Against all projections and general belief, the LA Clippers are now considered a near-lock for the playoffs. #TeamTank is dead for now, and despite the high-risk plan of remaining competitive during a rebuild, the future is still looking bright for a team that used to be a perennial also-ran in Los Angeles.
35.5 wins. That was all Westgate was willing to project for the LA Clippers for the 2018-2019 season.
LeBron James had just signed with the Lakers. Their season win total line was set at 48.5.
With 16 games left in the season, the Clippers have already made their over, and the Lakers, with 18 games left, are mathematically incapable of doing so. And after an electric win over the Lakers, the Clippers now stand as the Best Team In LA.
It honestly hasn’t been close in recent years, with the Clippers beating the Lakers in six straight season series coming into this year. With their playoff hopes on the line, one would think the best player in basketball, with playoff mode “activated,” could will his team into at least a victory against their cross-town rivals.
It didn’t go that way. The LA Clippers are now 2-1 against the Lakers, and it’s virtually assumed their final matchup will be with the Purple & Gold already shut down for the remainder of the year.
This didn’t happen overnight.
Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day
The historical mediocrity of this Clippers team had come under the ownership of Donald Sterling, who stands today as, if not the worst owner, certainly the worst person ever to run an NBA team. That all changed in 2014, when Sterling was forced to sell the Clippers after being caught on tape making horrifically racist remarks.
Enter Steve Ballmer. Inheriting Lob City, major pieces of which were acquired through the good fortune of being in LA when Chris Paul‘s trade to the Lakers was vetoed, and being awarded a first-overall draft pick that became Blake Griffin, we now see in retrospect that the plan was never to retain or build upon Lob City.
Like a house with “good bones,” Ballmer and company wanted to flip it.
As Lawrence Frank moved from assistant coach to President of Basketball Operations, and Jerry West joined the front office in 2017 as an executive board member/consultant, it became time to turn the assets of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin into a team with a future, not a window.
Trading Blake Griffin netted Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris and Boban Marjanovic. None of those three players are with the Clippers anymore, and flipping them has resulted in strong role players with expiring contracts, Landry Shamet, a surprisingly strong JaMychal Green, and a dragon’s hoard of future draft picks. And speaking of picks, trading Griffin also resulted in the drafting of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who, in time, may alone be worth the price.
It also resulted in the Lakers trading with the Clippers for the first time in decades, allowing West, Frank and Ballmer to virtually pick their pockets. Somehow, Mike Muscala, who’d never suited up for the Clippers even once, turned into promising, young, and 7’1″ Ivica Zubac. It’s a trade that Lakers Twitter hated then, hate now, and may never get over for as long as they live.
TANK SZN Is Canceled
With the surprise of a 13-6 start to the season, by the trade deadline the Clippers had made their point. They were competitive, they were young, they had the benefits of living in LA without the round-the-clock media circus of the Lakers, and above all: They had money. Conditions were perfect to let this season go, tank, and make their plays for Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, and other free agents in the summer.
Except: they didn’t want to.
Doc Rivers didn’t have, and will never have, interest in coaching a tanking team. Doc Rivers’ teams win basketball games. Period. In retrospect, it should’ve been abundantly obvious that the Clippers were not going to tank the moment Doc signed an extension. Rebuild, sure. Tank? Not on your life.
In an unusual move, Doc agreed with the front office to step down as the LA Clippers President of Basketball Ops to allow Lawrence Frank to ascend. One wonders if Doc took on the dual coach/president role simply to counter the influence of then-owner Sterling. Either way, the choice showed a remarkable confidence in ownership and management, and a trust that he would still remain as an equal partner in roster decisions.
Since trading Tobias Harris, easily the Clippers’ best player, they have won seven of their next ten games, including a shocking come from behind victory against the Celtics (and, obviously, the victory over the Lakers), with a net rating of +4.2, the 6th best in the NBA.
Loose Lips Sink Clipper Ships
All of this was constructed through a front office that operates as a near-antithesis to the executives across town. With leaks galore, head scratching transactions and acquisitions, and a general tendency to dump fuel on the media fire, the Lakers’ front office has, by any measure, sputtered nearly out of control this season.
In contrast, the LA Clippers organization has virtually remained silent as the grave, preferring to work behind the scenes. None of them have shied away from taking interviews, least of all Ballmer, but the bravado and exceptionalism displayed by their neighboring team was nowhere to be found here.
