Welcome to Hoop Dreams, a season preview unlike any other you’ll read before the 2016-17 season tips off. The premise is simple. We’ll be providing 30 of these fictional forays because it simply stinks that only one team can win the title each year. The list of contending teams seems to shrink with each campaign, and we wanted to provide something to those fans who only get to dream of Larry O’Brien during the offseason. Before October, every team can win the NBA title. Don’t believe us? Then keep reading. – Ed
Chris Paul couldn’t catch his breath.
The Los Angeles Clippers superstar had just accomplished the feat that had been nothing more than a dream for his entire life: Winning a championship. But Paul, basketball’s ultimate competitor, still couldn’t believe it was real.
Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan shared a typically euphoric and childlike embrace directly behind him. JJ Redick was having hushed, pointed words with Doc Rivers, who himself was on the verge of tears. Jamal Crawford laid at the bottom of a mosh pit at center court, clutching the game ball to his chest as the Clippers’ less-heralded players came dangerously close to crushing him.
Paul stood alone, having walked away from the action and his title-winning team’s bench to the opposite end of the floor as the clock at Quicken Loans Arena finally expired. He didn’t play well in Los Angeles’ crowning Game 6 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers. 13 points, seven rebounds, nine assists, and one turnover on 4-of-11 shooting would have represented a stellar performance for most in a championship elimination game, but not Paul. He’d always expected even more from himself than the basketball world did, and leading the Clippers to an ugly 91-85 victory while struggling to find his shot — or move around the floor at all — wasn’t how he’d always imagined he’d play with a Larry O’Brien Trophy on the line.
But don’t confuse Paul’s heavy heaving, hands on hips, and glossed-over gaze for anything resembling disappointment. After 11 years of coming up short, the future Hall of Famer just didn’t know how to react upon finally crossing the championship finish line.
As he sat down on a suddenly-empty Cavaliers’ bench, Paul put his head in his hands and breathed in deep. Was this really happening? Over a decade of playoff futility made his new reality difficult to fathom, but so did a previous seven months that once saw Los Angeles’ title hopes go from objectively slim to seemingly non-existent.
The Clippers began the 2016-17 season like legitimate contenders to the defending-champion Cavaliers and juggernaut Golden State Warriors. Griffin’s all-court dynamism reaffirmed his place among the game’s truly elite players; Jordan’s defensive performance surpassed its reputation; Redick proved his 2015-16 season as the new normal; Crawford’s efficiency boomed as the result of a reduced playmaking role; Austin Rivers lived up to his pricey new contract by establishing himself as an upper-echelon perimeter defender; Paul Pierce had sipped from the fountain of youth to give this team the sense of unyielding confidence it had long lacked; offseason additions Brandon Bass, Alan Anderson, and Marreese Speights allowed Rivers to keep his core players fresh with little negative recourse; and Paul was doing what he’d always done, keeping his case as basketball’s only Point God alive for at least another year.
Los Angeles opened the season 25-6, nipping at the Warriors’ heels for the best record in the league. But the Clipper curse seemed to strike again on Christmas Day, when Jordan took a hard foul on D’Angelo Russell — who’d been torching Paul all game long while making sure the holiday audience knew all about it — that caused him to land awkwardly and badly twist his ankle. The Defensive Player of the Year favorite was sidelined for the next nine weeks with a left high-ankle sprain, which began a series of events that seemed to spell Los Angeles’ all-too-familiar fate.
The Clippers’ age had caught up with them. Rivers shut Pierce down for a month in mid-January, and the ever-youthful Crawford strained his back in a humiliating road loss to the Phoenix Suns on February 1. By the time Paul tweaked his hamstring against Golden State in the first game after the All-Star break, Rivers was already looking to stem his team’s losing tide with a major move at the trade deadline. Just one problem: Los Angeles didn’t have the assets to get a deal done.
Paul missed just five games while rehabbing the same injury that nearly cost the Clippers a first-round win over the San Antonio Spurs in 2015. Los Angeles went just 1-4 without him in the lineup, dropping to 40-21 overall and losing its once-ironclad grasp on a top-four seed in the Western Conference playoff race. Paul made his return for a nationally-televised home game against the surging Boston Celtics 10 days later, and a fully-healthy Jordan cut his scheduled recovery time one week short to do the same at the behest of his team’s leader.
“We can’t keep doing this sh*t,” Paul told him on a dreary, post-loss plane ride from Chicago to Los Angeles. “I finally feel time coming for us. There’s no telling how much longer this team will be together. If we don’t right the ship right now, we may never win a championship — as a group or alone.
“I hear you,” Jordan said, and he walked to the front of the plane to tell Rivers he’d be sitting out no longer. Griffin overheard the exchange from the next row over, and promised Paul he wouldn’t let Lob City’s ride end prematurely.
