Adversity in Building Team Chemistry: Or, When to Laugh at Chris Paul

“Happy basketball teams are all alike; every unhappy basketball team is unhappy in its own way.” – Anna Karenina, paraphrased

With their Game 7 loss Sunday to the Utah Jazz, at home, no less, the Los Angeles Clippers concluded an undeniably unsuccessful postseason. But honestly, the Clippers really have never had a “good” playoffs with this roster. Since 2011, when Chris Paul was controversially traded to this particular Los Angeles franchise and not its counterpart to head the “Lob City” triumvirate, his team has never missed the postseason, but it has also never won more than a single playoff series in a given year.

These ceaseless failures, understandably, create scapegoats. Each offseason brings a new wave of deck chairs to situate alongside the Paul-Blake Griffin-DeAndre Jordan core. First, the problem was with the coach and then the shooting guard. Every year brings a different over-the-hill small forward, from Caron Butler to Jared Dudley to Matt Barnes to Lance Stephenson to Luc Mbah a Moute. The bench is constantly being rejiggered. Perennially, the ensemble wins between 50 and 60 games and, inevitably, flames out in the late spring months.This year was no different.

And they are, certainly, unhappy. Last year, Blake Griffin infamously expressed his fermenting indignation by punching a co-worker, a punch that broke his hand. The more complex interaction, however, rises from the other two legs of the tripod—Paul and Jordan. They are in many ways polar opposites: Small versus big, curmudgeonly versus cheery, savvy yet limited as opposed to potent yet frustrating. To describe the dynamic as, say, Of Mice and Men’s Lenny and George, or that of Pinky and the Brain, is unfair to Jordan; however, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the controlling, Machiavellian Paul imagines himself Jordan’s wizened savior. The duo, while complementary, can barely maintain the relationship; two years ago, they almost split up when Jordan, for a couple days, verbally committed to Dallas. They’re back together—for now.

My skepticism stems from a surprising medium: State Farm advertisements. During basketball season, the State Farm ads feature Paul and Jordan in a new series, centered on the juxtaposition of on-court happenings and off-the-court disasters. Short of signing LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, which sure as hell isn’t happening for any organization with even a minor focus on something as banal as “claims adjustment,” Paul and Jordan are, nominally, a solid casting.

But on-screen, it’s a failure. I mean, look at this:

 

 

The first half, a revisionist history of a particular basketball play, is troubling yet fine. But when the commercial swerves to fantasy—the tree crashing on Paul’s car (in still images, we can see has the vanity plate “CP3”)—the players, primarily Jordan, sell the scene strangely. While Paul looks like he just learned about Doc Rivers’ most recent free agent pickup, Jordan appears, if anything, gleeful. At the 00:17 mark, he’s almost laughing; he only pulls it together, moderately, when Paul shoots him a glare three seconds later.

 

So, really, why is Jordan laughing? This incident is presumably a disaster; his teammate and friend—we assume, as they’re hanging out at Paul’s house—has suffered a damaging blow that, no matter how good his insurance policy, will take time and effort to remedy. It is an unplanned, unexpected calamity that, in short, is no laughing matter.

I see two potential explanations for what will inevitably be known as #Laughgate: One is that Jordan is a kind of Dwight Howard-lite who reflexively deals with the horrors of real emotion by smiling. He is more than aware of Paul’s pain; Paul’s pain is his pain. It is established, after all, that the smile is evolved from a fear response: When our ancestors would face something fearful, they’d bare their teeth to scare threats away. In this instance, the tree—a metaphor for the ceaseless obstacles that must be hurdled in America—is a fake yet tangible threat. The only way for Jordan to cope is, well, to smile.

No, I believe that DeAndre Jordan not-so-secretly hates Chris Paul. He could never really express such an opinion on the court: the only substantial example was when he briefly escaped to the Mavericks in the 2015 offseason, news of the occasionally testy Paul-Jordan relationship leaked anonymously to ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz. Certain details, like this quote, make one raise an eye: “[Jordan] was tired of Paul’s constant barking and petty gestures, like distributing high-fives to the three other guys on the floor following a timeout but somehow freezing out Jordan.”