It also helps that Ballmer himself has operated as an owner who works very simply: hire the best people, let them do their jobs, and ask questions to make sure they don’t get tunnel vision.
No one saw the Tobias Harris trade coming. Sure, there were rumblings, and it was likely that Harris would be moving on after turning down a four year, $80 million offer. But the timing came as a shock — and only more shocking that the trade resulting in Mike Muscala converted not twenty-four hours later into Ivica Zubac.
By the time anyone knew what was going on, the LA Clippers had already got their young center, acquired a great young shooter in Shamet, and opened up plenty of cap space while doing so.
That cap space, and their frequent presence at Toronto Raptors games, have been the only indicators tipping their hands: The Clippers want Kawhi Leonard bad, and they want another max contract player to go with him. They aren’t hiding this desire, but while Magic Johnson repeatedly gets in hot water skirting around tampering rules, the Clippers are content to remain quietly confident.
And despite having a roster that’s been constantly changing to the point of not having a single returning player from the 2016-2017 season, they’re still winning basketball games.
The Last Piece: Identity and Culture
The hiring of former Sports Illustrated writer Lee Jenkins to a vaguely defined role of “Executive Director of Research & Identity” suggested Ballmer and Frank’s interest in pinpointing what they wanted the LA Clippers to be known for, and how they could do that with their roster.
If it wasn’t clear to you early on that the focal point of that culture building was Patrick Beverley, after his performance against the Lakers, it should be clear now.
Steve Ballmer, October 2017: “We’re a little grittier. I think it’s OK. I think there is a whole side of L.A. that’s hard-working, tough-minded. ”
Patrick Beverley, March 2019: “That’s who we do it for: The people in the back. … The blue-collar people who don’t have a lot given to them. Who work for everything they deserve. And that’s what we’re doing right now. We do it for them.”
That identity – the team that doesn’t let anyone off easy, that scraps for every point, that refuses to die despite many across the league assuming (or, in the case of some, hoping) they would, is not accidental. It has been Ballmer’s desire all along, and he found his avatar in Pat Bev.
It’s this final piece that has truly closed the book on Donald Sterling’s horrid, incompetent, and racist legacy. This is, by any meaningful metric, not your father’s LA Clippers.
Playoffs And Beyond
It’s clear now that the front office is content to let next year’s lottery-protected pick go to the Celtics. While some are adamant that a team should never give up a pick unless they are in their championship window, there are five factors at play.
- The Clippers live next door to the Lakers, and have been consistently better than them for six years, four of them under Ballmer. When you’re working to step out of the shadow of the 16-time champion, every fan and season ticket holder matters. Regardless of long-term plans, winning in the short term gets and keeps fans in one of the two largest NBA markets.
- The Clippers already have three first-rounders from the 2018 draft in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jerome Robinson and Landry Shamet, as well as more youth in Ivica Zubac. While a pick is certainly a great asset, this team already has a young core, where development should be prioritized over horse-trading.
- The Clippers’ new arena is planned to be built by 2024. That’s not as far away as it sounds. Building a culture of consistent winning will make the transition from Staples Center into their own home in Inglewood that much smoother.
- Cap space will be extremely tight to acquire two max players while retaining important role players like Beverley. Gilgeous-Alexander, Robinson, Shamet, Sindarius Thornwell, Tyrone Wallace, Lou Will and Harrell are already locked in through next season. Even assuming that Danilo Gallinari will be moved to open up the space required, $3 million for a young rookie on a team that already has three starters aged 21 and younger will be tightening that pocket book to add youth for youth’s sake.
- To that point, with those young starters and that top-shelf bench unit, there is hardly any playoff experience among them. Sooner or later it will need to happen before a full championship run can commence, and there’s no better time like the present.
Also, again: Doc doesn’t tank, anyway.
It would be counter-productive for this team, known for its grit and never-say-die attitude, to lean back and let the remainder of the season fly by.
Remember: 35.5 wins was the line for the Clippers this season, a line they have already surpassed. They were supposed to tank at the start of the season. Then they were supposed to tank at the trade deadline. Now it’s assumed they will be knocked out without much trouble in the first round.
It seems that if there’s one thing you should say about these LA Clippers, it’s this: Woe to those who predict their failure. The Clippers have a tendency to forget that they’re supposed to lose.