What if the Clippers don’t actually have a bright future after all?
The overwhelming optimism about the Clippers’ future ignores just how precarious that future actually is. So many of the communal narratives attached to NBA franchises are tied to subjective but universal specifications on what teams ought to do. Consider the Los Angeles Clippers, who disintegrated a flawed contender and built around hungry players to stay afloat. The Clippers of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin were sometimes feared, but more frequently mocked for falling short. The residual Clippers are beloved and beknighted by many neutral parties as a franchise built around the right qualities: toughness, work ethic, hunger. In unrelated news, the latter Clippers are much less imposing on the court than the earlier edition. Since letting CP3 go and trading Griffin in a particularly cold deal within months of convincing him to be their forever star, the Clippers have quote-unquote “done things the right way.” Because of that, and because Kawhi Leonard has been rumored as a sensible target given his Southern California history and potential future, the franchise has been seen as having a bright tomorrow. But what if they don’t? What if Leonard stays with the NBA champion Toronto Raptors, as rumors now suggest he might? What if Patrick Beverley, the team’s bulldog spirit animal and starting point guard, moves on in free agency as the Clippers chase bigger game? What if Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, and all of the other big names turn away from L.A.’s step-sister team? What if the Clippers come up empty in 2019 and get leapfrogged by the hated Lakers and the young, exciting Kings in the standings next season? What if this is as good as this version of the Clippers get? It’s happened before. Eleven years ago, the Clippers were three years removed from a thrilling playoff run — their first in a decade — and looking to put a true star next to 29-year-old, two-time All Star (and free agent) Elton Brand. (No offense to Chris Kaman or Corey Maggette, the latter of whom was way better than most people remember and would have been a hero of the analytic age.) Brand had missed basically all of 2007-08 with an Achilles injury. Meanwhile Baron Davis, an L.A. native, had led the We Believe! Warriors to their best record in ages, but Golden State missed out on the 2008 playoffs due to wild West quality. (Sound familiar?) Davis had a massive player option, but was expected to return to the Warriors. Just before free agency began on July 1, 2008 — literally hours before — word spread that Davis was not opting in and would join Brand with the Clippers, signaling the rise of L.A.’s second team. Except Brand wasn’t all of the way on board, and soon signed as a free agent with the Philadelphia 76ers. The Clippers’ grand plans developed and went poof within a couple hours. Davis ended up stranded in L.A. with a bad team, and L.A. ended up stranded with Davis. The Clippers lost their season opener against the Lakers by 38 points and finished 19-63, bad enough to land Blake Griffin in the lottery. They stayed bad for a few more years, even winning the No. 1 pick again in 2011. Bad news: they’d traded that pick, which became Kyrie Irving, unprotected to the Cavaliers to move off Davis’ contract (whoops!). Eventually, Basketball Reasons brought them Chris Paul and glory. 2019 isn’t a close match to the Clippers’ 2008. The team is better and better managed, and there’s no real star on the team to get worried about. That’s both a blessing and a curse. Because there’s no star, every piece feels essential (hence the worry about Beverley’s wanderlust), and there’s fear an established star won’t want to compete in the West without a fellow All-NBA player. But because there’s no central star, the organization doesn’t feel like a teetering tower reliant on the stability of a single brick. If expectations are set properly, there’s a lot to look forward to in L.A. even if Kawhi stays north. But there’s no indication that expectations are being set properly. In fairness to franchisee Steve Ballmer, when you spend $2 billion on a basketball team, you should be excitable. You just don’t want to disappoint fans who have bought the narrative that the Clippers are a franchise on the rise. Because in the end, whether the Clippers are a near-term contender depends less on the accepted narrative that the front office has done a solid job grinding through a multi-year retooling while remaining competitive. The fate of the Clippers, and every team, depends a whole lot more on the whims of mercenary superstars. Good luck.
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