Basketball reasons were rarely used for liking the Clippers in the years before they acquired Chris Paul to pair with Blake Griffin.
Even during Griffin’s rookie season in which he leaped over a car to win the dunk competition during All-Star weekend, he could not elevate the Clippers to anything more than a 50-loss team.
The hulking power forward had been the third No. 1 overall draft pick in franchise history when the Clippers selected him in 2009 and the first to break his kneecap in an exhibition game before he made his NBA debut. It led to a lost 2009-10 season for Griffin and the Clippers at a time when their fellow Staples Center tenants, the Lakers, were still in the endless summer phase of their history, winning a 16th championship.
They won the first two Pacific Division titles in franchise history and have compiled the league’s third-best regular-season record since the start of the 2011-12 season, behind only the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder.
The Clippers have also become the hottest NBA ticket in Los Angeles, their sellout streak easily eclipsing that of the Lakers and reaching 219 games this season.
“Listen, it takes time to erase 30 years of not winning,” Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said recently. “We haven’t won titles, but when you compare us to all the other teams as far as wins and losses the last four years, we’re right there, and that’s part of establishing a tradition.”
The Clippers’ rise can largely be traced to Dec. 8, 2011, a date that will live in infamy for the Lakers. That was the day then-NBA commissioner David Stern cited “basketball reasons” as justification for vetoing a trade that would have sent Paul, one of the game’s most coveted point guards, to the Lakers from the New Orleans Hornets.
The Hornets, who at the time were being run by the league (i.e. Stern), preferred the Clippers’ package of Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, Al Farouq-Aminu and a first-round draft pick to the Lakers’ offer that would have netted them Lamar Odom, Luis Scola, Kevin Martin and a first-round draft pick as part of a three-way trade also involving the Houston Rockets, who were to receive Pau Gasol from the Lakers.
On the day he arrived at the Clippers’ practice facility, Paul sounded a sunny note for a franchise with only seven playoff appearances and no Finals forays in its 41-year existence.
“I’m excited to bring a championship here to L.A. in a Clippers uniform,” he said.
All the Clippers won in Paul’s first season was a breathless seven-game playoff series against the Memphis Grizzlies, rallying from 27 points down in an epic Game 1 comeback and eventually reaching the Western Conference semifinals for the first time in six years. That series didn’t go so well, the Spurs sweeping the Clippers in four games.
Wishful thinking. Four consecutive losses later the Clippers were done and so was Coach Vinny Del Negro, replaced by Rivers in a shake-up that was only a prelude to more turbulent times.
The Clippers won 57 games and another division title in Rivers’ first season in 2013-14. It wouldn’t end well. The Clippers held a 2-1 lead over the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the playoffs when TMZ released tapes of then-owner Donald Sterling making disparaging comments about blacks.
Sterling might have become the first owner in professional sports history to lose a game for his team, the Clippers’ minds clearly elsewhere during a Game 4 loss to the Warriors. They eventually prevailed in the series after an emotional Game 7 victory at Staples Center.
Their first trip to the conference finals seemed within reach when the Clippers held a seven-point lead in the final minute of Game 5 of the conference semifinals against Oklahoma City. Then Paul committed a bad turnover and a bad foul on the way to a crushing defeat. The Clippers couldn’t recover two days later in a Game 6 loss and their season was over.
A new beginning was imminent with the NBA’s lifetime ban of Sterling and the quickie sale of the team in summer 2014 to Steve Ballmer, the billionaire Microsoft executive. Ballmer’s introduction to Clippers fans was part pep rally, part religious revival, with the owner chest-bumping fans and loudly declaring his love for “Larry,” a reference to the Larry O’Brien NBA title trophy.
The Clippers did make some history in January 2015, becoming the first NBA team with a father coaching his son after the acquisition of guard Austin Rivers. But there was still that nagging inability to finish games, and more importantly, playoff series. A 19-point lead in the third quarter of Game 6 of the conference semifinals last spring against the Houston Rockets evaporated and three days later another Clippers season had ended in despair.
Houston left the Clippers with a better memory two months later when nearly half the team’s roster converged in the city at the home of coveted free agent DeAndre Jordan, announcing their arrival with a series of travel-related emojis on Twitter.
By midnight, Jordan had decided to stay put, backing out of a five-day-old commitment to the Dallas Mavericks by remaining with the Clippers, the only team he had known in his seven NBA seasons.
The Clippers were in disarray again by late January when Griffin punched a team assistant equipment manager at a Toronto restaurant, leading to a broken right hand, four-game suspension and social-media jokes about this being a team that couldn’t get out of its own way all those years after the rash of bad draft picks, forgettable coaches and laughable ownership was supposedly shrinking in the rearview mirror.
“Whenever something bad happens to us, people say, ‘That’s the old Clippers,’” Doc Rivers said. “Well, that’s unfair, but that’s the franchise that we’re with so we can’t worry about it.
“We’re way better than we were three, four, five years ago. Are where we want to be? The only place we want to be is win a title, so we can’t answer that until the end of the year, but we’re just better. I think we’re a better organization.”
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter: @latbbolch