Nature of Baggage

LAX, in many ways
The baseball writer Bill James once wrote this, about a massive playoff fail for then then-young and unsullied Toronto Blue Jays: "The problem is, you acquire a past." It turns out that this didn't really matter that much to that franchise, but sports writers are always looking for the new tragedy, because that's just redder meat for your word meal. So the phrase is in my mind as I write this.

The Clippers have one of the worst pasts in NBA history, but with Donald Sterling receding into the unlamented dustbins where his kind always go, that didn't seem to matter. And after four games of their second-round series with the Houston Rockets, the Clips were up, if it's possible, more than 3-1. They were up everything, and waiting for a concession speech.

Take Game Four. To call it a runaway would be to undersell the nature of runaway. Houston stayed close in the first half only by making a mockery of the game of basketball, not that they were unique in that strategy. When actual flow happened, the Rocket offense was entirely a matter of four guys standing behind the arc and waiting for James Harden to do something foul-inducing or miraculous. Defense consisted of letting Blake Griffin treat them like a speed bag, or watching any number of Clippers defy their lifelong numbers and nature to drain looks. It wasn't close. It was barely watchable.

Basically, the only thing that prevented a Clipper sweep was that Chris Paul was on the bench for Game Two, the game where Harden did pull off some miracles and the Clips seemed to just not have enough of a killer instinct to go up 2-0 on the road. Games 3 and 4 were just so total, such a refutation of the Rocket Way of playing hoop that basketball dinosaurs like Charles Barkley and Phil Jackson were laughing on the grave, as if the playoffs weren't littered with "D and 3" teams in Golden State, Atlanta and, yes, Cleveland if you look past the impossible to look past presence of LeBron James. Paul's series-ending mid-range shot against the Spurs proved that, when the games got Serious, hitting from distance or being Analytically Sound meant nothing, dammit. That mid-range jumper was Moar Aggressive and Special Big Shot Big Testes, and all of the other things that the dumb kids who didn't learn math knew mattered Moar. Much, much Moar.

So when the Rockets won Game Five, it was more of a Nice Thing, really, rather than any kind of alarm that the series had changed. Dwight Howard stayed out of foul trouble and the Rocket benchies played well and Honor Was Saved, if only just. Surely a fully healthy Paul would combine with Jordan and Griffin and lead the team with three of the best four players on the floor to a win, right? And when the Clips ran out and hid in Game Six, it was all over... until it wasn't.

It's going to be impossible to tell the story of this series without going into the nature of how honored Paul has been for individual regular season work, but how he's never gone to a Conference Finals. This is, of course, an absurd standard to bear on a single undersized player, and ignores the nature of Paul's career (all of which has been spent in the murderous West, battling the best run of PGs in NBA history)... but it is what it is. When you and your teammate are on every commercial break during the games, and you don't win, people notice. When you don't advance while facing an ancient Jason Terry, rather than the young defensive werewolf Patrick Beverly, people make it worse. And when you on the likely downside of your career and make your game with speed, it gets ever more nettlesome.

It's possible, though unlikely, that this is the highwater mark for the Clips. Doc Rivers the GM gave Doc Rivers the HC a thoroughly useless bench of Spencer Hawes and Big Worthless Davis up front, and his stumbly kid and Glue Factory Turkoglu to miss from distance. Only Jamal Crawford had any use, and at 34, that's increasingly intermittent. You shouldn't lose a 2nd round series because you can't get your three horses any rest at all, and the failure of JJ Redick and Matt Barnes to do anything when it mattered was also not a feather in the cap of the GM. There was a moment in the first half of this game where Houston scored on a secondary break as 4 out of 5 Clipper benchies slow trotted back, and had it called out by the ABC/ESPN telecast team, it was so obvious. That's not exactly an endorsement of the GM or the coach... and if Jordan takes FA money to go somewhere else, they will quickly fall out of the first rank in the cutthroat West, and it's not as if they are staring at high picks to fill that meager bench.

On the other hand... new owner Steve Ballmer is beyond committed, LA will always have its allure, the Lake Show is horrible, and playing with Paul has its merits. I still think they can ascend, because the eye test says that Griffin is still on the rise, but his failure to show up when it matters is, to my eyes, much more troubling than what you can put at Paul's doorstep.

In tonight's Game 7, as the Rockets slow-danced their way to Choke Alert status, Paul seemed to be the only Clipper willing to go all-in. To watch him is to love his game, because the effort is pure, the leadership tangible... but Griffin had triple doubles with him on the shelf, and disappeared with him around, in this series. Merely doing this again next year with the same stars and different subs, when you have the foundational knowledge of Choke?

The problem is, you acquire a past. One that might also be your future.

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