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Clippers struggling to recapture elite status with big summer looming

Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin (32) argues with a referee during the second half in an NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz Monday, March 13, 2017, in Salt Lake City. The Jazz won 114-108.(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

Opining on the Clippers’ narrowing contention window is as much a spring tradition as boiling chicken embryos or cleaning the garage. Almost since this iteration was assembled, they’ve represented — at least in the narrative — a group constantly threatening to either burst through to another level of contention or totally disintegrate by falling short.

The repeated “last good chance” rhetoric smacks a bit melodramatic. If they don’t do it this year, don’t they have to reset? Yet year after year, the club finds a way to lick its wounds as move on more or less as presently constituted. Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan have consistently comprised 60 percent of the Clippers’ starting lineup since the 2011-12 campaign, at least when healthy. No other team in the league has had its three-man core in place nearly as long, and the team’s architect and coach Doc Rivers (who joined up with that trio two seasons later) keeps defying all of the noise by keeping the crew intact.

The Clippers keep betting that random variance — things like shot luck, freak injuries, an ill-timed questionable all — is what has held them back from a Conference Finals trip, and that eventually their patience and belief will be rewarded. And it may. They have two players who are top-10 when they’re at their best and a third who’s an All-Star, so believing in what they have may eventually pay off. But if there has even been a season to believe that another disappointing outcome could lead to wholesale change, it’s this one. Which is why it’s odd to see LA limping to the regular season’s finish line.

Their future has never been quite as unsure as it is right now. Griffin and Paul both have — and will almost certainly leverage — the option to end their contracts this summer. The two have never been free agents at the same time. On the last go-around, Griffin signed his rookie contract extension a year before Paul re-upped with a new deal. So for all the past anxiety about how playoff shortcomings would lead to a reset, the franchise finds itself in uncharted waters. Undersung starter JJ Redick will also be free to write his own chapter this summer. Role players like Luc Mbah a Moute and Marreese Speights also have player options.

So the stakes actually are higher this time around. And yet, with 15 games to go, the Clips find themselves slumming with the sub-contender class and struggling with inconsistency.

Even since they got their roster whole again, the cure certainly hasn’t been absolute. Paul returned from a hand sprain 10 games ago, and his team has won precisely half the games since. None of the losses are extreme indictments. Dropping a 16-point decision in Minnesota looked worse before the Timberwolves legitimized their late-season push with some more impressive play. The other losses came at home to the elite Spurs and Rockets, and on the road in Utah and Milwaukee. Still, a 5-5 stretch isn’t an encouraging sign from a team that purports to be legitimately competing for things that matter.

That stretch combined with their 6-8 record while Paul recovered (he also missed an earlier seven games in which LA went 2-5) have put LA in a spot where they’re fighting to retain homecourt. After peaking at 22-8, a combination of injuries, poor play and tough schedule have dealt the Clips an 18-19 record since Dec. 23.

The Clippers know their recent stretch doesn’t befit a supposed contender, and they’ve even begun to openly acknowledge the circumstantial pressure.

“This is the year that we’ve got to do something,” Doc’s son and reserve guard Austin Rivers told the OC Register’s Bill Oram. “We’ve had our core here long enough that we should be doing more. … Everybody knows free agency. That’s not a question. We’ve got a lot of free agents this summer, too. So that adds to it.”

In other words: elephant, meet room.

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

So here are the Clippers, a perennial 50-win team in the CP3 era, openly acknowledging that their timeline is getting tricky, and yet they’ve been playing some pretty subpar basketball of late.

They’ve had some weird offensive funks hit at random moments, but mostly they can still figure out how to score. They’ve produced the eighth best offensive rating over this 10-game stretch, despite the mediocre record. It’s the defense that has lacked punch — bottom six in the league for that period. It’s been a combination of flat-footed stretches and opponents picking apart schematic choices.

For example, once Utah realized how intent the Clippers were on cutting off the paint, they knew they could produce open shots with enough side-to-side ball movement. Utah took 15 threes that the SportVu trackers described as open or wide open, and they canned 12 of them. Against Minnesota, LA focused on showing Andrew Wiggins pressure from the top and occasionally extra bodies, but that let to backdoors and clean post entries all night. In Milwaukee they coughed up enough turnovers to lead to 41 Buck points, and the Rockets blitzed them from outside with one of the five highest 3-point attempt totals in NBA history.

The cumulative effect of this stretch is a 110.6 defense since Paul returned, which would just edge out their cross-arena rivals’ league-worst season mark of 110.5. The other effect: they’re currently staring up at the four homecourt teams in the West.

For Doc Rivers, it’s not a question of seeding. “I’ve always laughed at three (seed), four, let’s get five,” the coach said to the Associated Press after a six-point loss in Utah on Monday. “That’s ridiculous. If you’re trying to win it all, you’re going to play the good teams eventually. You just have to be ready for it.”

If you’re trying to win it all, he said. Win it all.

Honestly, the Clippers will probably retake the fourth seed at some point. Their schedule is just far easier than Utah’s is, and they have the inside lane on the tiebreaker at 2-1 in the season series with a home date still to come. Utah’s remaining 15 opponents possess an average record of .548 while the Clips’ slate is just .487. The Clippers will also finish on a home-heavy stretch: 10 of their last 15 at home, compared to nine of 15 on the road for the Jazz to close.

But even if they do capture the fourth seed and open the postseason at home, that’s not the bar Doc just described. If you’re trying to win it all…

If that’s what the Clippers are about this season, now is the time to show it. They finally have a healthy rotation, and the scheduling is paying them back for some tough stretches. Between now and their March 25 rematch with the Jazz, only one of the next six opponents is a .500+ outfit — just the champion Cavaliers. The Bucks (Wednesday at home) and Nuggets (Thursday in Denver) are good teams, and the Mavs (next Thursday in Dallas) are playing better. But that’s the kind of stretch where, if the Clippers are really going to convince people they’re still in pursuit of what Doc mentioned, they need to find four or five wins.

“We got to get it together,” Paul said on Monday.

Spoiler alert: even if they do get it together, there’s not a whole lot of evidence that they belong in the trying to win it all conversation. They’re 14-16 against winning teams this year, have a middling record on the road (19-17) and haven’t had a real signature win since before Christmas. None of those data points scream “contender.” And if that’s not what this Clipper ball club is anymore, then the future becomes less certain with big paydays pending.

Even if they reclaim the No. 4 spot and advance into a tough second-round matchup with the Spurs of Warriors, is that enough? Would another conference semi-final trip be enough for franchise owner Steve Ballmer to shell out a potential $380 million to Blake and CP3? Is it enough for those two to commit more years — in Griffin’s prime and potentially Paul’s twilight — despite the frustration of what would then be six early playoff exits in a row?

The answer to both questions could still be yes. Ballmer probably realizes that paying to retain top-tier guys is still a more effective route than starting over and finding new ones. And Griffin and Paul may yet hold out hope that a full healthy season could restore them to contender status more quickly than they could build something up elsewhere. All this last-chance feeling around this Clipper squad could prove hysterical once again.

They may still believe there’s still an elite team hiding there behind the record of a very good one. And if they’re right, they have another month of regular season chances to go about proving it.

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