The Clippers, the other basketball team in Los Angeles, began life as the Buffalo Braves in 1970, and the measure of how badly things have gone in the interim is that the franchise’s glory days (such as they were) can mostly be traced back to its time in Western New York.
In the early days, they had Bob McAdoo and Ernie DiGregorio and Adrian Dantley, all of whom won NBA rookie-of-the-year awards between 1972 and 1977. There was Randy Smith’s durability and pinpoint shooting (he is still the all-time franchise scoring leader). There was the handful of regular-season games played at Maple Leaf Gardens – 16 in all between 1971 and 1974, 11 of them victories.
But after eight years in Buffalo, the team relocated to San Diego and things deteriorated from there. Real-estate mogul Donald S. Sterling bought the team in 1981, moved it to Los Angeles in 1984, and since then the Clippers have succeeded mostly in being a punch line for comedians on late-night television.
Under Sterling’s ownership, they have conspired to be one of the most unsuccessful franchises in professional sports history. Sports Illustrated famously laid that title on them in April of 2000, doing a methodical statistical analysis that demonstrated how their year-over-year futility outmatched every other mismanaged team in the four major professional sports.
They have made some spectacularly bad draft choices (in 1987, taking Reggie Williams ahead of Scottie Pippen or Reggie Miller) and some horribly one-sided trades (Danny Manning to the Atlanta Hawks for a half-season of Dominique Wilkins). Generally, players have used the Clippers as a way station to success elsewhere, leaving the franchise in a perpetual rebuilding state.
Yet now, in a year when the mighty and omnipresent Lakers ramped up their star power by adding Dwight Howard and Steve Nash to the Kobe Bryant Show, the Clippers are slowly becoming a factor in the marketplace.
“We’re making history and we’re breaking history,” said Clippers guard Caron Butler, who played for the Lakers during the 2004-05 season. “We set new goals, we’re holding guys to new standards, and we’re getting a lot of success doing it.”
The turnaround started when the Clippers won the lottery in 2009 and the right to draft the human highlight film, Blake Griffin, who won the Naismith, Wooden and AP player of the year awards in his final season for the University of Oklahoma Sooners.
Griffin missed his first full professional season recovering from knee surgery, but two years ago won rookie-of-the-year honours, and the next year famously dunked over a Kia at the NBA all-star game. If Griffin represents the Clippers’ flash, then Chris Paul adds the dash. Paul is the brilliant point guard who came over at the start of last year from the New Orleans Hornets after commissioner David Stern quashed a deal that would have sent him to the Lakers.
With Paul directing the offence and Griffin lighting up the highlight reels, the Clippers advanced to the second round of the playoffs last year for only the second time since arriving in Los Angeles. At a time when the 9-10 Lakers are struggling to find themselves under new coach Mike D’Antoni, the Clippers have the best record in town (12-6), and are leading the Pacific Division, with the Toronto Raptors set to visit Sunday.
The Clippers have never won a division, let alone a conference or a league title in their history, and once went 30 years between playoff appearances (1976 to 2006), the longest such drought in NBA history. Their overall winning percentage was a scant .363 heading into this year (and they’ve lost almost 1,000 more games than they’ve won).
That is a lot of baggage to overcome.
“That was the goal when we first got here, to change the culture and to change the outlook,” said Griffin, who signalled his commitment to the Clippers by signing a five-year contract extension last summer that could be worth up to $95-million (all currency U.S.) if he meets some performance bonus clauses.
“It’s a slow process,” Griffin added. “You have to lay the foundation and you have to build the pieces. I think now we have pieces. We’ve gotten much better. Still, it’s a journey, but it’s great to give the fans something to really be proud of and to look forward to each and every game.”
With Griffin under contract, the key for the Clippers’ long-term stability will be to hang on to Paul, who is a free agent after this year and could command a five-year deal worth $108-million.