HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — California’s basketball hierarchy is on its head.
As the second round is set to begin, in is the All-Star-snubbed Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors; out are the two biggest superstars set to hit the free-agent market: Dwight Howard of the Los Angeles Lakers and Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers.
In strange symmetry, Howard and Paul were both ejected in their final games of the season. Howard twice lost his cool and got the heave-ho early in the third quarter of the Kobe-less and totally injury-depleted Lakers’ Game 4 loss to the San Antonio Spurs. Referee Joey Crawford gave Paul a more controversial walk to the showers late in the fourth quarter of Friday’s Game 6 downer at the Memphis Grizzlies, the Clippers’ fourth consecutive defeat after taking a 2-0 series lead.
Both superstars will become free agents on July 1. While the smart money still says D12 and CP3 love L.A. and will stay, unceremonious endings to what were supposed to be storybook seasons for both franchises at least adds a layer of intrigue and speculation to the proceedings.
For the Clippers, 118-105 losers Friday, suddenly the celebrations of a franchise-best 56-win season and a first-ever Pacific Division title are being washed away by a tidal wave of disappointment and tough offseason decisions headlined by Paul’s choice of where next to take his talents.
“I got a lot of time to think about that,” Paul, wearing a Clipper red sports coat, told reporters after Friday’s game. “As I do with any decision I make, I consult with my wife, my parents, my brother, my family. I might even let little Chris chime in on this. We’ll see what happens.”
L.A.’s front office will wait on pins and needles for July 1 to get Paul’s answer, but they will likely move much quicker to determine the future of lame-duck coach Vinny Del Negro. When management assesses the job he’s done in leading the Clippers to the playoffs in consecutive seasons for just the second time in the franchise’s 29 years in L.A. and first time in 20 years, there will be two sides of the coin to each topic of debate.
Since being hired to lead Chicago with no previous coaching experience, Del Negro has been scrutinized, even ridiculed, like no other coach regarding his acumen of the X’s and O’s.
In this series, Del Negro’s team allowed a 2-0 lead to slip away. But how much of that is on the coach and how much is on a team that seemed to get outworked in the final four games? Did the coach not have his team prepared or did the players not show up? Did the coach fail to make proper adjustments or did the players fail to execute?
Paul averaged 22.8 points and 6.3 assists. He shot 53.3 percent and rarely turned the ball over. He didn’t get a lot of help from what was considered to be the deepest team in basketball. His All-Star teammate Blake Griffin sprained an ankle and played 24 minutes in the final two games. He finished the series with a well-below-average 13.2 ppg and 5.5 rpg while nemesis Zach Randolph dominated in the final four games.
Veteran point guard Chauncey Billups, who missed most of the season due to injury, played as if his head wasn’t in it, finishing the series with more turnovers (eight) than assists (six). After going 4-for-8 from the floor in Game 1, he went 7-for-28 the rest of the way.
Sixth Man of the Year runner-up Jamal Crawford was 7-for-21 in Games 3 and 4 and was benched in the second half of Game 6 after going 0-for-5. Matt Barnes, who threw in 30 points Friday night, was 9-for-24 in Games 2 through 5.
Caron Butler averaged 5.8 ppg in Games 2 through 5 and scored five points in 34 minutes of Games 4 and 5. Del Negro ripped center DeAndre Jordan‘s effort. Grant Hill, either injured or buried on the bench this season, was on the floor in the second half of Game 6.
The Clippers could look quite different next season. They have $45 million tied into Griffin, Jordan, Butler, Crawford, Hill and Eric Bledsoe. Two million could get returned if Hill retires as he speculated he might last month.
So let the introspection begin for a franchise that has scrapped bottom for decades and seemed to be headed for better days, if not glory days. Owner Donald Sterling in his later years has seemed to soften and to smartly open his wallet to make things happen. It’s resulted in two sensational seasons that have produced regular-season results like never before, two rare trips to the postseason while also rousing a fan base and creating a fun environment at Staples Center.
Yet the Clippers failed to accomplish Del Negro’s goal and that was go deeper in the playoffs that last season’s second-round sweep at the hands of the Spurs when Griffin was again hurt and unable to perform at a peak level.
So while Curry and the Warriors keep doing their thing, the mood is considerably darker today down in L.A.