CHICAGO – Coach Doc Rivers: Headed back to Orlando where he began his NBA coaching career and where he still owns a home and where his family has remained. To run the Magic franchise.
Chris Paul: To the San Antonio Spurs to step in for the aging Tony Parker and finally get past the second round of the playoffs.
Blake Griffin: Back to his state roots where he was born and went to college with the Oklahoma City Thunder to join Russell Westbrook.
Nah, just kidding.
They’ll all be back, and it doesn’t necessarily mean the Clippers will get past the second round of the playoffs. But when you have averaged 55 wins per season for the last five years — even if you have taken some playoff steps backward the last two years — it’s awfully painful to start again.
Especially when your owner paid $2 billion for the franchise and is jumping up and down all the time.
It’s difficult to jump up and down for 22 wins.
This is where the Los Angeles Clippers are: Not good enough to win a championship, and not fortunate enough to have stayed healthy often enough to get close. But too good to listen to the critics and, as they advise, “blow it up.”
Explosions tend to be very messy things. Especially in the NBA, where the kids coming into the game get younger and younger. And the Clippers have basically spent the last several years trying to win.
So they don’t have much opportunity for high draft picks or players they can trade with Paul and Griffin, their two best, possessing contract opt-outs to become free agents. And center DeAndre Jordan potentially a free agent after next season.
Plus, the best weather in the United States, the most glamorous city, and the most commercial off-court opportunities, which both Paul and Griffin have been the biggest beneficiaries, in sports.
No one’s going anywhere, but I would guess Carmelo Anthony is coming.
So saddle up for another Clippers ride. Probably not to the ultimate destination, but lots better than the alternative.
There’s this curious all-or-nothing ethos in American sports these days, that if you are not good enough to win a championship, well, then you have to strip down your team and build toward winning a championship. Nice neverland plan. But hardly realistic.
The NBA makes you play 82 games every six months. It can feel like an awfully long time losing 80 percent of your games. It becomes time for some franchises. Though more often than not, like with teams like the Minnesota Timberwolves, you can be in that nether land for more than a decade; the 2003-04 season was the last time the Timberwolves made the playoffs since their explosion.
They are more the rule than the exception. The Timberwolves have a wonderful young core now. Eventually most franchises follow that path. But you don’t until you absolutely have to.
The Clippers aren’t there yet.
Sure, they were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round the last two seasons; and sure they probably were born in the wrong decade with an amazing Golden State Warriors run about to overwhelm everything in the Western Conference, if not the entire NBA.
That would be, by the way, the same Warriors franchise that went from 1995 through 2012 with making the playoffs one time. That’s almost two lost decades.
The critics scream for change; they’re tired of seeing these guys.
The Clippers know better.
It takes time to put together excellence, and the Clippers are too good to scrap it now. They’ve had plenty of bad luck with injuries, Griffin in these playoffs, Paul and Griffin alternatively in various regular seasons.
But the alternative is very, very painful.
So this is what I expect the Clippers to do:
Re-sign both Paul and Griffin to long-term deals. Paul remains one of the elite guards in the NBA; still a clutch performer, if also a pain to get along with.
He would be easier to take if they were in the finals. Griffin is just 28. He’s lost some of his amazing explosiveness due to injuries, but he’s still a super athlete with an improved game with his outside shot.
To me, Jordan is the odd man out.
He’s too expensive for a guy whom you can’t play late in games because he cannot make free throws.
The Knicks have made it clear they want to trade Anthony. He’s been reluctant, but Paul is one of his closest friends and the Clippers playing in the high-powered Western Conference need one more big-time offensive alternative.
Sure, Anthony’s defense is non-existent, but so is James Harden’s. And he’ll be MVP runner-up.
Jordan’s a defensive presence; he’s too much of a luxury in the West. Look what the Warriors do with rotating big men who are almost out of the league. Maybe have the Knicks throw in Kyle O’Quinn or one of the 10 or 11 Plumlees hanging around. They also have one.
Yes, Paul dominates the ball, but then that means Carmelo won’t. The Clippers likely will let J.J. Redick go. He’s also a free agent and too much a specialist for a big contract.
They still have Austin Rivers and Jamal Crawford and can fill around the edges, as they did with the likes of Marreesse Speights.
It’s about scorers in the West. Carmelo still is a big-time one.
Maybe you lift the personnel responsibilities from Rivers because you really can’t do both jobs. But he’s too good a coach and too respected to try to find a replacement for a veteran group.
The Utah Jazz with Karl Malone and John Stockton lost in the first round of the playoffs four times between 1989 and 1995. Then the view was Malone and Stockton were too old and had their time.
Then they went to back-to-back finals when both were in their mid-30s and were a push-off or Jordan shot or two away from a championship.
The Clippers are just stalled in traffic. It happens to everyone in Los Angeles.
But if you stick with it you may just find your way.
Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”