Can Clippers break losing cycle?
For those who strive to live in the moment, right now there is no hotter Western Conference team over the past 10 games than the Clippers, who are 7-3 since Dec. 17. For dreamers who constantly look ahead, no Western Conference team has a brighter future, with a roster featuring a budding All-Star in Blake Griffin, a top-10 scorer in Eric Gordon and five players in the rotation who are 22 or younger. But with the Clippers it's always about what's come before.
The Clippers must overcome a greater downward gravitational pull than any other team in the league. No matter how high they jump or how fast they run, they've never been able to escape their past. It's a legacy of bad decisions, insufficient funding and losing. Lots of losing. Seventeen losing records in the last 18 seasons. It's a past that's so powerful it takes on an entity of its own.
"It does," said Elton Brand, a Clipper from 2001 to 2008. "I know we went to Utah when I played, and it was like, 'Yeah, the Clippers are 1-21 their last 22 games here.' It's like, 'I've been here four times, what does that have to do with me?' It does wear on you. It gets in the back of your head."
You have to experience it to really grasp it. Griffin hasn't been around for all of the disappointments and the injuries (well, he can remember the broken kneecap suffered in a 2009 exhibition game that postponed his rookie season for a year.) He hasn't delved through the history books. He doesn't remember the episodes of the ESPN series "The Life" that profiled Darius Miles, Quentin Richardson and the highly entertaining 2001-02 Clippers that nearly grabbed a playoff spot with 39 victories. Griffin doesn't know about the season that followed, when seemingly half the players were in contract years, the Clippers didn't pre-emptively sign anyone to an extension, and the team dissolved into a me-first mess.
Griffin knows only what he sees reflected by the fans.
"You can see it on people's faces," Griffin said. "You can see it with the fans, how they talk. They're like, thanking us, you know? We still haven't done anything. We want to give the fans a reason for all their support. We want to give them a reward."
Griffin has been a reward in and of himself. He produces double-doubles on a nightly basis, usually by halftime. He is turning Clippers games into events and his threat to dunk on any play makes a run to the concession stand a risk. Yet the fans live in constant fear that Griffin will either get injured or leave or both, because inevitably that's what happens to talented Clippers players.
From 1994 to 2004, the Clippers had 10 picks in the first 10 selections of the draft. The only one to stay with the team for more than five seasons is Chris Kaman, the center selected sixth overall in 2003.
Griffin could become an unrestricted free agent in 2014, which coincides with the expiration of Kobe Bryant's and Pau Gasol's contracts with the Lakers. Now that's a franchise with a history of attracting and retaining star players, one with a low tolerance for down time. If the Lakers have to reset in 2014, who better for them to do it with than Griffin?
For now, Griffin is embracing the prospect of changing the course of the Clippers.
"I would love to do that," Griffin said. "I would love to be a part of it. I don't think there's a greater feeling than helping something, being a part of something bigger than yourself, being a part of something that changes the culture. If we're really committed to winning, we're committed to being better, I would love to be here. But there's a lot of years, a lot of games to be played before any of that's going to be decided."
Whoa, that was a big if in the middle of that paragraph. If we're really committed to winning, we're committed to being better. On most teams that qualification wouldn't even need to be thrown in; it would be a given. The Clippers aren't most teams.
I asked Griffin what indications he would want to see that the team was committed to winning.
"It's just having a winning mindset, all the way from upper management to the players to the coaches," Griffin said. "Things have to be on the up. You can't blame some guys for wanting to try and go win a championship and things like that. As long as things keep improving and people show that they want to win, this is a great place to be."
I'm glad he put the onus on management. They're the ones who have to prove something. Griffin has already presented his case that he'll do his part. He is averaging almost 22 points and 13 rebounds per game and has helped boost the Clippers' average attendance to 16,761 fans -- 15th in the NBA. Last season the Clippers ranked 20th, with 16,343 fans per game.
