Midway through a recent fourth quarter, with the Los Angeles Clippers trailing the Minnesota Timberwolves by three at home, Lance Stephenson caught the ball at the top of the key. In his jittering way—Stephenson always appears to be feeling the effects of both a quad espresso and a slight electrical current—he faked a one-handed pass to the left wing, took one hard dribble down the lane, faked another pass behind his back, and scooped in a layup. After the Clippers forced a turnover on the other end, the ball found Jamal Crawford on the break. Crawford dribbled straight at his defender at full speed, screeched to a stop, and lofted a floater off the glass to give Los Angeles the lead.
In those 30 seconds, the Clippers looked like what they have always been forecast to be: a team so relentlessly and variably talented that they can overcome whatever trouble they find themselves in, whether in a wanting effort against a bottom-feeder in February or a Game 7 in May, through sheer breadth of options. Their present problems weren't the most noble—Blake Griffin was absent after breaking his hand punching a team staffer the week before, Austin Rivers had been ejected in the second quarter for getting two technical fouls in short order, and the team had spent the first three-and-a-half quarters puttering around against the outmatched Wolves—and so were characteristic of what the team has often been, in defiance of both those forecasts and all that talent.
Still, the dynamism of their play, and the depth and eccentricity of their resources, impressed. The Staples Center crowd got loud, hoping the resolve required to turn it on late against the second-worst team in the Western Conference might be some distant relative to the type that will be needed in a playoff series against the Thunder or Spurs.
The Clippers ended up losing that night, 108-102. Chris Paul picked up a technical in the final minute, J.J. Redick fumbled the ball out of bounds on the next possession, and the team left the court in a huff. What could have been the Clippers' fifth straight win instead became an entry in a much more enduring pattern, that of their regular cycles through promise and frustration. If the "Conference Finals or Bust" noise coming out of Los Angeles is to be believed, and if probabilities bear out, these next few months may be the last for this era of the Clippers. If that's the case, they're going out with a deserved bang, because this is the most bizarre, brilliant, frustrating, dumb, and glorious version of them yet.
Referring to "this era of the Clippers" is a little bit disingenuous, of course. The core components did not get to Los Angeles simultaneously, or even close to it. DeAndre Jordan came from the 2008 draft, and Griffin was drafted a year later but sat until the following season due to a knee injury. Paul arrived in 2011, Doc Rivers in 2013. The Clippers of recent vintage, and the virtuosic and virtuosically self-thwarting basketball they play, are the product of the same year-to-year churn that makes every other team.
Still, part of the screwball appeal of these Clippers is that they seem like a squad that could have been built all at once, with a checklist of needs, limitless resources, and a little too much zeal. Need a defensive anchor? Get the human spring who smacks shots off the backboard so hard that they careen out past the three-point line. Someone to space the floor? Get the Duke-iest, spot-up-shooting-est motherfucker in the NBA. Bench scoring threat? Get the guy who built his game by retiring to a cabin in the woods outside Seattle one summer with a bucket of psychedelic mushrooms and a VHS tape of Vinnie Johnson highlights.
This season, the margins of the roster really complete the effect. Few teams make as honest an attempt as the Clippers to host every basketball type they can. Their substitutions induce whiplash. Cole Aldrich relieves Jordan, and Paul has to go analog with the pick-and-rolls. Paul Pierce, who even in his prime had the build of a poached egg, shares minutes with Wesley Johnson, who runs and jumps like he could take Olympic hurdles two at a time. Lance is ready in case Doc wants things to get really weird.
With this collection of players, every play is a non-sequitur. One possession, Jordan finishes a chin-to-rim alley-oop, the helpside defense unwilling to budge from J.J. Redick. The next, the offense spends 18 seconds trying to manufacture a dang entry pass. Sometimes, watching them tick through their options and take apart a defense a few trips in a row, you think they've achieved something like the shared basketball consciousness on display in Oakland and San Antonio. Then, for the next five minutes, the best shot they can get is a contested Pablo Prigioni 20-footer with the shot clock running down.
Perhaps sensing an impending end, this dysfunction has lately started to metastasize, expanding to include front-office maneuvers and postgame nights on the town. The January trade of Josh Smith to the Rockets, half a year after signing him away from the same team, held to all the conventions of the Clippers' more desultory on-court spells. Griffin's boxer's fracture, meanwhile—reportedly the result of an evening of ribbing that he found excessive—is an almost too on-the-nose metaphor for how Clippers seasons tend to end. Their various quirks and mismatches, while tolerable during the regular season, congeal into a mass of dysfunction exactly when they shouldn't. And then a 3-1 series lead disappears, quite logically.
Cohesion is the current NBA's most valuable attribute. The league's two best teams, the Warriors and Spurs, are also its most orderly, and their wins are all timed screens and extra passes. They make intricate plays so often that they force you to suspend disbelief; you eventually accept that what looks exceptional, those blind dishes and 10-step possessions, is really just their standard way of things.
The Clippers have the opposite effect. Taking the court before tipoff or milling around after a timeout, they look unbeatable, with the best pure point guard of the millennium flanked by every sort of helper he could want. You expect to see something great, and then they go out and curb that expectation.
They are not a bad team, far from it. During Griffin's absence, in fact, the Clippers have played some of their best basketball of the year, a characteristic bit of illogic. But it is tempting, considering their stated goals and past setbacks and those almost certain to come, to consider them a disappointment, and to look for the source of that disappointment in the very makeup that built those expectations in the first place. The Clippers take on the air of a morality play, their fumbling trajectory, compared with those of the NBA elite, a warning about the pitfalls of lavishness in the face of upright austerity.
Really, though, they should evoke gratitude. The NBA's recent trend towards refined collaboration has been welcome, on the whole, but it has also had a smoothing effect. The game starts to seem like a race to achieve maximum gloss, to most effectively sand down any interpersonal edges. In this context, the Clippers are a refreshing mess of humanity and a reminder of what basketball—pretty good basketball, at that—looks like unperfected. They'll lose sometime late in spring, and they may break things up to some degree shortly thereafter, but hopefully they'll pull one of those blamelessly perfect teams down into the muck for a little while before they do.