LOS ANGELES – Doc Rivers dropped into the rolling chair behind the folding table with a plastic surface, his long-sleeve white dress shirt unbuttoned at the collar, the red tie with diagonal pinstripes loosened about a half-inch.
“Doc,” a reporter said to the coach of the LA Clippers as the news conference -- and the offseason -- began Sunday afternoon, “do you want to say something first?”
“Oh, no,” Rivers replied without hesitation.
Because, really, what was left to say? Another year, another early playoff exit. Another greased step into summer vacation, even if this was the rarity of being shoved into the empty elevator shaft by the opponent instead of the freak happenings and self-inflicted basketball disasters of the past. The Clippers lost Game 7 at Staples Center 104-91 and the series 4-3 because of the Utah Jazz and not the Clippers. Perhaps there was strange solace in a typical Clippers’ exit for a change, without the fireball implosions of elimination against the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2014 or the Houston Rockets in ’15 or the Portland Trail Blazers in ’16 as Chris Paul and Blake Griffin got hurt the same night and what had been a 2-0 series lead blew into the wind.
That just didn’t make the search for answers any easier. If anything, it’s gotten more complicated. The Clippers lost in the first round for the second year in a row, haven’t had playoff progress since 2014, just got rolled in a Game 7 at home while trailing by double digits most of the final 2 ½ quarters and by as many as 21 points, and what happens next isn’t just a management decision.
J.J. Redick will become a free agent. CP3 and Griffin could become free agents. Paul Pierce is retiring, a first-ballot Hall of Famer at the end of 19 seasons. There are numerous moving pieces as the latest deconstruction begins, not just whether the front office follows through on previous statements that it wants to keep the core together. (Another consideration as it becomes obvious the current group can’t reach its potential: It’s one thing to call out to break up the Clippers but quite another to find replacements who give L.A. a better chance to advance.)
“We’ll figure that one out,” Rivers said in the gloomy aftermath inside Staples Center. “I’m thinking about the loss today instead of the summer. I’m sure everyone will have their own suggestions. We’ve been reading about our obituary for about three months now, so I’m sure everyone will have that.”
Three months? Try the last three years.
“I really don’t think it was on their minds much,” Rivers said of the uncertainty that was never far away, in public debate at least. “I don’t know that personally. As a coach, it wasn’t on my mind at all. What does that do for us when we have the next games and stuff like that? I think it’s a great conversation for everybody outside our locker room. I don’t think it’s a conversation we’re having in our locker room, I can say that.”
Sunday afternoon, as the Jazz prepared to fly an hour north to open the Western Conference semifinals against the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday in Oakland, was obviously not the time for the Clippers to decide what happens next -- “We just lost probably like 20 minutes ago,” Paul said when asked if he had given any consideration to his early-termination option.
But they knew the questions were coming and responded without rancor or frustration. As Paul also said when a question began, “You’ve been down this road before…”:
“Yeah. Too many times.”
And now they’re back on it, deep along the highway and about to reach another intersection.
“Luckily that’s not my job, know what I mean?” Paul deflected. “That’s not my job. My job is to come in, try to make sure I’m in the best shape possible, try to lead our team and stuff like that. That’s not my job to maneuver who’s here and who’s there.”
But it is partly his decision, based on the option to make himself a free agent, just as it is with Griffin after missing the last four-plus games of the series with an injured right big toe. They can like the city and the organization, and every indication is both do, yet also begin to wonder if going elsewhere provides a better chance at a title.
That’s how the off season began, with players and the front office both facing major decisions and no one in a mood to contemplate the long term. There simply was nothing to say right away, after the newest reason to consider whether it will never happen for this group, because they’ve been down this road before. Too many times.
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