Apr 17 2014, 9:52pm CDT | by Forbes
The Lakers are dead as Moses. The Clippers, who finished 11 games ahead of them last season and 30 in this one, are No. 3 seeds in the NBA’s Western draw, meaning they’ll be favored to stay alive for the next three or four weeks.
No, the Clippers haven’t taken over Los Angeles… but they’re going to borrow it for a while.
What happened to the Lakers was inevitable: The nucleus that won five titles from 2000-2010 got old. What happened to the Clippers is a miracle, like seeing democracy break out in Russia under Vladimir Putin.
A lot of Clipper people lived in the hope this day would come. As one of their front office people said once during their dark ages, “Everyone is here for one reason, to be here on the day it’s cool.” Of course, like almost everyone involved, he was gone by the time it got here.
Owner Donald T. Sterling, a kindly despot, ruled with an iron hand, or, actually, sowed as much confusion as he felt. The preferred alternative was to do nothing as debacle piled on debacle and Ron Harper, making $4 million, said being there was like “doing my jail time.”
Sterling’s specialty was refusing to extend players before their contracts ran out, waiting until another team made an offer to match it and watching anyone who could leave, do so. In 2004, with the team holding the right of first refusal, Elton Brand begged Sterling to let him go to Miami, to no effect. In the Clipper Way, they were stunned to see Brand bolt for Philadelphia in 2008 when his contract ran out.
They were an institution, at least on “The Tonight Show.” Conan O’Brien, succeeding Jay Leno, told a Clipper joke 30 seconds into his first monologue (“This studio holds 380 people. It’s exactly like going to a Clippers game.”)
Nevertheless, amazing things began happening in 200, even as Coach/GM Mike Dunleavy basted in the seventh circle of Clipper Hell, having challenged Sterling to fire him after the owner disowned him, telling the Los Angeles Times’ T.J. Simers, “I don’t know if anyone really loves their coach.”
Within two seasons, Dunleavy and his protege, Neil Olshey, drafted Eric Gordon, Eric Bledsoe and DeAndre Jordan, hitting the jackpot in the 2009 lottery with Blake Griffin. Unfortunately for Dunleavy, Griffin missed his first season with a knee injury, after which the GM/coach was neither.
The fairy dust had hardly begun to sprinkle. In 2011, Olshey, the GM, pulled off the deal for Chris Paul, after NBA Commissioner David Stern had knocked down one sending CP3 to the Lakers. The Lakers tried to get back into it but couldn’t match the Clipper package of Gordon, Al-Farouq Aminu and Minnesota’s unprotected 2012 lottery pick, acquired in a throw-away deal for journeyman Marko Jaric.
If the presumption was that Paul was only passing through, Olshey got him to waive his 2012 opt-out, committing himself to two seasons. Then Sterling did something that had occurred to others but never to him; he turned the team over to Paul, who selected and recruited players like Jamal Crawford. As a Clipper official told me for a 2012 New York Times piece, “This is Chris’s roster.”
There was one more piece in this wondrous puzzle, a lucky coincidence with Coach Vinny Del Negro’s contract set to run out July 1, 2012, when Paul’s did.
Happily for everyone, except Del Negro whose club record of 56 wins was just surpassed–by one–there was no danger of Sterling giving him an extension… so Paul could get his choice of coaches to stay.
Thus arrived Doc Rivers last summer with the Celtics breaking up their old team, happy to get out of paying him $7 million to win 25 games. With one title and two Finals appearances in Boston, Rivers enjoys a cachet that goes beyond that as a Gregg Popovich-style authoritarian, who’s nevertheless beloved by his players, even Glen (Big Baby), Doc’s oversized problem child in Boston who turned down other offers to rejoin him with the Clippers.
Rivers has the facility of always saying the right thing, and, although he could hypnotize a cattle herd into swallowing the company line, meaning it. When Clipper forward Matt Barnes accused Rivers of shopping him at the trade deadline, Doc reportedly told him, yes, it was true. Barnes has played the best basketball of his career since. It’s an open secret in Miami that LeBron James would love to play for Rivers, alongside Paul, who’s godfather to one of Bron’s sons, even if there’s no way to make it happen.
With Paul’s enthusiastic endorsement, Rivers got Donald-proof control of the basketball operation. (Well, almost. Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Sterling almost canceled Rivers’ first trade, a three-way deal giving up Bledsoe for J.J. Redick. Rivers was reportedly ready to quit—three months after taking the job—but Sterling relented before any gantlets were hurled.)/>/>
Showing the old days are gone but not forgotten, Olshey fell by the wayside while leading them into the sunlight. Yearning to stay, he didn’t get an offer until his contract had run out, in the summer of 2012, when Portland’s Paul Allen swooped in and stole him.
Nevertheless, the Clippers remain comers on the floor and rock-solid off it. Not that they can take the town away from the Lakers this spring… but the last time this happened, in 2005 with the Clippers in the second round after the Lakers fell in the first, Jack Nicholson sat courtside at one of the Clips’ road games. Local TV ratings eclipsed those for the Lakers in the first round.
Of course, Sterling may start mewing if they don’t make the West Finals. Nevertheless, for a moment that only friends and family could imagine… and not all of them.. the bad old days are a memory, not a life sentence.
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