At approximately 3:30 P.M. EST, news broke that Stephen Curry had a sprained MCL and would be out for at least two weeks. At approximately 3:31 P.M. EST, the Los Angeles Clippers were looking at the following playoff landscape:
- A 2-1 series lead over the nascent Portland Trailblazers, still struggling to score under the heel of Chris Paul’s suffocating defense on Damian Lillard.
- A potential second-round matchup against a team without its best player, who just so happens to be the MVP.
- A likely Western Conference Finals duel with a team they beat in a seven-game series last season.
- A potential Finals bout with the Cleveland Cavaliers, in-fighting, rookie head coach and all.
For the next nine hours, the Clippers probably believed they could win the championship. And then, at approximately 12:30 A.M. EST, Chris Paul broke his hand and LA’s shot at a title went up in smoke.
The hypotheticals on both sides are tantalizing. Is it fair to wonder what might have been, knowing that a healthy Curry likely would have kept them out of shouting distance from a title anyway? Does a championship inherently mean less if it isn’t won against the best possible competition?
Popular opinion on the subject is rather fickle. History says that, once every decade or so, something funky is going to happen that creates an unlikely champion. The Dallas Mavericks probably weren’t the best team in 2011, but they were lucky enough to see their conference’s No. 1 seed knocked out in the first round, then draw a particularly young Thunder squad in the Western Conference Finals and find themselves battling with the Miami Heat just as the weight of the world finally crushed LeBron.
The 2004 Pistons won their championship out of a conference with only four teams above .500, and mutiny within the Lakers combined with Karl Malone’s injury knocked their Finals opponent out before the series really began. Nobody could have predicted Michael Jordan retiring before the 1994 season, clearing a path for Hakeem Olajuwon’s Rockets. Injuries to Bill Walton in 1978 and Bill Russell in 1958 created regrettable champions out of the 44-win Bullets and 49-win Hawks, respectively.
You never know how, when or why these things are going to happen, but approximately once per decade, the best team is going to get knocked out for unfortunate reasons. For nine hours, it looked like 2016 was going to be one of those seasons. Which brings us back to the Clippers.
Put a gun to Doc Rivers’ head and he’d probably tell you he knew all along that he didn’t have the best team in the league. Before the season he admitted that his Clippers were “right on the borderline.” The Clippers were swept by the Warriors during the regular season, and last year they couldn’t even reach them in the playoffs.
They might break up the core of the roster this summer, and we know that they tried to trade Blake Griffin to Denver at the trade deadline. Were they truly motivated, they easily could’ve found another buyer. They chose not to. Again, this probably wasn’t because they felt comfortable that they could win the title anyway. It might have simply been a case of misreading the value of their own asset. But in the back of his mind, Doc Rivers had to suspect that something like this might happen. He played on the 1994 Knicks, that came one win away from stealing that Jordan-less championship. He coached the 2010 Celtics, that came one Kendrick Perkins injury away from potentially winning another one. He’d seen breaks go every which way. He probably figured that there was a meaningful chance one would go his.
The common number is 5%. If you have a 5% chance of winning a championship, Rockets GM Daryl Morey says, then you have to go all in trying to win that one championship. The Clippers probably did have a 5% chance of winning the championship—even before Stephen Curry’s knee ascended to Valhalla. But they had that 5% chance last year. And the year before. And the two years before that. But they never actually won it.
This all bears the question: how good is good enough? The Clippers could have done something to try to increase that 5% number. But that risks lowering it just as much. Had the Clippers traded Blake Griffin to try to retool for a run next year, it probably would have cost them their nine-hour window that just closed. After all, no player the Clippers could get back in a Blake Griffin trade is going to be as good at basketball as Blake Griffin. No team has ever traded a player of that caliber and gone on to win a championship in the next handful of years. Is it worth betting on the history of fluky champions if you’re also betting against the history of making such an enormous trade?
The sad fact is that there isn’t a right answer. My personal belief is that to win a championship your best bet is to try to win a championship. That your goal should always be to improve, to actively try to become the best team in the league so you can leave the outcome out of fate’s hands.
And you know what? That philosophy would have led me to trade Klay Thompson for Kevin Love. I would have been wrong. Just as Doc Rivers was always probably going to be wrong. Because nine hours isn’t dependable enough to win a championship, but nine years isn’t either. You have to be really smart, be really lucky, and then have the sense to know which one will push you over the top when the time comes. And 95% of the time, you’re going to be wrong.