By Jesse Blanchard
Lob City is gone. Just before the NBA free agency frenzy kicked off, the Los Angeles Clippers sent Chris Paul to the Houston Rockets, ending an era that ranks as the greatest in franchise history while still failing to rise to soaring expectations.
Roughly six years ago, the Clippers acquired Paul in a trade with New Orleans, pairing the league’s premier point guard with Blake Griffin, giving the NBA its next Stockton-to-Malone imbued with next century athleticism.
Griffin and teammates DeAndre Jordan proved to be perfect extensions of Chris Paul’s imagination as the trio went from winning 32 games in the season prior to the trade to 40 in a lockout shortened 66-game season. (Which projects to 50 wins over the course of a full season). They’d win at least 50 games in every season after, almost always finishing within reach of the top seed in the Western Conference.
The sky appeared to be the limit for the game’s best point guard paired with two athletic big men capable of jumping out of the stratosphere.
Six years later, Paul, Griffin and Jordan failed to reach the Western Conference Finals, falling in the first round three times—including in the most recent playoffs at the hands of the Utah Jazz [from our Game 7 Jazz-Clippers recap]:
In the end, there was no timing left for Paul to manipulate because the Clippers were simply out of time. Paul, often the league’s fieriest personality—for better and worst—in the face of adversity on the court, seemed resigned to his fate.
“It came down to today to keep us afloat, keep us alive,” Paul said. “We’re done.”
A core that seemed destined for at least one title now faces the prospect of disbanding without so much as a Western Conference Finals appearance.
The Clippers battle cry this season was, “it takes everything.” And once more, ultimately, it took more than Paul could muster; which isn’t an indictment of him so much as an honest look at the realities of a less than ideal situation.
Not all of this is on Paul. Truth be told, it’s hard to say what more he could have done over his tenure with the Clippers. The team suffered setbacks ranging from unfortunate to unavoidable and even self-inflicted; forever in hope that next season would find them healthy when it mattered most.
But for having a point guard credited for wringing the most out of every little advantage, Chris Paul’s Clippers often left the impression they had so much more waiting to be tapped into. And perhaps, in hindsight, the question shouldn’t be what more Paul could have done, but rather, if the team might have benefited from him doing a little less.
The problem with Stockton-to-Malone is the NBA has long since moved on from the days of Stockton-to-Malone. In truth, at the highest levels of basketball where the tiniest differences speak volumes, perhaps NBA Championships were never a place for such combinations.
From Jason Kidd to Steven Nash and onto Chris Paul, teams revolving around traditional point guards have struggled in the deepest parts of the playoffs. When given a seven-game series to zero in on tendencies, elite defenses have been able to mitigate the most harmful actions presented by traditional high pick and rolls.
Even in these playoffs, the San Antonio Spurs and Gregg Popovich once again dismantled a Mike D’Antoni point guard-centric attack, separating James Harden from his teammates and forcing him to choose between more inefficient midrange shots or consistently beating contests at the rim for seven games.
Chris Paul will now ply his wares with those very same Houston Rockets. And while, conceptually, both players have the skills to fit perfectly, D’Antoni might do well to keep the collaboration tilted in Harden’s control; even if ever so slightly.
Taking a step back won’t be an easy task, even if it’s one that Paul specifically requested. As perhaps the last traditional point guard, Chris Paul is the epitome of a place for everything and everything in its place.
The same talent that identified the moment a defender took a half step outside of his team’s schemes—finding Griffin or Jordan spinning off a defender or cutting back door for a lop—also erupted into moments of volatility the moment a teammate stepped outside of his expectations.
It’s never been easy to cede touches, decisions or pace to teammates, especially when Paul is so effective handling things in his own manner. For ball dominant point guards, too often teammates are extensions of their imagination, leaving even capable teammates too few avenues to explore their own creativity.
Blake Griffin’s usage remains high regardless of whether Chris Paul is on the floor, leading the team in that category with a 28.0 usage rate last season. But the manner in which he used those possessions with Paul on the floor differed greatly.
Despite possessing two board-clearing big men capable of outracing centers and forwards down the court and out-leaping everyone else, the Clippers, under Paul’s direction, played at a relatively slow pace. According to Basketball-Reference, the Clippers finished ranked 27, 19, 7, 10, 14 and 12 in pace over the past six years. In the two years they finished in the top 10 in pace, they finished with 57 and 56 wins, respectively.