It's just having a winning mindset, all the way from upper management to the players to the coaches. Things have to be on the up. ... As long as things keep improving and people show that they want to win, this is a great place to be." -- Blake Griffin
There's been a long-held belief that the Clippers won't commit the finances to fielding a winner, even after such notable signings as the five-year, $82 million contract for Brand, the $62 million contract for Baron Davis and the $52 million extension for Kaman. It doesn't help when legal filings related to former general manager Elgin Baylor's wrongful termination lawsuit against the Clips only serve to reinforce the old stereotype. In declarations, Baylor and former coach/GM Mike Dunleavy claimed that owner Donald Sterling wasn't willing to spend what it takes to win, including Dunleavy's allegation that Sterling "always told me to give him a great player and he'd pay for him, but there were several players I wanted to sign and we didn't because Sterling refused to spend the money. The Clippers' biggest concern was making a profit."
Meanwhile, it never seems as if the players' biggest concern is remaining a Clipper.
There was a here-we-go-again sensation when the father of Gordon, the Indiana-born shooting guard who's averaging 23.5 points per game, told the Los Angeles Times' Bill Plaschke: "Speaking strictly as a dad, I'd rather him play in the Eastern Conference so we could see him more."
Eric Gordon told ESPN.com: "I'm just here to play basketball, no matter where I go. I think here is a pretty good situation. I know my family wants me to get back in some way, probably. We'll see what happens whenever it's my contract time."
Contract time could come as soon as 2013.
Gordon got a taste of the good life when he played on the gold medal-winning U.S. national team in the World Championship last summer.
"When you win it shows you how to win and brings good experience," Gordon said. "You bring out a good spirit of things. You come back here and you're losing ... it's just hard to change the whole organization to do like that.
"The USA experience, you've got the top players playing there. We didn't have to worry about the business side. We're just out there trying to win. Here, we're out here trying to win, but you see there's a business side. I would just say there's more things that come with it throughout the organization.
"We're getting better, I would say. I would just say if we can keep on playing more games with experience, we'll be better off.
"It's just hard to change it so quickly. We are going through phases. New coaching staff, new team. It's just all about getting everybody on the same page and going from there, top to bottom. It can be there. As a player, all you can do is worry about playing. That's all we can do, basically."
Having been through it themselves, former Clippers such as Brand, Lamar Odom and Richardson find themselves rooting for this new group. They know the kids have it better than they did, when they practiced at a local college that didn't even have suitable showers. Now the Clippers have their own practice facility that is so nice and modern other NBA teams use it when they're in town.
It's the same owner, though. The same template that has resulted in seven head coaches in the past 11 years (the Lakers have had three during that time).
"I know what they're going through," said Odom, a Clipper from 1999-2003. "They'll be pretty good if they keep the core of the team they've got. That's the key in any sport. Keep the coach and the core of the team. You start tradition and build systems. That's the key."
When there's a constant exodus of players without an influx of veteran leadership it's almost impossible for a team to grow into an experienced group that win championships.
"Survive that," Brand advised. "Whatever's going on. The organization gets a lot of flack, but they've got a top-notch practice facility. They're doing a lot of positive things.
"You have to find a way to get over it and stay together somehow. That's my advice to that group, to find a way to focus. Don't think like, 'Hey I've got to get out of here.' There can be a good, bright future here."
One sequence in a recent game against the Denver Nuggets gave a glimpse of what the future could look like.
DeAndre Jordan, a tall, talented center, elevated so high to block a Chauncey Billups shot that Jordan actually swatted the ball with his elbow. Griffin got the ball and pushed it upcourt and passed ahead to Davis. Davis lured Denver's Ty Lawson toward him, then lofted a pass skyward, with two hands like a volleyball setter. And Griffin did what he does best. The top highlight generator in the NBA soared, cocked his wrist, then caught the ball and slammed it through the basket in one swoop, with so much force the ball hit the floor and bounced back to halfcourt.
You had all of the components. Jordan, emerging as a fierce inside presence who has averaged 10 rebounds and five blocked shots over the past three games. Davis once again resembling the man who was at the throttle of the high-speed Warriors of 2007, dishing out at least eight assists in eight of the past 10 games. And Griffin elevating to heights it seems that only he can attain.
"Man, that was exciting," Jordan said.
"This is the way we want to play," Davis said. "This is our identity, this is who we want to be."
It's what any young team should want to be. Athletic, hard-working, entertaining. It's what the Clippers have right now. It's what they've had before. And it's what they've never been able to get beyond.
The future always holds so much more appeal than the Clippers' past. The question is, will the past hold the future back?
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