No one should be fooled by the Los Angeles Clippers' unceremonious exit from the 2014 Western Conference playoffs. They'll be an elite team once again in 2014-15 with the same championship aspirations.
The fact Los Angeles fell short should only serve as fuel to strengthen its resolve.
The first component of the Clippers' continued ascension into the upper echelon has to do with attrition. The San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder are the two biggest roadblocks at this point, and given each team's short-term outlook, that doesn't figure to change much.
But the question here is whether the Clippers will be favorites. To answer that, let's begin with a close look at San Antonio.
Ascension by attrition?
It's not a secret the Spurs are old. Each year, the cornerstone group of Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili log more miles on their 30-plus-year-old bodies than most of their peers. Much of the wear and tear is due to a longer-than-average season from consistent postseason runs.
Despite their shortcomings in terms of athleticism and youth, the Spurs mitigate these so-called deficiencies by continuing to execute flawlessly. They've become masters at picking teams apart with effortless rhythm on both ends of the floor.
In 2013-14, San Antonio won 62 games to finish with a .756 win percentage during the regular season. That's the second-highest win percentage in the Gregg Popovich era, which is defined here as the 1997-98 season through the present. The 97-98 campaign was when Pop assumed control for a full season after serving in an interim capacity the year prior.
The Spurs also played at their fastest pace of that same era, an estimated 95.0 possessions per 48 minutes in 2013-14.
That means not only are they getting better as they age, but they're also playing faster. In addition, 2013-14 marked another anomaly as the first season to feature a player not named Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker or the great David Robinson to lead the team in win shares. Budding star Kawhi Leonard took that honor.
What that all equates to is that the Spurs have found a formula for success. They are one of the rare teams that doesn't rebuild. Instead, they retool and do so with unmatched continuity and consistency.
However, there's still an important caveat.
The big three of Parker, Ginobili and Duncan have to fade at some point. Will it be next season? All three are under contract for one last go-around in 2014-15, with Duncan having a $10 million player option. If they come together, they'll have one goal in mind: to win a title without many standing in their way, except the Clippers and presumably the Thunder.
Why OKC is such a threat
The Thunder are situated to match up with the Clippers better than any team out West. They feature a young core of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant who can threaten the duo of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin in terms of production. While the Spurs are getting older, the Thunder are still improving and may not have peaked.
That's what makes OKC a real threat to Los Angeles next season. They will return their best players and remain one of the best teams in the NBA. What's more is they'll have the mental edge of besting LA in six games in the 2014 postseason.
The way the Clippers lost the Western Conference semifinals can play in their favor or work against them moving forward. An officiating debacle in Game 5 cost them a key win on the road. Here's the play in question:
Regardless of one's opinion on the decision, it certainly appears the Clippers and head coach Doc Rivers could make a case for being this upset:
Several difficult calls clearly affected Game 6, where Los Angeles didn't get the benefit of home-court officiating and were eliminated. They have themselves to blame for the collapse and will be focused next season.
Keys to the Clips' success
Los Angeles has plenty going for it to stay on top moving forward. First, it will return its leaders on and off the floor in Paul and Rivers. Both player and coach will be ready to assume the championship-or-bust mentality and compete for a top seed.
In addition, Blake Griffin will be looking to build on his MVP-caliber season and should keep incrementally improving. That means if the Clips can keep most of their roster intact and add the right role players, then there's no reason to think next year's team won't be equally as good or better.
What's more is the Donald Sterling saga should be a relative non-issue come next postseason. It was clearly a factor this year, and from the top down, the organization should be healthier from an infrastructure standpoint. That will mean better prospects for achieving postseason success.
The Portland Trail Blazers, Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets all figure to be in the mix for the No. 1 seed, but only the Thunder figure to be problematic for Los Angeles. Still, the Clips should be able to rise above all the competitors and be considered the best in the West.
They have the fewest holes, the most collective talent returning and a coach who's been there before.
In 2014-15, it's the Clippers' NBA Finals berth to lose.
All statistics via Basketball-Reference.com