The Clippers Figured Out Who They Were. Then, Suddenly, They Weren't

Each year, the Clippers fight to exorcise the ghosts of last season's postseason heartbreak. This year, they went out bravely, but things still feel familiar.

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May 6 2016, 2:35pm

Photo by Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

This article is part of VICE Sports' 2016 NBA Playoffs coverage.

Each year, the Los Angeles Clippers introduce a new marketing slogan to use in season ticket drives, blast out of t-shirt cannons, and otherwise forestall the on-court calamity that awaits the team in the postseason. It's Time. We Are LA. Rise Up. Be Relentless. Represent. Imperative but evasive, the slogans allude to the franchise's corporate anxieties as much as its basketball woes. That, or they're just gassy agency placeholders that accidentally wind up making it to silkscreen. It can be hard to tell.

The reason they refresh the ad campaign year after year, of course, is to cast off the lingering vibes from the previous season's Clipper Playoff Nightmare™. There's a belief here, not just in the annual rebranding enterprise but in the actual huddles too, that if everyone furiously agrees with each other that this season will be different—that the team has been to the bottom, learned from its mistakes, and renewed its focus—then the bad stuff really can be wished away. The platitudes abound, but they're healthy platitudes, offered in earnest, even if the underlying dread remains deep and unshakable.

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Nobody would bother with the whole charade if the Clippers didn't make a point of preceding their annual catastrophe with a period of brilliance in which they look unbeatable. Before they flub away Game 5 in Oklahoma City, Jamal Crawford is finger-rolling them to a seven-point cushion and the fans are leaving to beat the traffic; the Clipper offense is throbbing with vitality until it stalls in Game 6 against Houston. This is the painful part of it—not the glimpse of the team's notional ceiling so much as how good and how fun they could be if there wasn't an ineffable, inexorable something holding them back. Those glimpses are what make fans come back for more. Their fleeting nature is why the team has to come up with a new way to sell the experience every summer.

This year, too, began with fresh optimism. The gang had trooped to Houston one night in July to convince DeAndre Jordan to renege on his free-agency commitment to Dallas, and damned if Jordan didn't re-up with the Clippers and squash his beef with Chris Paul. The two hashed out the previous season's trauma, maybe for the first time, and in so doing opened the possibility of a different, happier sort of relationship. That gathering was supposed to be pivotal, a redemption of the Clips' public meltdown in Game 6 through an avalanche of performed camaraderie that unfolded live on Twitter. This was that catastrophe logic again—if it hadn't been for that hellish collapse in the series against the Rockets, the team might never have understood the urgency of getting on the same page. Finally, the Clippers were ready to take the NBA on, together. The tagline for this season was Together We Will.

Together, they might have. Photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The trouble was that "we" proved to be a rather fluid concept. Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith—talented miscreants brought in to shore up a thin second unit—crashed and burned, respectively. Griffin, enjoying career-best numbers through the season's first trimester, strained his right quadriceps then cracked his hand on a good friend's face; he missed 45 games and the club reportedly toyed with the idea of trading him. They did trade for Jeff Green, who showed up only on some nights. When Paul Pierce was healthy enough to play, he looked like a roller suitcase with a broken wheel. After a season in which the team's lack of depth was its undoing, its...lack of depth was once again pretty glaring.

More than that, we never got a sense of what the team would be like, or how good it could be, because the pieces were never all intact at the same time. Still, just before the end, it briefly seemed like they could make a run of it. The starting five was at least active going into the first round, even if Griffin and JJ Redick were hobbling. Stephen Curry's ankle and knee injuries seemed to introduce the possibility that a second round matchup with Golden State would be competitive, maybe even winnable. The Clippers blew out Portland in the first two games at home. Then dread, misfortune, and emboldened Trail Blazers rushed in.

More than anything else, it was just a bummer. Fighting desperately to ward off the looming specter of collapse in Game 4, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin suffered season-ending injuries within minutes of each other. The injuries made a letdown that had begun to feel inevitable and already in motion into a cold fact. Devastating as it was, demise at the hand of some external force was almost a relief in contrast to previous collapses. It was, at least, a new way to fail.

The wrinkle in this iteration of Clipper tragedy is that because the hammer dropped with two games to play, a phantom lineup was left to stand in for the denouement. The Clippers dropped Game 5 by ten points. With the team facing elimination in Game 6, Austin Rivers was installed as starting point guard and Crawford was given the ultimate green light—the arrangement was not intended to resemble typical playoff basketball, but it looked pretty glorious anyway.

Unable to find out what they could be, these Clippers instead proved what they were: gallant and unimpeachable, beautiful in their own way, and unmistakably a team. Rivers took an elbow in his eye socket and became a bloody metaphor for the Clippers' season; with his eye practically sutured shut, he suddenly was making smart reads in the pick-and-roll, throwing in floaters and finally nailing one of his innumerable stepback threes. Crawford put Allen Crabbe in the pepper grinder and crushed him up for 32.

All different kinds of hurt going on, here. Photo by Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Buoyed by the audacity of a dare they were pulling off, the players seemed to catch a second wind. DeAndre, alone with the ball at the three-point line, tried to dunk from there; Pierce leapt into the corner to contest a three. The sum of their grim parts wasn't just coherent, it was fun to watch; indeed, with nothing to fight for but the right to play one more game together, the Clippers were playing with purpose. It got them a rebound away from overtime, which is to say that Game 6—and another Clipper season along with it—ended up as a tremendously affirming heartbreak.

And then, they weren't playing at all. In the locker room, the emotion and self-consciousness that has come to define this team came in torrents. On his podcast, Redick described seeing multiple teammates, including Pierce, in tears. "This one hurts," said Austin Rivers, stunned into submission at the podium. "I'm sad and disappointed, but at the same time, I'm very proud—of my teammates, coaches, myself. We've come a long way." In one night, Rivers had gone from someone with few redeeming skills as a basketball player to a seemingly indispensable cog.

There was a heady rush of pure chemistry late in the third quarter of that game. Rivers took a hard stutter-step crossover into the paint before finding Crawford in stride for a midrange J and the lead. In the ensuing huddle, the players looked exhausted, anxious, and alone in their thoughts, locking into step with their ghosts. But then Pierce started working himself into a rage. He threw a towel and stood up, engaging his teammates. It flicked a switch—they leaned in, started talking, clapped each other on.

It was the character of this team in this game, more than anything else from the 2015-2016 season, that explains why Doc Rivers will bring back both of the stars who were sidelined for it. He's fallen for the snare of the silver lining—that if you just bring back the breakout Rivers as a backup to the regular starters, the team could banish the dread once and for all. It's partial reinforcement laid bare, but I can't call it naïve, because I've started to believe in it, too.

There might be a thousand ways to lose, and the Clippers would know. Generalize enough, though, and they all start to look the same; at the very least, the ending never changes. This was another elimination before the conference finals; this, now, marks another offseason to spend reckoning with their failures. There will be another draft to disregard, and another batch of aging, Doc-approved Eastern Conference vets to fill out next year's roster. By October, there will be a new motto on the promo materials. And the next time they make the playoffs, maybe things really will be different.