LOS ANGELES — DeAndre Jordan stood alone in the paint at Staples Center, as usual, serving as the last line of defense while the Los Angeles Clippers shot free throws at the other end.
Then he heard it.
Rising up from behind him in his home arena, deep from under the area where Doc Rivers placed massive posters of Jordan and his teammates to smother the Lakers' championship banners, was a collective chant that prompted Jordan to turn toward the fans with a disbelieving look.
His wide eyes revealed dismay, but mostly disgust, at what he heard.
"We want LeBron!"
Is this what everything has come to?
How deep had this Clippers team dug to transform the franchise from the utter embarrassment and laughingstock of Donald Sterling? Wasn't it now presumed as one of the best teams in the league year after year? And what about Jordan's own decision to turn away from the personal glory promised him in Dallas by Mark Cuban to stick with the Clippers—and build himself up into a first-team All-NBA selection and an NBA All-Star?
And still, what has truly changed?
Last Saturday wasn't just about James sitting out. It was a jolting reminder how visiting players still scoff at the Clippers' lack of a home-court advantage, how it has always been the spot for opposing fans to know they can score great seats to see their guys.
The Clippers pretty much still feel like the Clippers, even though so much great progress should be happening.
Jordan has made himself into a star to join Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, the guys owner Steve Ballmer told Bleacher Report in 2014 were perhaps two of the five best players in the world. The Clippers have the sort of continuity that it'll take Kevin Durant's Golden State Warriors years to develop. They have every reason to be hungrier for a title than James' Cavaliers or anyone else.
How can it be getting worse, not better?
How is it that this might become really bad?
The simple answer is that both Paul and Griffin can leave as free agents this summer. That would be that.
The possibility both stars bolt, however, is unlikely considering how vastly superior the current situation is set up for Paul to stay than to leave, including an extra year of max money via the clause CP, as union president, helped negotiate into the new collective bargaining agreement.
Still, it's not exactly a dream world if Paul stays, either. Given how often he gets hurt and how much he is reasonably expected to slow down in his mid-30s—he turns 32 in May—his max salary will probably wind up being an albatross for the franchise.
That Griffin would also stay and reap the biggest payday he can seems likely, too—in theory. But more and more people around the league believe he would be open to a fresh start—perhaps with the Lakers or the Boston Celtics, who have coveted Griffin for years and would offer a new chance to win. The most intriguing fit might be if he were to go home to Oklahoma to join Russell Westbrook and the Thunder, but his interests in the entertainment industry make staying in Los Angeles a priority.
In their sixth year together, continuity hasn't led to consistency, with everything undercut somewhat by injuries (again) to both players this season; Griffin and Paul have played only 40 of 72 games together. They're getting along fine, often communicating via shorthand midmove with a quick finger point or head nod, but the Clippers sit fifth in the Western Conference.
From all outward appearances, Griffin and Paul do share a chemistry of sorts. Take Tuesday night during halftime warm-ups when, as Paul's seven-year-old son tried to guard his dad at the top of the key, Griffin sneaked up to set a pick on the boy and spring his teammate happily to nail a three-pointer on his son. It was the sort of joyful spirit that the Clippers rarely bring out of each other in games.
"One thing you can control always is effort," Griffin said. "Our effort hasn't been there at times as a team. Haven't had trust. I think that's something we talked about a lot early in the season: the trust. Knowing the next man's going to be there for you, knowing you've got to be there for whoever goes next. I think we miss that."
The greatest indictment against the Griffin-Paul connection is that it hasn't inspired better teamwide cohesion. There was a stretch when Paul was out that Jordan wasn't thrilled with how little he got the ball from Griffin, either. In time, the high-low passing game has improved. And while Griffin and Jordan, both 28, have long been close, they've drifted apart some this season as both have become busy with young children.
Jordan has butted heads with Paul plenty of times, too, but the center's improvement on the court has helped build a mutual respect between the two. Still, one team source said Paul's hard-driving nature and politician's polish mean "nobody's really friends with Chris."
Another source said the point guard is much closer to Doc Rivers than any of his teammates. That's one intangible explanation for Paul not getting the Clippers past the playoffs' second round a single time. We're talking about a guy ranked as the sport's third-greatest player behind Michael Jordan and James, according to the "Box Plus/Minus" advanced metric that Basketball Reference tracks back to 1973.
If Paul and Griffin stay this summer, there's a school of thought that the Clippers' best option to change the mix is to trade Jordan, as his value has never been higher while the team's need for a top two-way wing player continues to be glaring. Even that isn't so easily done, though, as Jordan can opt out of his contract after next season—meaning his willingness to stay somewhere he gets traded is a factor in any deal.
The Clippers otherwise don't have much to offer considering Rivers has boxed in the club with its other contracts and cast away first-round picks in past trades. Rivers dismissed an ESPN report that he might be eyeing a return to the Orlando Magic, but Ballmer also has to judge the coach's fate. Portland Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen, Ballmer's close friend, told him from the outset it was unwise to give the same man control as both president and head coach.
If Griffin (and perhaps J.J. Redick, also a free agent) leaves this summer, maybe the formula tilts further toward Paul with guys he does consider friends in veterans Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony, if the Clippers can get Anthony to leave New York in trade. But the overly orchestrated way the Clippers play now—"Lob City" seems forever ago with how much less athletic the team has gotten—is already an issue.
The public-address announcer at Clippers games far too often celebrates a bucket by crediting so-and-so "with the move!" because too much of the team's improvisation comes from individual talent and solo forays as opposed to movement.
None of the issues surrounding L.A. are exactly disastrous, but there's too much that is only OK.
The side eyes toward Jamal Crawford and Redick for blown defensive rotations are growing more frequent, but those guys make shots and are earnest teammates. The in-house resentment toward Austin Rivers being favored as Doc's son, according to team sources, still very much exists, but it isn't out of control.
Griffin, Jordan and Paul all work hard and have a lot of positive aspects to their personalities, but their legacy together is shaping up to be lifting the Clippers from terrible to OK.
The lasting memory for now is blowing a trip to the 2015 Western Conference Finals to a Houston Rockets team whose stars weren’t even OK with each other.
This spring doesn't promise a good chance to create a new storyline. A deep playoff run this season looks like it would require upsetting the Warriors in the second round. Even as Rivers talks big about being able to beat anyone, he adds a caveat given how overwhelmed the Clippers have looked against Golden State in recent seasons.
Paul, of course, is still grinding with that hope. He said he doesn't even know what the team's record is from day to day; he just wants to work to find its best rhythm together.
And that has been the story of the Clippers ever since he arrived—CP pushing and pushing and pushing himself and everyone for excellence…to no avail.
Well, people get tired of pushing, too.
That makes it even harder to move forward together now.
Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.