The red and blue Clipper T-shirts draped over every Staples Center seat Thursday night were adorned with “Our Way.’’
The big news was, most of the fans actually wore them. The bigger news was, those fans actually screamed louder than the ones outfitted in Curry and Durant.
For the first time in maybe forever, there actually is a Clippers “way,’’ and it’s cool, it’s fun, and it’s infectious.
Look past Thursday’s 132-105 playoff wipeout at the deft and dynamic hands of the Golden State Warriors. You knew this was coming. You knew where the embarrassed Kevin Durant was going. The two-time defending champions are completing one of the greatest runs in NBA history, and there is no way this top seed was going to lose consecutive playoff games to the eighth-seeded and terribly outmanned Clippers. Look past this first-round series, which the Warriors lead two games to one and will probably clinch soon. Look to this summer. That’s what this month has been about. That’s what Monday night in Oakland was about. The Clippers’ main goal this season has been to create the sort of atmosphere and culture that would attract as many as two superstar free agents this summer, and they have done that.
By even making the playoffs with this odd mix, even though it cost them a first-round draft pick in the process, the Clippers showed prospects that Doc Rivers can coach and that the organization will not tank.
Then, by pulling off an NBA playoff-record comeback from a 31-point deficit to beat the Warriors in Oakland, they showed that their “way’’ can work.
Their teamwork can work. Their selflessness can work. They can make history without a superstar, so imagine what they can do with one or even two?
“A resilient, tough-minded group,’’ said Coach Doc Rivers before the game. “I think they’re more talented than they get credit for, I really do; to a man they’re more talented, maybe no superstar, but when you add them all up they’re pretty special.”
They’re about to get real special. Looking around Staples Center on Thursday, watching the genuine Clippers love raining down on a genuine hard-working Clippers team, even amid an awful defeat, it was easy to imagine this same scene next season but with different characters.
Imagine a Kwahi Leonard in Clippers black. That’s not only a possibility but a probability. Heck, why not also imagine Kevin Durant joining him? Yeah, the same Durant who scored 38 points Thursday in a revenge play against Patrick Beverley.
The Clippers are clearly the most attractive free agent destination this summer for any player who wants to play in Los Angeles. This is where this story must mention the Lakers, but only because — when it comes to the entire organization — right now there is no comparison.
Free agents generally don’t look at championship banners, they’re more interested in immediate championship hopes. They don’t care about legacy, they care about stability. They don’t just want to join a team, they want to partner with a franchise, and in this respect, right now, the Clippers are simply a better choice than the Lakers.
You want a strong and decisive owner? The Clippers have one, the Lakers do not.
Steve Ballmer is not only the NBA’s richest boss, he appears to be the most emotionally invested. He showed up more than two hours before Thursday’s game and was a bundle of energy as he bounced around the court. All that dancing he does in his seat along the baseline is not for show. He cares that much. All the money he is showering upon Rivers to keep him out of the clutches of the Lakers is not about ego. It shows he is committed to winning.
The Lakers, meanwhile, are shakily run by owner Jeanie Buss who, in concert with shadow owner Linda Rambis, has thus far failed to show the strong leadership needed to get them out of this historical six-year playoff drought.
You want a respected front office? Check out The Logo sitting on the baseline Thursday. No executive in league history can compete with Jerry West. Combine his wisdom with Lawrence Frank’s savvy and, well, who else could trade leading scorer and still build a playoff team with the remnants?
The Lakers, meanwhile, saw president Magic Johnson quit last week, leaving the operations to former agent Rob Pelinka, who has been publicly questioned around the league yet seems to be more powerful than ever.
Finally, you want a coach? The Clippers have a legitimate coach of the year candidate in Rivers, who has squeezed every bit of potential out of this mix of rookies, journeymen and Lou Williams. The Lakers had a coach who might have been attractive to free agents, Luke Walton, but he and the team parted ways last week, about 10 seconds before he became the head coach in Sacramento. So now the seat is vacant.
Finally, the Clippers have created an atmosphere where a star can be a star without all the hassles of being a star. Does that make sense? Their best player ,Williams, comes off the bench. There’s nobody else who demands the ball, so players like Leonard or Durant can immediately run the show without the pressure felt by even the role players on the team down the hall.
Speaking of that team, the Lakers have a superstar, and everything revolves around him, and if you want to sign up, you’d better be ready to defer to everything that is LeBron James. That seemed like a good tradeoff six months ago when James appeared intent on leading the Lakers back to greatness. Now, not so much.
The only thing the Clippers lack is its own arena. A team’s brand is its arena, and the Clippers can’t fully realize their franchise potential as long as they are the third tenant at Staples Center.
But they are working through lawsuits to build something in Inglewood, hoping it can be open for the 2024 season. When they do, this town’s basketball landscape could look at a lot different. They won’t need to drape those T-shirts across seats. Fans will be already be wearing them. Finally, it seems, “Our Way’’ is truly headed in the right direction.