Cellar dwelling Clippers finally ready to win it all

Dan Schultz

After starting out with a 9-1 record, many are starting to wonder if the Los Angeles Clippers are finally ready to prove they can go all the way

For the duration of their existence, the Los Angeles Clippers have often been a ridiculed franchise seen as the little brother to the powerful Los Angeles Lakers. They were a cellar dweller team for many years under the tyrannical rule of Donald Sterling, their long time owner. Sterling often refused to pay his players what they were worth once they hit the open market, making the team a revolving door for young players.

This, in turn, gave the Clippers no core to build around, which kept them trapped in a state of arrested development for over thirty years.

It wasn’t until they drafted Blake Griffin in 2009 that their outlook started to change. Even though Griffin didn’t play his entire first season due to a left-kneecap injury, the Clippers had their guy to build around. A couple seasons later, they acquired Chris Paul in a very controversial trade. After the NBA blocked a completed trade sending Paul to the Lakers, citing “basketball reasons” why the trade didn’t go through, the Clippers acquired the versatile point guard from the then-named New Orleans Hornets.

The Lakers inexplicable loss was the Clippers (big) gain. Paul and Griffin became a powerful duo, a combination of athleticism, passing, and shooting that many teams had trouble game planning against. Paul was also instrumental in developing DeAndre Jordan into one of the league’s top centers.

Since Paul joined the team in 2011, they haven’t missed the playoffs in five seasons. Before he arrived, they had only made the playoffs twice in the previous fifteen years.

The team eventually hired Doc Rivers to be their head coach in 2013. Rivers, who guided the Boston Celtics to a championship in 2008, established a winning mentality early on with his young group of players.

The final piece of the puzzle came in 2014 when NBA commissioner Adam Silver banned Sterling from the NBA after recorded tapes of him making racist statements were leaked. With that giant albatross off their backs, the Clippers seemed destined to finally make the NBA Finals.

But during the last few seasons, they have failed to do so. They surprisingly blew a 3-1 lead to the Houston Rockets in the second round of the 2015 NBA Playoffs. In 2016, they lost both Griffin and Paul to season-ending injuries during their first round series against the Portland Trail Blazers, who dismissed them in six games.

But this season, many believe the Clippers have finally arrived. In the first 10 games, they have the league’s best defense, holding opponents to just 91.9 points per contest. Jordan has fully embraced his role as the defensive anchor, while Rivers’ decision to start the defensive minded Luc Mbah a Moute at small forward has turned out to be brilliant move.

The main reason behind the Clippers’ hot start has arguably been due to a sense of desperation. Both Griffin and Paul have player options in their contracts to return to the team next season. Given the jump in the NBA market this past offseason, it is extremely likely both will decline their options and become unrestricted free agents this coming summer.

In other words, the Clippers know that this could be it if they don’t win it all this season. Since they have become a relevant team in the NBA during the last five years, the joke now is that they will always be a second-round exit at best, and nothing more.

There is no doubt that all of this teasing, combined with the fact that everyone is talking about the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs out West, has given the Clippers a chip on their shoulder. They have something to prove, and one could make a case that this is the most important season in the franchise’s history.

Right now, they are absolutely the best team in the Western Conference. Whether or not they will be able to sustain that for the entire season remains to be seen.

But early on, the Clippers have proven they are a legitimate threat to win it all this year. They should not be aiming just to get past the second round, but to go all the way. They have the most to lose if they don’t, which is why you are seeing the best of them so far to start this season.

In order for them to shock the world and get it done, they will need to continue to be a “defense first” team. The offense will come naturally from guys like Paul, Griffin, J.J. Redick, Austin Rivers, Jamal Crawford, and Marreese Speights. As long as Rivers keeps them focused on defense, they absolutely have what it takes to win the title this season.

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