“I got us,” he said. “Do what you can, and I’ll make sure it’s enough for us to have a chance.”
The Clippers’ title run began in earnest on March 6 when they beat Boston, the league’s hottest team, by 27 points with the type of two-way excellence that prompted so much optimism before the New Year. Griffin won some MVP votes that day with a monster triple-double of 31 points, 14 rebounds, and 12 assists, while Jordan matched his season-high nine blocks with as many rim-rattling dunks. The only negative takeaway from Los Angeles’ 107-80 rout? Paul faded into the background, failing to record double-digit points or assists for just the third time all season.
Los Angeles finished the regular season by winning 17 of its last 20 games, dropping the pair that Paul sat out to rest plus an emotionally-charged rematch against the surprising young Lakers. At 58-24, the Clippers earned the third seed in the Western Conference playoff field and a first-round rematch with the Portland Trail Blazers.
Apart from a pull-up jumper in crunch time that gave his team a Game 4 victory, Paul remained on the periphery against Damian Lillard and company. No matter, though. On the strength of Griffin’s all-encompassing influence and a dominant defense spearheaded by Jordan, the Clippers dispatched of the Blazers in five games.
After the series, whispers surfaced that Paul was much less than 100 percent. “Come on, guys. Nobody is fully healthy this time of year,” he replied incredulously when asked if his hamstring pain was lingering. “Talk to me when we’re losing — if that happens.”
The Spurs, who took a step back defensively absent Tim Duncan, didn’t have the firepower to keep up with a Los Angeles attack jolted by the sudden rejuvenation of Crawford and Pierce. Griffin, who was presented with the MVP trophy by Adam Silver prior to Game 3 at Staples Center, was the best player in the five-game series — by far. Paul, meanwhile, averaged just 12 points and seven assists per game. The silver lining: He shot a scorching 57 percent from the field on a steady diet of lightly-contested jumpers.
The Warriors proved the Clippers’ toughest test. An overwhelming majority of analysts and fans alike picked Steve Kerr’s team to advance to its third consecutive NBA Finals. And Rivers, just like he did before that epic San Antonio series of two years prior, made sure his squad knew it.
“We didn’t need the extra motivation,” Paul quipped to reporters before Game 1, “but I’ll never fault Doc for trying. It worked once before, right?”
Those prognostications seemed on point after an opener in which the Clippers were laughed out of Oracle Arena. Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson were as cold as Redick was hot in Game 2, though, leading to a narrow Los Angeles victory. Still, most explained Golden State’s loss by a random off shooting night — at least until the Clippers took Game 3 at Staples Center.
After watching his team struggle on both ends of the floor the previous two games, Steve Kerr made a long-awaited lineup switch for Game 4, replacing Zaza Pachulia in the starting lineup with Andre Iguodala. The gambit worked, evening the series at two games apiece before Rivers made an adjustment of his own — benching Crawford and, ironically, Speights — that propelled Los Angeles to victory in Game 5. Durant then out-dueled Griffin in a classic the following matchup, setting the stage for a do-or-die Game 7 in Oakland.
“We’re confident,” Griffin said on the practice floor the day before the biggest game of his career. “Obviously, we’d like to be playing at home, but some things happened during the season that prevented us from playing as well as we can. We’re healthy now, and I think we’re the best team in the league. We’ll find out tomorrow if I’m right.”
The Warriors trailed the Clippers 93-89 with just over one minute remaining in the fourth quarter. Draymond Green had fouled out on the previous possession, and Kerr replaced him at center with David West. Los Angeles emerged from a timeout with a simple set: Paul and Griffin working a two-man game at the top of the floor. A corner jumper by Pierce and missed three-pointer by Thompson later, Los Angeles had the ball with the chance to tie or win its first ever trip to the NBA Finals.
Rivers elected against calling timeout, and Paul waited for Griffin just past half court as the clock ticked below 10 seconds. Golden State switched the screen this time, though, leaving Paul isolated at the top of the key against West. Crossover, step back, splash. The Clippers beat the Warriors 94-93.
The Finals were tame by comparison. Cleveland was depleted; Tristan Thompson broke his hand diving for a loose ball in the first round, and J.R. Smith hadn’t been the same since spraining his wrist on the rim against Boston in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals. If not for herculean performances by LeBron James in Games 3 and 5, Los Angeles might have won its first title in a sweep.
That possibility wasn’t lost on Paul as he sat alone on the Cavaliers’ bench and his teammates celebrated a world away. He could have been better. Why wasn’t he more aggressive? How come he didn’t spend more time in the film room? Why couldn’t he make himself take more time to rest and rehab during the regular season? The season was over, and it wasn’t perfect yet again.
Paul suddenly felt a hand on his head. He didn’t look up and finally started to cry.
“You did it,” James said.