LOS ANGELES -- The buzz began to build as it usually does here in Lob City. Not the electric, almost-deafening roar that ascends with every Blake Griffin leap around the basket, or the gasps that turn into a respectful round of applause in commemoration of a Chris Paul crossover and dish.
Instead, it was the humming of a disinterested crowd’s chatter as shot after shot bricked off the Staples Center iron in a first quarter that saw the Clippers shoot only 6-for-22 from the floor and score only 16 points.
So like he always has, for 11 straight seasons, Clipper Darrell arose from his seat in section 109. Now just Darrell Bailey after a run-in with Clippers brass that screams “Classic Clippers,” the unofficial mascot of L.A.’s other team, decked out in his usual garish blue and red Two-Face suit and baseball cap, cupped his hands around his mouth did what Clipper Darrel does.
“Let’s go, Clippers, let’s go!” he shrieked.
Heads turned to see the man whose devotion to an underdog team had ended with him in tears on a local TV set last week, but the interest quickly turned into indifference.
A glance, a sigh, and that was that.
With Griffin at the line moments later, Bailey broke out his bullhorn scream again.
“M-V-P! M-V-P!” he shouted.
Again, a glance and a sigh, and one nearby young patron a few rows back even let out a mocking “Good one, Darrell” to kick a little more dirt Bailey’s way.
This is Lob City. The real Lob City.
Despite all the billboards, the high-wire acts, the rim-rattling, the hype, the highlights that surrounded their rise from the big top to the big time, the Clippers are far from the well-oiled machine that most concocted this winter, the Miami Heat -- only without all the hate.
The Clippers aren’t the Clippers anymore; the standings prove as much. But they sure aren’t the team that got Griffin, and subsequently every fan with an iota of pro basketball interest, downright giddy this offseason.
That 23-16 record? That bottom-third ranking in defensive efficiency? The inability to start up or slam the door shut? Falling to a fast-rising, but beatable, Warriors team 97-93 after beating the Spurs at the AT&T Center for the first time, ever?
That’s these Clippers for you.
Paul is everything you could want in a point guard, particularly when the only notion of a floor general for L.A.’s other team conjures up images of Shaun Livingston crumpled up in a ball. But this season, Paul hasn’t always been able to be the Paul we’ve watch pick-and-roll his way to the top of the PG heap over six seasons. With an Achilles' tear robbing Chauncey Billups of likely his only Clipper campaign and Caron Butler (6.9 points per game over the past 10 games) struggling to pick up the scoring slack, the offensive maestro has been forced into playing more as a scorer (ppg by month: 15.0, 19.0, 20.8, 23.7) than a distributor (apg by month: 10.7, 8.4, 8.1, 8.3).
With the spotlight now squarely on him in his second NBA go-round, Griffin has become more villain than dunk hero, his scowls and smug-looking stares after calls turning off fans by the day.
And DeAndre Jordan has been … well, Jordan is almost exactly the same player from when we left off for the extended summer vacation. By matching the Warriors’ offer sheet this offseason, the Clippers have essentially set their star troika moving forward, as Jordan’s new four-year, $43 million deal gives them little wiggle room with both Paul and Griffin needing new deals in the near future.
The Clippers were buying more potential than production, as Jordan’s projected outlook as an athletic, rim-protecting center to pair with the defensively challenged Griffin far outweighed his measly current numbers (7.1 points, 7.2 rebounds, 1.8 blocks per game), but they’ve yet to truly reap the benefits of the investment. Jordan still shows flashes of the Tyson Chandler lite L.A. envisioned, but despite a rise in player efficiency rating (PER) and rebound rate, the rest of Jordan’s numbers continue to tumble.
His defense is still imposing (Jordan ranks as the 20th-best defender, according to Syngery Sports), but without the ability to hit shots, from the free-throw line or elsewhere, the 23-year-old big man barely sees the court in the fourth quarter anymore.
He said the crunch-time snub doesn’t bother him, and for a guy with an easygoing attitude about most things, it probably doesn’t. But it sure would be nice to get more out of that $11 mill a year than three quarters of above-average defense.
“This wasn’t the perfect game for him, but we need DeAndre to play well and play at a high level and accept and do his role every night,” said Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro, putting a little extra emphasis on the last two words and referencing Jordan’s consistency both before and after another disappointing homecoming performance.
The Warriors’ small-ball lineup, as Del Negro noted, isn’t an easy task for a 6-foot-11 shot-blocker, but that’s where Jordan’s flaws really come to light: Instead of forcing opponents to make adjustments to what should be an imposing, physical frontline of Griffin and Jordan, the Clippers always have to match what the other team is throwing at them.
Which is why in the Clippers’ most important stretches, you’re more likely to see Reggie Evans or Kenyon Martin or Bobby Simmons than the supposed Lob City big three. In their fourth-quarter rally on Sunday, in which the Clippers dug themselves out of a 21-point deficit after another slow start to tie the game at 83 with 4:30 to play, not even Paul -- sporting a clear visor straight out of the Kobe Collection after breaking his nose in San Antonio -- could be found on the court.
That dream team assembled in the wake of the failed trade of that other team that occupies Staples, with a five-man lineup (Paul, Billups, Butler, Griffin, Jordan) that screamed “contender”? It’s still the Clippers’ most-used crew, despite Billups’ jersey hanging in his locker untouched for almost as many games as he’s worn it, with ones involving the Clippers’ rotating cast of wily vets slowly creeping up the list.
Not even the guy in the front row still sporting a Corey Maggette jersey could’ve been ready for that.
Maybe old habits die hard. You can’t blame the fans for being a bit groggy for a 6:30 p.m. PT start, on a Sunday, immediately after a barnburner between the team L.A. has loved for decades and the team L.A. has hated for just as long. And the noise certainly picked up when the Clippers did and the highlight machine got up and running.
But it’s sure hard to move on when the Clippers still find ways to conjure up memories of the Clippers. A technical foul in the third quarter for having six players on the court? Pure Clippers.
“Just a miscommunication between the players and the referee,” Del Negro said of the play.
Even as the franchise continues to cross lines and break barriers, some lines are still far too tangled for any legitimate contender.
Justin Verrier is an NBA editor for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter.