The San Antonio Spurs completed a four game sweep of the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday night ending L.A.'s season, the inaugural season of Chris Paul on the Clippers. Game 4 was the most competitive of the four games, and Paul had two chances down the stretch, behind by one with 23 seconds left and then behind two with 10 seconds remaining, but was unable to manufacturer the go ahead or tying points. In the end it was clear that San Antonio was the better team, and there's no question that they earned their trip to the Western Conference Finals.
It is unfortunate that the Clippers two best players, Paul and Blake Griffin, were not at full strength for the series. Both Paul and Griffin were injured in Game 5 of their prior series against the Memphis Grizzlies, Paul with a strained hip flexor and Griffin with a sprained knee. It's clear that neither Paul nor Griffin were both hurting during the series, particularly in the games in San Antonio. But it probably would not have mattered -- not this season. San Antonio is too good right now, the execute too well, they're in too good a groove; the Clippers weren't going to beat them, even with Paul and Griffin fully healthy. Still, it would have been fun to try.
While no one wants to be swept out of the playoffs, the Clippers have had a very successful season. The team posted the highest regular season winning percentage in franchise history, and won a playoff series for just the third time. Meanwhile, only one team can be the NBA Champions, and no one really expected it to be the Clippers this year. Losing to the Spurs (who currently look like the favorites to actually win a ring this season) is no shame.
The Clippers gain some valuable playoff experience for the likes of Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, key components of the team going forward. They also may have found a future star in Eric Bledsoe who was a revelation in the postseason. And they also have the question in their heads of what might have been, had they been fully healthy. The question of what might have been can be a powerful motivator as teams try to answer the question moving forward.
It was certainly a successful season for the team. It's hard to pinpoint what realistic expectations for this team might have been -- the hype had the expectations way too high at one point, then a March losing streak lowered the expectation far too low -- but a trip to the second round feels about right. Of course, this is no normal season for the Clippers -- it's part of a courtship of Paul, who can become a free agent at the end of next season. The Clippers have to play well enough to make L.A. an attractive team for Paul beyond 2013. This was a good start, particularly considering that Paul knows that he himself could have been better in the postseason.
The Clippers have some big decisions to make this off-season. Only Paul, Griffin, Jordan, Caron Butler, Bledsoe, Ryan Gomes, Mo Williams and rookie Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie are signed for next season. Depending on whether one thinks Bledsoe can play shooting guard (and he and Paul were very successful on the court together this season), they'll need to try to sign a starting two and an entire bench this summer. Kenyon Martin, Reggie Evans, Randy Foye, Nick Young and even Chauncey Billups all made significant contributions to the team this season and some of them could be back, but the Clippers also need to address some weaknesses on the current roster, in particular they need to find a big who can shoot some. They'll also have an opportunity to extend Griffin this summer, which seems almost guaranteed.
Year one of the Chris Paul era in L.A. was a success, even if it ended not with a bang but with a whimper. Year two will continue the courtship of Paul in L.A. They'll likely need to follow up with even more success to convince Paul to remain a Clipper.