Big finish or mistime its leap into NBA Finals again?
The photo went viral before practice even ended Thursday. There, in gray shorts and an aqua blue top, was Kevin Garnett playing basketball with Blake Griffin on the third day of the Los Angeles Clippers' training camp. That's right, recently retired, 40-year-old, won-a-title-with-Clippers-coach-Doc-Rivers-and-Clippers-forward-Paul-Pierce Kevin Garnett. Was he coming back? To play and give the Clippers veteran leadership? To coach? Or maybe just to scare DeAndre Jordan into making more free throws?
Rivers already acknowledged, in an interview with ESPN's Jackie MacMullan, that he tried to persuade Garnett to play for the Clippers in an emeritus role before he made a final decision about retirement. Garnett passed.
But think about how quickly you made that leap. How easy it was to see KG in that wise man role. How much the Clippers still seem to need that championship experience and guidance going into Year 6 of the Lob City era.
If it seems like the time has gone by quickly, well, you haven't lived through the painful and humiliating playoff losses like Griffin, Jordan and Chris Paul have.
"Unfortunately for me, I've had 11 summers of going into the summer knowing what it's like not to win a championship," Paul said.
Two of the five seasons have ended with Griffin and Paul suffering serious injuries that required surgery in the offseason.
Another was marred by the Donald Sterling scandal, the other two featured monumental collapses (blowing a 2-0 series lead vs. Memphis and a 3-1 series lead vs. Houston).
In between, Jordan round-tripped to Dallas; Griffin broke his hand on a team staffer's face and Paul made two of the most un-Chris-Paul-like plays you'll ever see at the end of a playoff game in Oklahoma City.
There has been an ownership change, a coaching change, at least three front-office rearrangements, even a new mascot. (Yep, Chuck the Condor has been renewed for Season 2.)
All of this happened in the five years since Paul was traded to L.A.; and Jordan and Griffin made that endearing Lob City video outside the practice facility.
Watching that video now, they look so young and innocent compared to the men who sat on stage together earlier this week at media day.
Both Griffin and Paul can become free agents next summer, meaning all sorts of personal and organizational decisions lie ahead. Do the Clippers dare risk losing one or both in free agency without getting anything in return? Or do they feel compelled to trade one, both or someone else during the season to make sure there isn't a crater in the middle of Steve Ballmer's $2 billion franchise next summer?
"Unfortunately for me, I've had 11 summers of going into the summer knowing what it's like not to win a championship."
Over the years, if you spoke to people in and around the franchise and you'd get wildly different opinions on what the future would look like. Part of that was because everyone was waiting to get a read on what kind of owner Ballmer was going to be. How patient would the notoriously emotional, enthusiastic former Microsoft CEO be? How long would he defer to Rivers on basketball decisions? Thus far, he has remained at a respectful distance. His biggest intervention this summer was green-lighting indulgent contracts to keep Austin Rivers and Jamal Crawford. Of course the Clippers had no choice but to pay their own free agents because the team was so far over the cap, it had no real options at replacing anyone who left. Still, can you see Sterling giving Crawford $42 million? Not a chance.
So after three years of Ballmer's ownership, it might just be long enough to draw some conclusions. Most importantly, according to Clippers insiders, is his commitment to keeping both Griffin and Paul long term no matter what it costs.
Do both want to stay? That's impossible to predict nine months out. But it's hard to imagine either finding as good of a set up as they have in Los Angeles. Both have firmly planted roots in L.A., with deep ties to the business and entertainment worlds. Paul has essentially become a CEO-in-training, befriending executives he does business with and those who frequent Clippers games; Griffin is a superstar pitchman and budding comic.
As for the idea that they'd make a blockbuster trade, consider this: The only way the Clippers get a decent return is if Paul and/or Griffin agreed to waive their player option for next season, or guaranteed they'd re-sign long term in the city they were traded. There's no compelling reason for either of them to do that after the infusion of television rights' money spikes the salary cap up more than $100 million next summer.
Rivers has already publicly said the team isn't trading Griffin at least a dozen times now. It's heresy to even bring up trading Paul. Jordan has turned into the best defensive center in the game, and he's locked up on a very reasonable contract for two more seasons.
So while this is still a pivotal season for the Clippers' core group, it's probably not their last stand.
Which brings us back to Garnett shooting jumpers with the Clippers on Thursday.
Four years ago, Rivers was brought to L.A. in the hopes his championship pedigree would get the Clippers over the top.
Last season, Pierce was signed for the same reason.
Now, KG is in the gym, "teaching" as Rivers put it.
Something has been missing. Something is still needed. As Pierce himself said, based on talent alone, the Clippers do have something of a "super team" with Paul, Griffin, Jordan, JJ Redick (the best 3-point shooter in the league) and Crawford (a three-time Sixth Man of the Year award winner). So why haven't they won a title yet? And can they still do so in an NBA in which Kevin Durant just joined the 73-win Golden State Warriors?
On talent alone, L.A. is still one of the top three or four best teams in the NBA along with Golden State, Cleveland and San Antonio.
"Other teams in the past have been probably just as deep," Crawford said. "But I'm not sure it was the right guys at the right time.
"This just feels like the perfect storm as far as guys who want to win, are competitive enough at the right time frame in their lives about what's important."