After losing two games over the weekend, the Los Angeles Clippers have fallen to 1-6. They followed up an impressive victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder with a couple of frustrating outings, yet again quashing nascent hope.
In theory, you can forgive back-to-back road losses against the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz, two perennial playoff teams with significant home court advantages. Still, the Clippers really needed to win at least one of these contests to keep pace in the deep Western Conference.
So where do the Clippers stand now? Is the season already over? (I feel like we've been asking this question repeatedly thus far.)
Unfortunately, Los Angeles' schedule has been nothing short of brutal. Six of the Clips' seven opponents made the playoffs last year, and the other squad was the reinvigorated Golden State Warriors. Unlike other teams, they haven't had the luxury of beating up on the Minnesotas or Torontos of the league.
Despite the quality of the competition, the Clippers are not making excuses and neither will I. If they want to become successful they need to be better.
Pundits have given myriad reasons for Los Angeles' struggles so far: Baron Davis' nonexistence, Chris Kaman's inefficiency, the bench's inconsistency, the shooters' three-point incompetency, the team's second half lethargy, etc. All of these are legitimate problems for the Clippers, but I would like to expound another issue that might be paramount: lack of toughness.
That's right, the Clippers seem largely devoid of toughness, both mental and physical. You know the cliche: When the going gets tough, the tough get going. And the Clippers are stuck in neutral.
Let us remember not to confuse toughness with physicality, hustle, competitiveness or effort, even though those qualities might be related or even included. Toughness is often intangible. It is making that clutch shot to silence an energized crowd. It is taking that critical charge to stop an opponent's run. It is fighting through fatigue and playing through pain. It is a short memory and a big heart. Toughness is finding a way to win when the shots just aren't falling.
Look at Game 7 of last year's finals if you want to see toughness. The Lakers—and specifically Kobe Bryant—could not buy a bucket. Although their offense floundered, they gritted out a victory with offensive rebounding, timely defense, and heaps of resolve. In fact, the Celtics were almost as tough, which allowed an offensive slugfest to remain eminently watchable.
On the other hand, the un-tough Clippers wilt under duress. Case in point: They held a 16-point halftime lead against the Jazz, only to see Utah come out of the third quarter gate raring to go.
The Clippers appeared completely intimidated, settling for contested jumpers, moving the ball without confidence or purpose, allowing layups and open threes and getting out-muscled and out-hustled for rebounds and loose balls. Los Angeles did not have the toughness to stanch the bleeding and right the ship.
Toughness is developed through a consistent culture promoted by the head coach or a star player. Kobe and Derek Fisher have inspired toughness in the Lakers. Kevin Garnett and Jerry Sloan have done the same in Boston and Utah, respectively. Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich, in their quiet way, lead one of the toughest teams of the past decade.
The Clippers don't have that leader right now. Clearly, Vinny Del Negro does not create that culture, and while Eric Gordon or Blake Griffin might be the right guy in the future, neither has requisite experience or moxie yet.
Baron Davis has been an utter failure in the leadership role, demonstrating Charmin-worthy softness, and Kaman is an unfortunate byproduct of the already feckless Clipper system. Though the center is no physical slouch at 7'0" and 265 pounds, he gets pushed around the paint like a stroller and folds under pressure like an accordion.
Until the Clippers change the culture and unearth some toughness—which might only be possible with a change in ownership—it is unlikely they will reach the postseason. Better start digging in the sand.