As the "Lob City" era was winding down, Clippers fans had the all-too-familiar feeling of impending doom. They’d been down this road before.
When DeAndre Jordan signed with the Mavericks in the offseason, essentially closing the door on the most successful years in franchise history, it looked as though the Clippers were heading toward a dreaded rebuild. It didn't help that LeBron James had joined the Lakers, taking most of Los Angeles' attention and media members with him.
The Lakers and Clippers held their media days at around the same time seven miles apart today. The Clippers couldn’t really change their time as they had to fly to Hawaii for the start of training camp tomorrow. I was at Lakers Media Day, @ericgeller was at Clippers Media Day. 👀 pic.twitter.com/41jl7PpXqK— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) September 25, 2018
POWER RANKINGS: Raptors, Clippers keep rolling
And yet, Doc Rivers and the Clippers never shared the feeling of hopelessness. Ahead of his sixth season in LA, Rivers liked the pieces on his roster.
"I just thought entering the season we were deep and talented," Rivers told Sporting News. "I didn’t think we had one star, and that was always going to be a concern for us. But I knew how talented we were."
Sure, that's easy to say before the season begins. But realistically, how could losing three All-Stars in two years bring about anything other than a pile of losses?
It was hard to fathom how the Clippers would be able to improve on their 2018 record, let along compete for a playoff spot. The Western Conference featured 11 of the 15 All-NBA selections from last season, and every 2018 playoff team had a chance to return to the postseason, plus the improving Nuggets and Lakers. A group of solid to pretty good players simply can't break through that wall.
Well, until they do. The Clippers own the best record in the Western at 15-6, including a 10-4 mark within the conference after Thursday night's win over the Kings.
"We’re doing it without a star, but we’re also doing it through execution and trust," Rivers told Sporting News. "And if that can last, then we can be really good."
Their early-season results can be attributed to a well-rounded roster with no stars but also no huge holes. A steady duo of veterans who can defend (Patrick Beverley, Avery Bradley) and who can score (Danilo Gallinari, Lou Williams, Tobias Harris) are setting a great example for emerging rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the team's point guard of the future. Throw in Sixth Man of the Year candidate Montrezl Harrell and crowd favorite Boban Marjanovic, and the Clippers have one of the deepest rosters in the league.
One big reason for the Clippers' hot streak through the first quarter of the season is the inability of opponents to focus on a single player. Five different players average more than 10 points per game. It’s also an approach that makes the Clippers one of the most likable teams in the league, something that could not always be said during the "Lob City" era. (How bad did it get? Bleacher Report's Howard Beck wrote a story in 2015 with the headline "Why Everyone in the NBA Hates the Los Angeles Clippers.")
"We’re a team. We play off of each other and we have fun playing together," Harris said. "Everybody enjoys playing with one another and making plays. The beauty of our team is that we have different guys every night who can step up and give us life."
No superstars on the roster also means no egos in the locker room. The result is a collection of talent that can both produce results and appreciate the process.
"You can just see it by the way we play," Rivers told Sporting News. "When I brought it up before the season, people didn’t know what I was talking about. They play the game with joy. They play the game like the fans would like to play."
And that style of play might not be a fluke. The Clippers are fifth in the NBA in net rating (5.3) and fourth in true shooting percentage (57.8), and opponents are shooting a league-low 43.5 percent when facing them, including 33.0 percent from the 3-point line. They also boast the highest-scoring bench unit in the NBA at 53.8 points per game.
This 21-game stretch could just be a sign of things to come. With owner Steve Ballmer willing to spend and NBA legend Jerry West calling the shots, the Clippers could be the preferred landing spot for stars next summer. It has been rumored that Kawhi Leonard would prefer to join the Clippers instead of embracing the spotlight that comes with James' Lakers. The Clippers are reportedly targeting Kevin Durant as well should the two-time NBA Finals MVP decide to leave Golden State.
Regardless of what happens in the offseason, the Clippers have managed to pivot away from "Lob City" and not just survive, but thrive. They have figured out how to rebuild on the fly while remaining competitive. The Clippers' decision to stay quiet in the offseason and stick with their roster is paying dividends so far.
Of course, the odds are against them to keep the top seed in the West, but the Clippers have established themselves as a real playoff contender. They may not have star power, but they have a group that enjoys playing together, and more importantly, knows how to win together.
And if it lasts, yes, the Clippers can be really good.