Sterling has a reputation for being frugal as an owner, but he will likely be ready to open his wallet for Paul if Paul is of a mind to stay. In all probability, Paul’s decision will hinge on his sense of whether the Clippers can contend for a championship, according to sources with knowledge of the situation. Publicly, he is saying only that he’ll wait until next summer to decide.
For now, the Clippers, currently fourth overall, are a quality team in a Western Conference where the competition includes the improving Memphis Grizzlies and perennial contenders the San Antonio Spurs and the Oklahoma City Thunder. Then there are always the Lakers, who likely will be better in the second half once Nash returns from injury and the team adjusts to D’Antoni’s offence.
Lakers games normally bring out the celebrities, beginning with actor Jack Nicholson at his usual court-side seat at Staples Center. The Clippers don’t quite resonate so loudly with the Hollywood crowd, but what their fans lack in star power, they generally make up for in enthusiasm. Clipper games just seem to be more boisterous than Laker games, with a smaller, hard-core, long-suffering fan base that echoes the support for the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings in the marketplace.
Not everybody cares about the Clippers, but the ones who do seem to care passionately.
“We have a working-class fan base that appreciates hard work and appreciates the game of basketball,” Butler said. “They’ve waited so long for this team, this organization, this franchise to be successful and to have quality character guys, who are committed to winning and being good community guys, on and off the court.
“They [the Lakers] have a lot of history, they have a lot of great players and they’ve done a lot of great things, but our turn is now and we’re trying to make the most of it.”
Marc Iavaroni, a Clippers assistant coach who previously worked for the Raptors, saw firsthand how large a shadow a bulletproof brand such as the Maple Leafs can cast over the other guys in the marketplace. The Leafs and Raptors share a building, in the same way the Lakers and Clippers do.
But Iavaroni sees differences, including the fact that Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment owns both the Toronto teams, while the Clippers and Lakers have different owners. But the real difference is in the recent successes. The Maple Leafs may have 13 championships overall, but none since 1967. The Lakers have 16 NBA titles and won as recently as 2009.
“The Maple Leaf comparison is very interesting because it’s all managed under one ownership group,” Iavaroni said. “But from my perspective, if you’re focusing on what someone else is doing, then you’re not focusing 100 per cent on what you’re doing. Vinny [Del Negro, the Clippers’ head coach] believes you need three things every day, energy, focus and no excuses. He’s not concerned about how much energy the Lakers bring, or their focus, or their excuse level. He is concerned about ours, just ours.”
The addition of Butler and veterans such as Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill (who has yet to play this year) was done to stabilize a young team that had talent, but needed help to break out of the cycle of losing. All of them joined to pursue a common goal – to win a championship, Butler said.
“That’s the ultimate goal and we know what it takes,” Butler said. “We try and instill that in the younger guys, the core guys, who are going to make this thing happen.”
Iavaroni echoed Butler’s point, noting that once the Clippers brought in people with championship pedigrees, the other challenge is to develop their younger players – primarily Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Eric Bledsoe.
“Their development is really important to our success this year,” Iavaroni said. “They’ve shown a willingness to listen and to work this year. We’ll see how strong everyone’s commitment is to what we need to do – lead, develop, mesh. That’s going to be the test, and the test will be borne out in what you say, to win.”
The Clippers made a preseason trip to China to help enhance the NBA’s international profile, and while there, Iavaroni repeatedly ran into Pat Riley, the Miami Heat president, who’d previously won championships as both a player and a coach. When Iavaroni congratulated him on his most recent title, Riley responded by reminding him of how hard the championship path can be, even for the ones who’ve walked it multiple times.
“It was a reminder of how you really, really, really have to pay a tremendous price – and get a lot of luck – to have a chance, let alone to do it,” Iavaroni said. “That’s what we want to do and we’re trying to find out how far away we are. In the meantime, we’ll let the competition worry about their things, while we worry about ours.”