The team was, undoubtedly, Chris Paul’s.
Over that time, the Clippers were efficient, finishing in the top five in points per 100 possessions in all but one year; so it’s hard to nitpick considering so much of it worked.
Still, arguably the best the Clippers looked over the course of their entire run was in a thrilling seven-game series win over the San Antonio Spurs led by Blake Griffin, who averaged 24.1 points, 13.1 rebounds and 7.4 assists in 41.1 minutes per game.
In that series, both Paul and Griffin shared an almost equal burden of playmaking, with Griffin assisting on 32.2 percent of teammates’ field goals when he was on the court and Paul assisting on 33.6 percent. Griffin created in volume, using 28.2 percent of the Clippers’ possessions while he was on the court with a true shooting percentage of 52.6; Paul’s usage stayed steady at 23.5 percent while his true shooting percentage jumped from 59.6 in the regular season to 63.2 in the series against the Spurs.
In that series and for a few games beyond that, through the first few games of the second round against the Rockets, Griffin showcased a combination of physical dominance and skill Paul could never muster (through no fault of his own), giving the Clippers a new edge that made them more dangerous than at any other time over the past six years.
Paul might have been the best player on the Clippers, but Griffin’s physicality and skill presented a unique problem even the Spurs couldn’t solve.
At a time where point guards run 6-foot-4 with superhuman athleticism—and a 6-foot-8, 250-pound forward runs offenses better than all of them—even the greatest ordinary sized man in basketball history can, sometimes, feel outdated.
For all the talk of Point God, Paul is a mere mortal in a land of giants. He’s Batman throwing punches against the bulletproof.
Lob City might be gone, but the Clippers don’t have to be after re-signing Blake Griffin to a five-year, $173 million deal. Better yet, the return for Paul and subsequent rumored deal for Danilo Gallinari gives Los Angeles an opportunity to remake the team in Griffin’s image.
Patrick Beverley gives the Clippers a defensive pit-bull at the point guard position who can space the floor while comfortably working off the ball. Sam Dekker allows for some switch-ability on defense as a small forward in traditional two-big alignments or in smaller lineups at power forward with Griffin at point center.
Lou Williams gives Los Angeles a more consistent scorer off the bench than Jamal Crawford has been in recent years and a source of playmaking to ease some of the burden on Griffin. His presence also makes Crawford expendable as part of the rumored deal (along with Diamond Stone and a first round pick to the Atlanta Hawks) to bring Gallinari to the Clippers and Paul Millsap to the Denver Nuggets.
None of this is to even suggest that the Clippers are better off without Chris Paul—they’re not. Griffin’s age, reliance on athleticism and injury history make him a risk for decline. But within this setback is an opportunity for Los Angeles to reimagine itself.
For years, the Clippers seemed like a team of infinite possibilities held in check by limited imagination with each player put into traditional positional archetypes. It was easy to relax into that comfort zone and, over time, grow stale.
But the blueprint exists to tap into more from Griffin.
For all his physical gifts, which were highlighted during the Lob City ear, Blake Griffin’s best attributes are his handle and passing at his size. The ability to hold ground in the paint or at the elbows and create space with his body gives him access to passing angles most players can’t dream of.
After vanquishing the Spurs in the 2015 playoffs, the Clippers opened up their second round series against the Rockets without Chris Paul due to injury. During those games, Griffin was unleashed, posting an assist rate of 51.1 percent in Game 1, finishing with 26 points, 14 rebounds and 13 assists. In Game 2, Griffin scored 34 points with a true shooting percentage of .611 and 15 rebounds.
When physically healthy and empowered, Griffin can look like the closest thing to LeBron James in the open court.
Griffin wasn’t entirely miscast as a battering ram and finisher next to Paul, but there’s more versatility within the more unorthodox parts of his game.
It’s worth noting that Dirk Nowitzki didn’t truly transform into an MVP candidate until separated from Steve Nash and a steady stream of pick and pop jumpers. Likewise, Amare Stoudemire enjoyed a half season of MVP-quality play leading the New York Knicks before the Carmelo Anthony trade and a deteriorating body tore the remainder of his career apart.
The traditional point guard has left Clipper-land and, with it, hopefully the rule book. Lob City is gone, let the fun begin.