Allow me to list a few signs of unhealthy relationships, based on the first search result from Google:

  • Criticism and ridicule
  • Lack of communication
  • Loss of emotional intimacy
  • Passive-aggressive behavior

If you count an absence of high-fives as “loss of emotional intimacy”—which we all should, honestly—it’s clear that Paul and Jordan fit the bill. The question then is: well, why did Jordan come back to Los Angeles, and to Paul? He is, like the rest of us, foolhardy. Based on another search (listen, I’m no shrink), it seems the primary reason a person stay in an unhealthy relationship is codependency. For however many problems Paul raises, he delivers that many lob passes for Jordan to convert; their skill sets go together, not unlike a wink and a smile. While he doesn’t always do so, Paul can make Jordan feel like a king (a dominant center), and that loving feeling, even when seemingly lost, is enough to keep Jordan hanging around. I imagine Paul’s pitch to Jordan being brief and rhetorical: “Could Devin Harris give you what I give you?”

Jordan’s implicit hope, of course, was that Paul would change. But the Clippers are doing no better now than before and, while they’re trying new things physically, well, it’s still clear that Paul and Jordan have the capacity to hurt each other.

Notably, they’re still unable to make up afterward.

It seems only the fantasy of this commercial can provide the cover for Jordan to honestly convey his emotions. The animosity, on the surface in 2015, has been boiling just below it ever since. As the fruitless weeks turn into months turn into years (nearly two since his fateful return to the city of angels), he presumably finds himself consumed by one emotion: Hate. He despises Paul—the intense, ornery point guard who more than anyone else transforms every journey toward a second-round exit into a joyless slog. The man has made a career playing a sullen game, flopping for fouls, navigating the frontcourt with an absence of flair, bitching out his teammates for the most minor transgression. In this ad, he’s moody and disappointed in Jordan, and his behavior in other commercials is no better: one sees Jordan, the lone big man with Paul and Lillard, literally “crashes the glass” in the house, leading to an excoriation from Paul; another has the players trying to spring a trap to catch a skunk, but it somehow culminates in the trio getting flanked by a larger troupe of skunks. Everyone knows Jordan, as a center, needs to be the last line of protection, but now he’s brooding in the foreground next to the disgruntled Paul, having been out-witted by some unsanitary weasels. Jordan can’t even face the camera. In that moment, they both know that this—whatever this is—isn’t working, and they’re merely winding down the clock until its inevitable expiration in July 2018. It’s a depressing realization.

So why does Jordan smile in that first commercial? Watching Paul see one of his most prized possessions (again, the man has a vanity license plate!) get destroyed in a simulation isn’t painful for Jordan, but cathartic. At this point in Jordan’s career, hope for something better is sadly just that: Hopeful. By the time he’s up for another contract (he can opt out after next season), he’ll be nearly 30, and he’ll have spent a decade leaping around the paint. His best days will be behind him. Short of demanding a trade now—which would be an embarrassing admission of a bad decision eighteen months ago—he has no foreseeable path out while still in his prime. The change has to happen on Paul’s end, which, given the guard’s noted obstinacy, won’t happen if he has free will. As such, Jordan finds himself locked into a daily hellscape, the prisoner of the briefest crisis of confidence.

Thus, the only solution: An accident. Jordan wants to annihilate Paul’s car—not to mention his house, and his stupid wannabe-Lebron facial hair—but on the heels of his 2015 decision, he simply can’t. He is in need of validation. He needs an outside force to align with him, to see his side of the story, pat him on the shoulder and say, “I’m sorry you have to endure that man.” This commercial, with that single, rebellious felled tree—a hypothetical that destroys his asshole coworker—is the symphony Jordan deserves to hear. It’s not much, but it’s a start.

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Lucas Hubbard is a writer and editor at Crookedscoreboard. He is a good neighbor. You should follow him on Twitter.

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