LOS ANGELES It's not the Clippers' call.
Despite what you might have heard, whether the core group of players nicknamed "Lob City" lives or dies isn't a decision that will ultimately come down to the team.
So while there will be eulogies and what-if pieces written about the possible end of an era that never was following the Clippers' first-round Game 7 loss to the Utah Jazz Sunday, you cannot glance over that basic truth: even if the Clippers brass Steve Ballmer, Doc Rivers, and Lawrence Frank wanted to keep soon-to-be free agents Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and J.J. Redick together with DeAndre Jordan (and all indications are that they do) in L.A., it's ultimately not their decision to make.
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Yes, the Clippers can offer Paul and Griffin more money and more years than other teams, but what if either doesn't want the maximum deal? What if Redick wants a change of scenery at age 32?
Ultimately, it's up to the players if they're going to keep the band together. The Clippers' front office can only extend its best offers and hope they're accepted.
That said, it's clear that this Clippers team for all its successes (it boasts a .600 winning percentage or better for the last six years) is not a championship contender.
The expectations around this team created in the pre-Warriors boom, pre-pace-and-space revolution haven't come close to being met and they aren't going to get there if the team continues along its current path.
The Clippers need a big, bold change but that doesn't mean that you reject Paul (one of the greatest point guards to ever play the game), Griffin, or Redick.
The move needs to be bigger than that: Clippers owner Steve Ballmer needs to fire Doc Rivers.
The Clippers' failures in the Lob City era have been chalked up to bad luck, but that's a smokescreen. There was some bad luck, sure, but there was poor play in big situations, too.
Still, you cannot ultimately pin the Clippers' failures on Paul, Griffin, Jordan (who is a free agent after the 2018 season), and Redick (who was abysmal in the Clippers' Game 7 loss and the series as a whole). Paul was wildly effective in the series, Griffin was injured (again), and while Jordan and Redick were disappointments, their limp performances can't stand as the difference in the series.
No, this Clippers' team was doomed from the start because it wasn't nearly dynamic or deep enough to contend.
You build championships over years and in the margins, but this Clippers team might as well have forfeited their draft picks since 2011. Not a single selection in the Lob City era Trey Thompkins, Travis Leslie, Reggie Bullock, C.J. Wilcox, Brice Johnson, or Diamond Stone has provided the Clippers any value. Even the Sacramento Kings would be aghast at that terrible run.
So instead of developing young, cost-beneficial role players to augment or possibly supersede the Clippers' established stars and starters, Rivers, who is the Clippers' chief personnel decision-maker along with being the team's coach, has stocked the Clippers' roster with a strange mix of one-skill veterans and ring-chasers not good enough to play with Cleveland, Golden State, or San Antonio. That's why Paul Pierce played 21 minutes and Raymond Felton 23 in Game 7, or why Luc Mbah a Moute started, despite the fact that he provides no offensive threat, which allowed the Jazz to stop defending him and trap Paul in Game 7.
(When Mbah a Moute was on the court, the Clippers had an offensive rating of 62.8.)
That's no way to build a championship contending team. It is, however, a tremendous way to squander the career of perhaps the greatest point guard to ever play.
There have, of course, been plenty of flashes of championship potential with the Clippers teams of this decade, and even this year, they impressed. At the beginning of the season the Clippers fooled some myself included as sterling bench play helped propel the team to a 14-2 start. It was, of course, a mirage created in an environment completely different than the postseason. And after the team leveled off and the great start didn't look so impressive following a blowout home loss to Warriors on December 7, the Clippers never found another gear another kind of smoke.
"Some teams aren't meant to figure out those answers," Redick said after Game 7.
Yes, some teams are not meant to figure it out, but it's Rivers' job as coach to at least inspire some confidence that this team might.
But how could anyone including Redick truly believe that this was going to be the year for the Clippers, with or without Griffin?
A good team has three star players and two reliable, but established role players (Jamal Crawford and Redick). A great team continues to add to that strong roster by maximizing the potential of the non-core players. But who on this Clippers team is a better player because he played for Doc Rivers? Who was going to give this Clippers team a little something extra?
Your best answer might be his son, Austin. You can infer what you'd like from that.
Sorry to cite a lame adage, but it does apply here: With great power comes great responsibility.
And Doc Rivers has all the power with this Clippers team, even after handing over day-to-day GM duties to former Nets coach Lawrence Frank.
So you can place this series loss, and the disappointment that comes from coming up well short yet again at the feet of the man in charge.
No matter what Griffin's health is or how poorly Redick plays, you simply cannot have a lineup of Raymond Felton, Austin Rivers, Jamal Crawford, Paul Pierce, and Mo Speights on the court for a good chunk of the third quarter of an elimination game and expect to contend for a title.
If the team's pending free agents sign the max contract offers that are probable to come their way this summer, the Clippers' window will be even more clearly defined. And it won't be a long one, either: Paul is 31, Griffin 28, Redick 32, and Jordan will have only one year left on his deal.
The Clippers have wasted six years of peak Paul (.270 win shares per 48 since arriving in L.A. LeBron is at .258 during that period) by not having enough players around him an issue that was always known but only fully came to the surface when Griffin was injured. No one knows how many more peak years Paul has it could be nine, it could be three but it would be malpractice if the Clippers wasted those, too.
And if Doc Rivers remains in a position of power with the Clippers, we'll have no choice but to assume that will happen.