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.
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.”