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The Clippers take bold steps in trying to separate themselves from the Lakers

The two red, white and blue bolts struck through the Los Angeles basketball landscape in a span of a few hours this week, one after the other, two sizzling revelations, one strong message.

The Clippers are tired of being Lakers lackeys.

They’ll never beat them in basketball history. They’ll never win the fight for local popularity. They still haven’t advanced as far as the Western Conference finals in their 33 seasons here. This will forever be a Lakers town, and they know it.

But the Clippers are finally attempting to physically move out of the Lakers’ shadow in two of the boldest ways possible. The campaign that began several years ago when Clippers Coach Doc Rivers covered up the Lakers banners at Staples Center has evolved into a full-blown plan to completely turn their backs on their hallway rivals. It might not result in a better product or more attention — the Clipper Curse still lives, after all — but give them credit for trying.

First, on Wednesday afternoon, the story leaked that the Clippers were seriously exploring abandoning their Staples roommates for their own new Inglewood home.

Then, Wednesday night, the story leaked that the Clippers were in the process of hiring Lakers icon Jerry West.

A new arena. A venerable monument. A mission statement.

“Today’s announcement is consistent with what [owner] Steve Ballmer has been saying for years,” said Gillian Zucker, the Clippers’ president of business operations. “We are committed to being the best. This means setting the highest bar for our organization’s performance at every level.”

Zucker was speaking to a smattering of reporters Thursday afternoon during a brief news conference at the club’s Playa Vista practice facility. The “announcement” had nothing to do with West, whose presser will take place next week after he signs his deal. Zucker was talking about the team’s exclusive negotiating agreement with the city of Inglewood to build a new arena, training facility and team offices.

But both bits of news had the same roots, and it might not be a coincidence that both stories broke on the same day. The Clippers have strengthened their leadership, expanded their options and are moving forward with a long-term plan that they can only hope will result in longer basketball springs.

Ballmer “has gone so far as to say we will do whatever necessary to provide our fans and their families the best game-night experience in the NBA,” Zucker said. “Today, we have taken an important step toward delivering on that commitment.’’

And all along I thought they were just waiting for a chance to run out of Staples Center and head back to Ballmer’s home in Seattle.

“Steve Ballmer has said publicly he will die owning the L.A. Clippers in Los Angeles,” Zucker said, so write that down and save it somewhere.

The arena news is not a big deal yet, or Ballmer would have been at a news conference. They’re only exploring the possibility, just as they are still exploring ways to stay at Staples Center, where they are currently grinding their teeth as the third tenant.

They are locked into playing there through the 2024 season, and they’re trying to rework a deal to get better dates and updated technology. If their demands are met, they will likely stay put. Even if Ballmer could build a basketball Taj Mahal in Inglewood, Staples Center still has a more central location and far easier access during the nightly basketball dates.

But Ballmer wants options, and he’s willing to pay the city of Inglewood $1.5 million for the trouble of turning it into one of those options and, man, he hates sharing with those Lakers. So you never know.

“It allows us to control our own destiny,” Zucker said of the proposed new facility.

You know what else does? Jerry West.

Zucker just smiled when asked about the Clippers’ stunning new free-agent acquisition, saying only, “I can share with you that we asked for and received permission from the Warriors to speak to Jerry West, nothing’s been signed at this point, I’ll leave the basketball operations to Doc.”

Though the new arena is only an idea, West is a reality that sends the message that the Clippers are real serious about right now. Instead of making them throw up their hands and want to start over, the recent string of playoff failures has apparently only made them tighten their jaws and try to find the missing piece.

That piece could be West. It’s hard to believe that, at age 79, he would sign up for a total rebuild. He’s going to want to win now, and that means Clippers fans can probably expect moves that will change the team dynamic while keeping most of the core group intact during this potentially most turbulent of Clippers summers.

With Chris Paul and Blake Griffin both able to become free agents and go elsewhere, West will have input on who stays. With J.J. Redick becoming a free agent, West will offer an opinion on whether he’s worth the money. Maybe they need to trade DeAndre Jordan? Another question that West will help answer.

Though the final say still belongs to Rivers, the coach has been criticized for his moves as basketball boss, and West’s presence could ease some of that heat. They’ll work together fine, because West wants to stay in the background, which also should have suited the Lakers and Magic Johnson, but, oh well.

“This announcement is an exciting step for the L.A. Clippers and especially for Clipper Nation,’’ said Zucker.

She was speaking about the arena agreement, but she could have been talking about everything on a day when the feisty Clippers began boxing that shadow.


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