The Clippers were a franchise in motion on that memorable summer’s day they converged in Houston.
They slipped into an assortment of vehicles to reach DeAndre Jordan’s house, slightly embellishing their efforts by tweeting emojis of a car, an airplane, a helicopter, a banana boat, a swimmer and a rocket ship.
Jordan rewarded the flurry of activity by backing out of a commitment to the Dallas Mavericks to stay with the only NBA team he has known and resume his title chase alongside Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.
After four seasons together, it still qualifies as a slow-speed pursuit.
Two Pacific Division titles and three appearances in the second round of the playoffs are not the kind of legacy envisioned by a trio arguably as strong as any on a single roster in the league.
The playoff disappointments are enough to make Doc Rivers, the team’s coach and president of basketball operations, ponder whether this is the core that can carry the Clippers to a championship.
“You always have to evaluate if you’re going forward or not,” Rivers said this week in a quiet moment inside his team’s practice facility. “It’s like, are you still there? Do you still have a shot at it? And if you do, then what do you have to do? You have to manage that.”
There’s no denying almost any team architect would love to start with the Clippers’ threesome.
Paul is a feisty competitor who still qualifies as one of the game’s top point guards at age 30. Griffin, 26, blends power and grace, equally comfortable shooting mid-range jumpers and overwhelming defenders around the basket. Jordan, 27, is the defensive maestro, coordinating his team’s efforts with his booming voice as well as massive hands that block shots and grab rebounds.
It might feel as if they will remain together forever after Jordan re-signed with the team in July for four years and $87.6 million, but there are certainly no assurances they’ll get four more chances to collectively win a championship. Paul and Griffin can opt out of their contracts after the 2016-17 season and Jordan can do so the season after that. There’s also the possibility of a trade involving one of the stars, albeit unlikely any time soon.
If it’s not quite now or never, it feels like it’s getting close.
“You want your window to be this year because then you have the ultimate sense of urgency,” Griffin said. “We don’t want to say, ‘OK, now that D.J.'s back we have a couple of years to have a crack at it,’ because you never know. Things can change in the blink of an eye. I really think about it in terms of this season and this season only.”
Building toward a title can take time, of course, even when you pair terrific talents on the same team. It took Hall of Famers Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen four years together to slip on the first of their six championship rings with the Chicago Bulls. Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer needed eight full seasons together before winning back-to-back titles with the Detroit Pistons.
The Clippers appeared to be closing in on their playoff breakthrough the last two seasons. They had a seven-point lead against the Oklahoma City Thunder with 49 seconds left in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals in 2014, when a victory would have sent them back to Staples Center with a 3-2 series lead.
Then they led the Houston Rockets by 19 points with 14 1/2 minutes left in Game 6 of the conference semifinals on their home court last spring, when a victory would have moved them into the conference finals for the first time in franchise history.
They somehow lost both games and both series, the latter defeat compounding the dejection players felt the season before.
“The way we’ve lost the last two [seasons], it lingers longer,” Clippers shooting guard J.J. Redick said, “and I don’t know if in either case you’re ever completely over it.”
Redick said he spent part of the flight back from Houston compiling a list of self-improvements he intended to make: What could he do better? How could he help the team more?
Ultimately, the biggest upgrade figures to come from Rivers’ summer roster revamp. He acquired a future Hall of Famer in Paul Pierce, who gives the team another proven end-of-game option besides Paul. He traded for Lance Stephenson, a playmaker and the perimeter defender the Clippers were missing in recent years. And he brought in Josh Smith, a defensive-oriented forward who can back up both Griffin and Jordan.
The pressure to win it all won’t come just from fans. Clippers owner Steve Ballmer himself put the onus on his employees this summer when he said his team should be able to win a championship with three of the best 20 to 25 players in the NBA.
Others are tempering expectations considering the crazy-hard working conditions the Clippers face in the West, where each of the top teams somehow seems to improve each year.
“Certainly Western Conference finals or NBA Finals is what Doc Rivers is probably preaching in his locker room,” Hall of Fame shooting guard and TNT analyst Reggie Miller said during a recent conference call with reporters, “but I’m not going to be scratching my head going, ‘Oh well, they lost in the first or second round and they got beat by the Memphis Grizzlies’ [when] the Memphis Grizzlies can easily win the whole thing as well.
“That is playing in the Western Conference.”
It’s also part of the conundrum facing Rivers as the Clippers’ basketball boss. He doesn’t want to preserve a core of players who can’t win a championship. He also doesn’t want to jettison it before finding out whether all it needed was more time together.
“I’m nowhere near thinking about that,” Rivers said of disbanding his core. “But you always have to think, what’s the next step? It’s a great core. It’s a young core, too, other than Chris. Chris is not old, but he’s not young anymore, so what you want to keep doing, I always say if you can keep your core and keep putting around them the right pieces, it’s really important.”
The Clippers appear to have done just that, leading to a widespread belief they could be on the verge of something beyond regular-season success.
“I don’t think that deeply into it about what the future holds and all that stuff,” Paul said. “It’s about right now and that’s winning a championship now.”