It’s been an hour since the final buzzer sounded on another Lakers loss, a 17-point, home-court drubbing at the hands of the lowly Utah Jazz that dropped the Lakers into dead last in the Western Conference. On "Lakers Line," ESPNLA 710's postgame call-in show, host A. Martinez sounds dispirited. "Laker fans, here’s what I want to know. Does it matter to you that the Lakers avoid finishing last? Does it even make a difference at this point?"
The phones light up, and A. puts a caller through: Robert, calling from Hollywood. It’s clear that Robert considers Martinez cretinous simply for raising such an obviously stupid question. "I can’t believe you’d even ask that, A. Of course, it matters."
In the mornings, Martinez co-hosts "Take Two," a current-affairs show on NPR's Pasadena, Calif., affiliate. He’s a die-hard, but his loyalties aren’t blind. "This team isn’t making the playoffs. What’s the difference?"
Robert sounds belligerent, maybe drunk. "We’re the Lakers," he says. "We don’t finish last."
Something weird and metaphysical is happening in the world of L.A. basketball, and to understand it, you have to fully appreciate the distance separating its franchises. It’s not just that the Lakers have been better than the Clippers. The Yankees are usually better than the Mets. Alabama is usually better than Auburn. What needs to be understood is that the Lakers are always better than the Clippers, to such an extent and with such regularity that it’s hard to convey without resorting to analogue. The Lakers are the Road Runner, and the Clippers are Wile E. Coyote. The Lakers are award-show invitees, the Clippers are seat-fillers. It’s so basic it might seem banal, but it’s pretty extraordinary when you think about it: The most consistently relevant and consistently irrelevant teams in NBA history share not just a city but a building.
If you don’t live in Los Angeles, this might all seem, oh, about 2½ belated. You follow basketball. You’re familiar with the Chris Paul trade -- and isn’t that when the fortunes of these teams truly changed?
Well kind of.
Two distinct strains of Clippers skeptics emerged after the Paul trade. The first were the sports reductionists, who espoused what might be called the Desecrated Graveyard theory of continued Clipper putrescence -- they never have won, so they never can win, QED.
The second line of skepticism, much harder to dismiss, conceded that the present was bright, but that perhaps Lob City was a boomtown built on an active fault line. Yes, the pairing of Paul and Blake Griffin was unlike anything in the franchise’s history, but there was something eerily familiar about certain front-office decisions. For instance, in 2012, team architect Neil Olshey was allowed to leave for Portland, while haircut Vinny Del Negro was retained. It wasn’t just the whiff of cheapness emanating from the penthouse at Sterling Towers, it was the self-defeating illogic of pairing a championship core with a suspect coach on a one-year deal.
If, as Joe E. Louis quipped, rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for US Steel, then rooting for the Lakers is like rooting for the Fed -- problems tend to seem manageable when you print money. The Clippers excelled only in failure. There’s a reason Bill Simmons wrote Griffin an open letter when he was drafted advising him to "run like the star of a horror movie." Worst ownership, worst record, worst luck, a history of (ahem) frugality with regards to free agents and facilities. There was the occasional moment, like the 2006 season, when a relative Lakers down season might coincide with a relative Clippers upswing, but it was always understood to be temporary. The Clippers might pull up a chair now and then to the adult table, but only until the Lakers returned from the bathroom.
According to F. Scott Fitzgerald, "Personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures." Every business is the accumulation of its decisions. New gestures, new man.
In other words, what if Wile E. Coyote woke up one day and thought, "Enough of these Acme Products," and immediately went out and hired J.P.L. to redesign his rockets?
With a series of successful gestures, the Clippers have quietly crafted a new personality. Those gestures have been both large and small. Doc Rivers was hired. The Paul re-signing was a dignified nonevent despite the best efforts of Donald Sterling.
Over the past few seasons, the Clippers’ player development staff has increased from a one-man shop to four full-time coaches and a shooting guru. The scouting budget has increased. The training staff now includes a nutritionist, a chiropractor and a deep-tissue masseuse. Giant likenesses of current Clippers were hung during games to cover the Lakers championship banners. Their two stars are among the most marketable in the league, three if you count Cliff Paul.
In a weird, fractal way, Doc is in charge of channeling those "gestures" on a nightly basis while also being one of those gestures himself. His messages are simple and consistent. Preseason, he talked about his plans to maximize Griffin’s playmaking skills, then installed an offense that did just that. Questions about DeAndre Jordan’s free throw shooting are answered with comparisons to Bill Russell. At a recent postgame news conference, Doc was asked if he knew that Jared Dudley, who had made the go-ahead shot on a set play late in the game, had been 0-for-6 to that point. Doc said that he never looked at the box score during the game. "We draw up plays because we know they work," he said.
Meanwhile, since the passing of legendary owner Dr. Jerry Buss, there has been a definite sense of drift, a feeling of not-quite-rightness that comes through in the voices of the anxious "Lakers Line" callers. A feeling that this time maybe there’s no guarantee things will come out right. Purple and gold has always been superstar catnip, only Dwight Howard chose deep red and a low state income tax.
There have been three coaches in two seasons (Hi, Bernie Bickerstaff), one Princeton offense and a revised printing of Jeanie Buss’ memoir released midseason referred to the hiring of Mike D’Antoni over her fiancé, Phil Jackson, as a "betrayal" and a "stab in the back."
Kobe Bryant signed a deal so massive it suggests the Lakers’ brass might in fact know that the team won’t compete seriously again for years and is doing what it can to shore up ticket sales. And even with all that cash, Kobe still hasn’t been deterred from public sniping over recent moves, calling last week’s Steve Blake trade "not cool."
Over on "Lakers Line’s" Clippers equivalent, "Clipper Talk," everything’s cool -- even after a tough Clippers loss against Golden State. Manny from Highland Park calls in and tells Isaac Lowenkron, the show’s host, "I know I’ve called before and said I thought the Clippers could win, but this year I actually mean it."
I’ve listened to Isaac for years. If "Clipper Talk" has historically been a dive bar where down-and-outters can gather and commiserate, then Lowenkron is the friendly bartender, the one who knows his job is to listen and sympathize. But tonight, there’s no empathy in his voice, only something that sounds more like giddy anticipation. "You know what the best part is?" he asks. "This is just the beginning."