The Clipper Curse has never held such power.
The Clipper Curse has never been so perilous.
Even amid their long history of failure, the Clippers have never been so close to a cliff off which they could plunge into a chasm of chaos.
The blown postseason leads of Lob City were despicable. The crumpling in last year’s playoff bubble was deplorable.
But this, this … this would be worse.
For a Clippers team that has its best chance to win a championship in its 36-year Los Angeles history to lose in the first round to the Dallas Mavericks would be a Sterling-plated debacle of Benoit Benjamin proportions.
Their star could be gone. Their staff could be ransacked. Their future home could lose support. Their owner could finally, unequivocally, lose his marbles.
Yet, here we are, the Clippers trailing two games to none after losing twice at Staples Center, the Clippers requiring a historic comeback to survive, only six of 38 higher seeds ever winning a series after losing the first two games at home.
Yes, here we are, the Clipper Curse descending boisterously and brutally on a team that thought it was finally immune.
The Clippers ended the regular season as probably the highest functioning and healthiest unit in the wide-open West. They have the league’s best long-range shooters. They had the league’s best free-throw shooters. They have two of the league’s best defenders.
They have the coach they wanted in the likable and respected Tyronn Lue. They have the old bench souls they needed in Rajon Rondo, Nicolas Batum and Serge Ibaka. They have two seasons of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George playing together. They appeared to tank the last two regular-season games — they’ll never admit it — to wind up as the fourth seed and avoid playing the Lakers until the conference finals.
They are who they want to be. They are where they want to be.
And yet, in two games, they’ve had two fourth-quarter collapses, two interminable stretches of defensive breakdowns, two pretty heinous losses to a Luka Doncic-led team that is closing them out with Tim Hardaway Jr., Maxi Kleber and Dorian Finney-Smith.
A certain Clippers leader, meanwhile, keeps airballing inspiration.
One year after saying the Clippers’ 2020 season was “not a championship-or-bust year for us,” — um, shouldn’t all seasons for all Los Angeles teams be championship or bust? — George has stuck his sneaker in it again.
Asked about his level of concern after their Game 2 loss to the Mavericks on Tuesday night, George said, “I mean, there is none.”
When Lue was asked the same thing, he said, “I’m not concerned.”
Compare that to the frustration seething out of Anthony Davis earlier this week after the Lakers had lost just once in the playoffs to the Phoenix Suns. Frank Vogel lives with a brow furrowed in concern. LeBron James is openly concerned about pretty much everything on the planet.
It seems like ever since Leonard and George arrived last year, the Clippers have been too cool for school. While their business folks have worked hard to establish their own hardcore city identity, their players have failed to authentically connect that brand with the fans. Maybe it’s Leonard’s reticence. Maybe it’s George’s shrugs. Whatever the reason, a team that was still selling playoff tickets for $60 — the Lakers’ were going for $420 — needs to be very, very concerned about disappearing so quickly and so embarrassingly.
More than any past debacles, this flop could cost them. This flop could really cost them.
If they don’t at least get to the conference finals for the first time in franchise history — that means they have to come back against Dallas and then defeat the winner between Utah and Memphis — they could lose much more than a series.
First and foremost, they could lose Leonard. After the season he can become a free agent. This is his hometown community, but it’s easy to see how a two-time NBA Finals MVP wouldn’t want to stick around an underachieving franchise that exists in a shadow growing deeper by the season.
If they lose Leonard, given the foreboding atmosphere that an early exit would create, do you think other stars will be lining up to take his place? And if they lose Leonard, that means their cornerstone will have to be, gulp, George. Face it, even he probably doesn’t want that.
And forget about rebuilding through the draft. After this year, the Clippers don’t have a first-round pick until 2027.
An early defeat would mean they could also lose important community momentum for owner Steve Ballmer’s $1.2-billion arena, which hasn’t yet started construction but is slated to open in 2024.
In this city of champions, why would anyone want to support a building built on a history of losing? The other night at Staples Center, fans didn’t even care enough to boo. The team’s community credibility, which reached an all-time low with the collapse against Denver last year, would fall even further with a first-round loss to Dallas.
Ballmer sitting alone under the basket for much of this season was one of the NBA’s most endearing sights. He has given this team everything, not just his money, but his time and attention, and he’s received little in return.
At what point does he say, enough? When does he run out of people to fire? He changed the coach, he changed the front office, he changed the roster … and if they can’t beat Dallas, what else can he do?
If they can’t show improvement this summer, at some point, Ballmer is surely to have to stop throwing good money after bad. And once that happens, anything can happen.
It is not overstating it to say that the long-term future of the Clippers organization hangs in the balance of these playoffs, and it is teetering on the brink in this first round.
The Clipper Curse laughs.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.