“Trading Baskets” is a weekly NBA column written by Reagan Griffin Jr. and Eddie Sun. The writers “hand off” each week’s installment, continuing an ongoing dialogue to challenge the way fans think about basketball. Click here to read last week’s edition.
When the Clippers were eliminated Tuesday, the internet held nothing back. The entire NBA community, or at least the members that revel in online trolling, were wishing the team good riddance with jokes and memes. Lakers fans, specifically, had a field day. But the ridicule also extended to fanbases whose teams were entirely out of the playoffs or weren’t invited to the bubble at all. Players chimed in on the fun as well: Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum had a mini roast session, mentioning Patrick Beverley and Paul George directly on Twitter.
The Clippers played without fight, urgency or cohesion in the game, a common theme for them throughout the season. They hoped their overwhelming talent would solve their problems, but old habits die hard. The Clippers left the bubble embarrassed because they rested their hopes on their talent instead of working on team-building, the process that can’t be skipped in order to win a championship.
Sports are mostly about the highs of victory and lows of defeat, but the internet-ification of the NBA brought about a new emotional outcome: the sinister joy of watching a team fall completely flat on its face. This Clippers upset is among the most prime examples of this, joining the 3-1 Warriors and 28-3 Falcons as teams that will never live down monumental collapses.
But how exactly did the Clippers franchise get to this point?
Just a season ago, they were a nice Cinderella story, pushing the Warriors to six games in their first-round NBA playoff matchup despite being heavy underdogs. And for decades, they were the irrelevant franchise in Los Angeles, stumbling over their own ineptitude and mismanagement as the Lakers became the most storied team in the league. If anything, the Clippers deserved our sympathy.
For the first time ever, the Clippers were considered true favorites. When Steve Ballmer bought the team, he righted the ship with calculated leadership and planted the seeds of a successful franchise. It bore fruit this past offseason when Kawhi Leonard and Paul George joined the team, adding superstars to a solid group with talent and depth.
The Clippers did everything right up to that point. They replaced an incompetent (and very racist) owner with one dedicated to winning. They hired brilliant basketball minds like Jerry West to join their front office and made shrewd moves, slowly but surely compiling assets and skilled players. They adopted a winning mentality and a toughness evident even when their talent couldn’t nearly match up with the league’s contenders.
And just like that, years of building and constructing the perfect team came crumbling down in the span of one fateful fourth quarter –– when the Clippers sunk further and further underwater until they were entirely out of air (literally) and the Nuggets secured the game and series for good.
From the beginning of the season, Clippers PR worked hard to set narratives, putting up billboards with not-so-subtle slogans like, “Driven Over Given.” But with a healthy Leonard sitting out games and the team only putting in half-hearted efforts during games, the ad campaigns soon turned corny. Then, just a few games into the season, reports came out about discontent within the team; certain players were unhappy with others' effort. At the same time, the underdog chippiness of Patrick Beverley and Montrezl Harrell rubbed off as arrogance.
The avalanche of ridicule that came the Clippers' way after dropping Game 7 to the Nuggets was deserved. But more importantly, they’re now in a state of disarray no one saw coming a year ago. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George both have opt-outs in their contracts after next season, and if both leave, the team will be without any star players or prized assets for nearly a decade.
The Clippers put in years of restructuring to become a championship favorite. But in one season of mediocre, apathetic play and a disastrous ending, they’re faced with the prospect of returning to the bottom of the league, a place they toiled to get out of.
“Trading Baskets” typically runs Fridays.