When Chris Paul came to Los Angeles, it marked the beginning of a new day.
From that new day on and until today, it’s been a new feeling, new energy, new era.
The Clippers have long been the ugly stepchild of professional sports in Los Angeles. With Paul, they had the best point guard in the NBA to pair with young stud Blake Griffin. They made splashy offseason moves in free agency (and some that made you furrow your eyebrows, what’s up Caron? Enjoy that pay check), and there was a genuine buzz around the team as the season started.
With Paul came belief, but also expectation.
He was game for all of the pressures, and didn’t want it to be any other way. After an up and down first half to the season, the team we all wanted to call Lob City started to find its way. As the Lakers had their own ups and downs during the regular season, there were stretches where the Clippers were the main attraction in L.A.
Throughout the playoffs, these Clippers proved that they were no longer the Clippers we’d grown accustomed to watching. While Griffin played as we expected him to and Paul dazzled us and reminded us just how spectacular he is, there was more to this team. Unexpected performances, grit and heart.
Against a scrappy Grizzlies squad, the Clippers were able to hang tough and keep fighting. Nick Young embraced his opportunity to have a hero playoff moment. Reggie Evans played important minutes in the fourth quarters during the postseason. Kenyon Martin became a valued source of veteran leadership. Caron Butler played with a broken hand.
The Clippers just found ways to play above their expected ceiling.
While their season ended in May rather than June, they’re a step closer. A big step closer to being contenders. They also found a stud in the making as Eric Bledsoe found his stride, forced the issue on the offensive end of the floor and didn’t look back.
Perhaps it was the combination of playing with Paul, learning from him, feeding off of his energy and competitiveness. Perhaps this potential is the reason why the Clippers brass was so determined to keep Bledsoe when it was negotiating the trade to bring Paul to L.A. Either way, Bledsoe was arguably the third most important piece of the puzzle for the Clippers in the postseason.
How important? Chris Paul scored 51 points in their series against the Spurs. Bledsoe was right behind him with 46. He was determined and strong and fearless, the type of teammate Paul can respect sharing his backcourt with.
This is a bright sign for the future of the Clippers.
Where will they go from here?
DeAndre Jordan will need to get in the gym this offseason and work on his game. Butler needs to get healthy, once again. While his toughness for gutting it out with a broken hand is commendable, it remains to be seen how he can help this team during a postseason run if completely healthy. Young was such a fun part of the postseason, but he’s great in flashes, moments. Great to keep bottled up to use as a spark, but this team needs more reliable perimeter scoring.
In the same way that Steve Novak excelled in New York this season, taking advantage of the open looks that playing with Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony created, give Paul shooters to pass to, scorers to create for.
Against the Spurs, the Clippers didn't have the guys to extend the floor and hit those shots, while Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Gary Neal continued to kill Los Angeles with those corner threes.
We were reminded once again this postseason that as the stakes get higher and the atmosphere more intense, few things are scarier than a healthy Paul with the ball in the fourth quarter. He wasn’t healthy in this series. This Spurs almost certainly still would have won had he been playing at full strength, but it probably would have gone longer than four games.
The Clippers made a huge move toward relevance when they put all of their eggs into the Chris Paul basket. Now, they’ve got to continue to construct the proper supporting cast for him while also making sure Jordan and Griffin take the necessary strides this summer.
In the same way that players get once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that they need to grasp onto, NBA front offices need to do the same. While the Clippers have a track record for doing the wrong thing, this season, even though they ended their season in a sweep, they finally did something right.