Chris Paul has to be telling himself right now, "This isn't what I signed up for."
Truth be told, this wasn't what the point guard had in mind when he was traded by the New Orleans Hornets in December of 2011.
He was supposed to join the Purple and Gold, and form a legendary backcourt pairing with a certain Kobe Bryant. Instead, then-comissioner David Stern played spoiler to Los Angeles Lakers fans and nixed the deal that would've guaranteed the California-based squad another stretch of competitive seasons, and probably a final championship run for the Black Mamba.
And then by some stroke of irony, Paul ended up with the other LA team, in exchange for Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, Al-Farouq Aminu, and a draft pick. The Clippers, since moving to the Staples Center in 1984, have yet to establish an identity in the NBA, due to a long history of poor decisions (typified by quintessential bust Michael Olowakandi) and utter misfortune.
Turns out, Paul's arrival couldn't have come at a better time (at least in Clippers standards). Its 2009 No. 1 pick, Blake Griffin was looking like the franchise cornerstone from the get-go, averaging almost 23 points, 12 rebounds, and 4 assists per game in his first season. An All-Star selection and a statement poster on Timofey Mozgov during his rookie year made fans forget that he had actually sat out 2009-10 due to injury.
The presence of a premiere floor general also sped up the progress of young center, DeAndre Jordan. It was CP-to-Tyson Chandler (ex-Hornets teammate) all over again, only instead of having an aging big man for a recipient, Paul had the luxury of throwing lobs to someone who was far more athletic and six years younger. Jordan and Griffin's above-the-rim exploits ushered the era of "Lob City," which would eventually define the team for years to come.
More important, the Clippers found themselves in the thick of the playoffs, securing their first postseason berth since 2006. Despite being swept by the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs in the conference semifinals, the former cellar dweller had more reasons to be optimistic. The year also marked the shift of basketball power in the city of Los Angeles, with Paul ironically at the forefront. Griffin said it best: "It (Paul's acquisition) put us on the map."
The Clippers would go on to achieve relevant success, posting consecutive 50-win seasons until this one, including a franchise record-breaking 57 wins in 2013-14. Before that season began, the organization made its intention of a productive campaign clear when it replaced tenured head coach Vinny del Negro with Doc Rivers, who steered the Boston Celtics to a title in 2008.
Paul put up All-Star numbers in '13-14, leading the league in assists (10.7) and steals (2.5). All that's left was to bring home the undeniable proof of a superstar's greatness and the ultimate validation to his legacy: a ring. He also knew that this was his best chance to win it all, and with a group this special and loaded. Re-signing (for five-years worth $107 million) with the Clippers in 2013 was a no-brainer at the time.
More than six years after helping build Lob City from the ground, a 31-year-old Paul is about to enter free agency this summer for the first time in his 12-year career, still without a ring to show. The Clippers' hopes for a title came to a screeching halt when Griffin again went down with an injury in the ongoing playoffs. Suddenly, everyone is convinced that the franchise may really be "cursed" after all.
One could blame the team's downfall to the off-court distractions in recent memory, particularly the issue of racism involving its former team owner Donald Sterling in 2014, and the threat of Jordan bolting for the Dallas Mavericks two years ago. One could also argue that everything turned out okay for the Clippers—ownership was taken over by former Microsoft CEO and No. 1 cheerleader Steve Balmer, and their center had a last-minute change of heart.
A true basketball fan, meanwhile, will attribute their setbacks to Griffin's unreliable health, the lack of a solid and consistent wing man, Jordan's woes at the free-throw line, and more ostensibly, the squad's inability to finish off a postseason rival: they fell to the Memphis Grizzlies after leading the series 2-0 in 2013, and to the Houston Rockets after going up 3-1 the following year.
What those flashy dunks, wayward passes, and Jamal Crawford's ankle-breakers did, in reality, was to desensitize spectators from the deep-rooted flaws that the Clippers weren't able to properly address. After all, pulling off a stunt like this one unconsciously is easy if you're the greatest basketball show on earth, other than whatever team LeBron James is in, and before the Golden State Warriors hit their stride.
Think about this: have you ever met someone who is a legitimate or long-time Clippers fan? LA fans whom we know are primarily Lakers diehards, while majority of Paul's following came from his days as a Hornet. Sharing the same arena with one of the NBA's most decorated franchises and covering the Lakers championship banners with posters of players don't help their cause, though the team hasn't achieved enough to be regarded in the same vein as its league contemporaries.
Game 3 against the Utah Jazz a few days ago might be the last we've seen of Paul, after freezing his defender with a hesitation move, then throwing an alley-oop to a Griffin in ascension. With the hobbled forward also poised to test the market, the Clippers are in a precarious position. Griffin and Paul staying should be the best-case scenario, but how long are they going to disappoint? If either one or both of them leaves, it's back to the drawing board for the organization.
It might be best to finally break this thing up. At this point of his career, Paul deserves to get a taste of basketball's biggest stage, just as the Clippers are entitled to a fresh start. Surely, the team doesn't want to be identified as merely a highlight factory, the same way Paul isn't keen on being remembered as another great point guard without a ring (Steve Nash, John Stockton). This crew has to accept the fact that it isn't really working.
Funny how the rise and fall of the Los Angeles Clippers was as fleeting as this familiar sequence: Chris Paul lobs the ball to Blake Griffin or DeAndre Jordan who is hell-bent on bringing the house down.