LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Clippers hadn’t even digested the final loss of their tumultuous season before they had to consider the growing possibility that owner Donald Sterling won’t leave the club quietly.
After a month of playoff pressure and incredible off-court drama, a 104-98 loss to Oklahoma City on Thursday night ended the Clippers’ best season in franchise history. Their summer could match the tumult of the last few weeks, given Sterling’s apparent determination to fight his lifetime NBA ban for racist remarks.
“I don’t think that’s an ideal situation for us to start next season with that still going on,” All-Star forward Blake Griffin said Friday.
If Sterling and his long-estranged wife, Shelly, manage to postpone their ouster with legal maneuvers, several Clippers aren’t sure whether they would play for the team in the fall. They hope they don’t have to find out.
“Personally, I think the longer it lasts, the worse it’s going to be,” Griffin said. “I think something should happen, and I think it should happen quickly. I think guys need to make decisions. I don’t think anybody wants this to drag out — except for, you know, one or two people. I think it just needs to be swift. We can make our decision, they can make their decision, and make a change.”
A few weeks after the players dumped their warm-up jerseys at center court in Oakland in a gesture of solidarity against Sterling, the Clippers are clearly hoping they won’t have to return in the fall with the saga still hanging over the franchise.
“I don’t anticipate that being how it’s going to be,” Griffin said. “And if it still is, I’ll make a decision then, but it’s not something that’s ideal.”
Guard J.J. Redick predicts the process of removing Sterling will be lengthy, saying the Clippers realize “things will be in flux for a while.”
“I can’t imagine a scenario where we start the season next year and he’s the owner and all is kosher,” Redick added. “He may be the owner when we start the season next year still, but I would imagine that there would be some legal proceedings ongoing if that’s the scenario.”
Coach Doc Rivers didn’t speak to the media on Friday, but the franchise’s shepherd through the last few weeks made it clear Thursday night that he plans to return to the Clippers.
“I told them we’re going to have our day,” Rivers said. “This is not the end. This is the beginning for us. … Like I’ve said before, I’m under contract. I have no plans of going anywhere, as far as I know.”
Although Griffin, Chris Paul and their teammates were devastated by their final losses to the Thunder, Los Angeles will have plenty to savor. Although the Clippers had legitimate dreams of NBA title contention after acquiring Rivers from Boston last June, they’ll have to settle for another division title and another learning experience on their path to a championship.
“We definitely have to go through this,” Griffin said. “Winning — nobody has the formula. The more I lose, every time I lose, every time we lose as a team, it’s like I figure out how not to do it. I don’t want to keep this up, but it is a necessary adversity that you have to go through as a player to get to where you want. I’ve heard guys say that makes it that much sweeter when you do win.”
The Clippers’ 57-25 record was the best in franchise history, and their 113 wins over the last two years dwarf any other two-year stretch for a long-struggling franchise. Los Angeles won the Pacific Division for the second straight year and the second time in franchise history.
Their first-round series against Golden State would have been taxing even without the distraction of Sterling, but Los Angeles hung on in the fourth quarter of Game 7 at home to finish off the Warriors.
Paul and Griffin got the Clippers to the brink of a breakthrough win in Game 5 in Oklahoma City, leading by 13 points with less than four minutes to play — but Paul’s turnovers and fouls in the final seconds allowed the Thunder to grab an astonishing comeback victory. Los Angeles again failed to execute late in Game 6, leading to their ouster and a disappointed crowd at Staples Center.
The Clippers earned just their third playoff series victory since Sterling bought the franchise 33 years ago, but couldn’t advance to the conference finals for the first time in club history.
“You wait your whole life to play with a group of guys like that, and you hope that’s the group you end up winning with,” Redick said. “When it doesn’t happen, it’s devastating.”