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Lakshman: What’s going on with the Clippers?

Last year, I wrote about the demise of Donald Sterling, the former Los Angeles Clippers owner, and his masterful ploy to lead the Clips back to their rightful place in mediocrity, providing a consistent place for us to turn to get that comforting dose of horrible basketball.

So you can imagine my intense dismay at the resurrection of the Clippers into shockingly serious title contenders. After the dispatching of a red-hot San Antonio team in the first round (following arguably the greatest seven-game series in league history), the Clippers now find themselves in the most uncharted of waters for the Staples Center’s “other team.”

With a 3-1 lead over the No. 2-seeded Houston Rockets in the Western Conference semifinals, Doc Rivers’ crew looks poised to storm into the Conference Finals and get one step closer to that elusive Larry O’Brien Trophy.

As we start talking about the Clippers and the word “championship” with decreasing doses of irony, we have to back up and ask ourselves: “How did this even happen?”

In what we now know was one of his final podcasts for ESPN, Bill Simmons, joined by his friend Haralobos Voulagaris, summarized the Clippers’ last four years with a clever Scrabble analogy. After Voulgaris noted that the Clippers just seem to be rearranging the same tiles in the hopes of achieving a breakthrough, Simmons noted that “Blake [Griffin] is a ‘Q’ and Chris Paul is a ‘Z,’ but the Clips just can’t find that ‘U’ they’ve been waiting on for four years.”

The Scrabble analogy captures the essence of just why we should be so surprised by the Clippers’ evolution into a playoff juggernaut. We’ve seen this core group of Paul, Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Rivers desperately lunge for that championship ring for three seasons now. The tiles around them, moreover, haven’t drastically improved this year. J.J. Redick is a solid NBA veteran, and his defense on James Harden has turned the tide of the Houston series, but he’s a 2-3 point tile at best. Austin Rivers is a blank, but a special kind that can net you 8 points or -25 on a given turn.

There seem to be a million reasons why the Clippers shouldn’t be succeeding, and yet here they are, five wins away from playing for an NBA Championship.

Perhaps the real lesson to learn from the Clippers, through the trials and tribulations of the past four seasons, is that continuity matters a whole lot. Maybe there is some value in holding onto to those Scrabble tiles and hoping something suddenly materializes over time.

Consider Griffin and Jordan — LA’s towering, gravity-defying tandem in the paint, who both happen to be 26 years old and entering the primes of their respective careers. Griffin especially has established himself this season as one of the elite players in the game. Despite a slight statistical drop-off during the regular season, Griffin has looked virtually unstoppable during the playoffs, averaging more than 24 points per game, and looking capable of taking over a possession seemingly at will, joining an elite group of basketball players in the process.

Jordan, for all of his woes at the free-throw line and lack of a refined post game, has become an absolute rebounding machine. He’s the perfect example of a player who has benefited from the Clips’ stubborn approach to maintaining continuity, where the system has been tailored to accentuate his strengths: clean up the glass and slam home high-percentage shots. Now, if only he could knock down more than half his free throws…

The Clippers’ bench — featuring the likes of Jamal Crawford, Rivers, Spencer Hawes and Glen Davis — is largely uninspiring, but that speaks even more to just how effective the starters have been in first sending the Spurs packing and now putting the Rockets up against elimination. With their postseason shortcomings in the past and the collective strength of the Western Conference, it was easy to pencil the Clippers in for another first- or second- round exist, but this year looks different. This looks like a team with the mettle to win it all.

For Chris Paul, one of the league’s best players of the last decade and who has been conspicuously absent from the grandest stage in the sport, this season might be his best chance to get that coveted championship. And if his last-second shot in Game 7 against San Antonio is any indication, Paul still has plenty left in the tank to will his team to victory in big games.

Going against conventional wisdom and fighting through a number of playoff heartbreaks, the Clippers have kept the core of their roster intact, and they might be rewarded with one golden opportunity to go where no Clippers squad has gone before. Their championship window looks rather short — in fact, it may not extend beyond this postseason — but that does not matter right now. What does matter is that the Clippers have shown that sticking to a core group of players and maintaining roster continuity might be the secret to breaking through. And, for the time being, it looks like we’ll have to go a little longer with putting up with good Clippers basketball.

Although Vihan Lakshman has yet to break out a Clippers jersey around campus, he is continually on his phone looking up fun (albeit unconventional) facts about the team. Distract him at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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