Regular Season Western Conference Rank: 11
When the Clippers won the lottery in 2009 and had the chance to draft Blake Griffin, there were a few thoughts that must have crossed everybody’s mind. Firstly, that the Clippers’ did not deserve the right to pick up such a talented player, because they had enough bad karma (from Donald Sterling, not the players) to last a franchise’s lifetime. Secondly, pretty much everyone felt bad for Griffin, who was considered a no-doubt future All Star, potential franchise cornerstone, and long-shot Hall of Famer until he was dragged to the Clippers, a franchise that would, in one way or another, destroy his career with idiotic management decisions more concerned with fiscal profits than the best interests of their basketball team, or by rubbing off their loser mentality on him.
True to form, the Clippers ruined Blake Griffin’s life, by exposing him to the infamous “Clipper Curse.” He played well during the preseason and was the frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, dunking the ball with ease and showing off his athleticism, rebounding, and offensive polish. On paper, the Clippers looked like they had a chance to make the Playoffs in the competitive Western Conference, given Baron Davis’s potential to play well when motivated, Chris Kaman’s overall skill at center, and Eric Gordon’s emergence and potential.
But as swiftly as the anticipation built, so it subsided, as Griffin hurt his leg in a freak injury after he too ferociously dunked the ball in a preseason game, coming down awkwardly. The injury report didn’t come in right away, but I already knew the news – of course their number one pick would miss the whole season, it’s the Clippers! Even when they make the Playoffs (as they did in 2006) with a solid core that really can’t falter for at least three years, they can still find a way back to the lottery the next year.
And after the news broke about Griffin, with the standard terrible coaching job by Mike Dunleavy and terrible ownership job by Sterling (really? You’re going to screw minorities out of houses for a bit more cash even though you’re already filthy rich? And wait 5 extra years to fire Dunleavy even though he’s incompetent, because you’re too cheap to pay another coach?), the Clips found themselves in the same hole, never legitimately vying for a Playoff position throughout the year. Baron Davis was unmotivated and unproductive after coming back to the team in awesome shape and putting in effort for a few months, only to see his team get blown out night after night and losing the will to live. He was nowhere near his 2007 Warriors form, but who could really blame him in that environment? Al Thornton was coming off the bench gunning like a postal worker, DeAndre Jordan was coming off the bench making boneheaded plays (even though he is quite talented) and Dunleavy was barely conscious on the bench, probably daydreaming about dinner.
There were a few bright spots, like Gordon’s solidified performance which showed his full range of talents, from outside shooting to strong dribble drives to the hoop to even a bit of hops (in a disappointing dunk contest), and Chris Kaman’s development and improvement into almost a 20 point, 10 rebound stalwart. Steve Blake also played pretty well off the bench.
With the return of Griffin, hopefully the team can capitalize on a fast start to keep Baron motivated and take advantage of Kaman and Gordon’s continued growth. On paper, the team looks like they could once again compete for a Playoff berth; they’ve traded away the ball hog Thornton, let Blake sign with the Lakers, and drafted Al-Farouq Aminu from Wake Forest, a potent scorer with good reviews so far, and Eric Bledsoe, the backup point from Kentucky. Some are even forecasting an 8th seed or higher from the team, just because their roster looks tantalizing. And if it were any other team with the same exact players, I might feel the same way.
But they won’t make the Playoffs and I’ll tell you why.
Dunleavy is still there, Sterling still owns the team, the Clippers still take a backseat to the Lakers, they still have an ugly jersey, and the losing mentality still thrives in the loss promoting atmosphere which characterizes the franchise. A game I attended last season tells the whole story.
It was Fan Appreciation Night last year towards the end of the season, after the Clippers had already been eliminated from the Playoffs. They were playing the Mavericks that night and Blake Griffin came out early to talk to the crowd, thanking fans for a great season. He seemed genuine about it. I was touched – he was there, probably in agony just because he couldn’t play at all.
And then the game started.
From the flat pregame routine to mediocre halftime acts to disappointing crowds to the starting five which featured Rasual Butler as the go-to guy, the team kind of gave up before it even started. The Mavs walked in, joking around, playing 1 on 1 in warmups, laughing their asses off, going through the motions, expecting to win – and in walked the Clippers, expecting the same. No sense of urgency on the players’ faces, no sense of obligation to the fans to at least give it effort on Fan Appreciation Night, for God’s sake. There was no miracle here – the Clips were steamrolled by maybe 35, Dirk got the loudest cheers, and the general mood was that of a museum more than of a basketball game.
Every time I try to pick the Clippers to grasp for that last Playoff spot, my mind wanders back to that game. And I am disgusted. It just is a tiny microcosm of the reasons why the Clippers will never be a great team in my lifetime. Instead, I think they’ll just grind it through another meaningless season in a sea of many, winning about 40 games just because they have too much talent not to. I like Gordon, I like Baron, I like Griffin, I like Craig Smith, I like Jordan, but I just can’t envision them being decent. They’ll get that 11th seed and take their yearly standing reservation in the lottery.
Griffin will return with fury, but I don’t know whether he’ll be 100%. Baron is a hit or miss, depending on the team’s fortunes in the first few weeks and competitiveness, Kaman might not actually be that good, and Gordon might be instilled with a loser’s mentality after two years in the organization. On paper, the team looks alright, but the Clippers always find a way to lose. With the same general vibe resonating from the team, what would make you think anything has changed? I’m banking on the fact that this trend of pitiful play will continue, at least through 2010. After all, it is more than talent that makes for a Playoff team.