Can the Clippers Ever Escape Their History?

There have been several incidents around the NBA this week that have put me in a reflective mood. 

  • The first was Monday, when the long-rumored For Sale sign actually went up in the lawn of the Golden State Warriors.  When Chris Cohan sells the team, there's a very good chance that the new ownership (likely Larry Ellison of Oracle) will put in a management structure that is less dysfunctional than the current regime.  Of course the bar is not set very high there, and it wouldn't have to be especially functional to be less dysfunctional.  But if it happens, the Clippers may become a little more lonely in the circle of basketball hell reserved for teams with inept management.
  • The second happened in New Jersey on Tuesday, when Nets CEO Brett Yormark got into a shouting match with a be-paper-bagged fan watching the Nets game.  It was hard not to think about the infamous Sports Illustrated cover story calling the Clippers the worst franchise in sports, with the iconic image of fans wearing bags.  The Clippers are an infinitely more competent sports franchise today than they were when that story was written in April 2000 - but again, the bar was lying on the ground at the time so being better is not saying much and the team continues to be among the worst, by both reputation and results, a full decade later.
  • The third is the ongoing soap opera in Portland, where the abrupt dismissal of Tom Penn last week unleashed a series of events that now have one-time golden boy Kevin Pritchard looking like a lame duck as the Blazers' GM, and the fan base feeling a sense of deja vu.  It wasn't that long ago that the Jailblazers were among the worst run teams in sports, and billionaire owner Paul Allen was on the brink of moving the team out of Portland.  Never mind that Allen and his corporate minions at Vulcan were widely considered the ones that botched everything in Portland in the first place.  It's anybody's guess what is really going on with what appears to be a power struggle in Portland right now, but long-suffering Blazer fans will be quick to blame their meddling owner for screwing up the feel-good story of recent NBA history, and it's hard to argue with that position at this point.
  • You might think there would be a bit of schadenfreude for the citizens of Clips Nation in all of this.  "See, we're not the only fubar NBA franchise."  But for me at least, it's all bad news.

    Because the Warriors will soon be getting what the Clippers have truly needed for 26 years - new ownership.

    Because the Nets, as bad as they are, are also getting a new owner, and at least they've hit the bottom.  Do I envy the Nets' position right now?  Not at all.  Nor did I want to be reminded of fans being so embarrassed by their team that they had to wear bags over their heads.

    And most disconcerting of all, because the Blazers seem to be showing that no matter how many great moves (lucky breaks?) your team makes, a bad owner is a bad owner, and he'll find a way to screw it up.  In sports, there is no such thing as sustained long term success with bad ownership.

    In three of the last four NBA off-seasons, there have been moments, some of them fleeting to be sure, when it felt like the Clippers had really arrived.  The summer of 2006 was of course the most justified, with a young core returning from a solid playoff performance.  Unfortunately, the 06-07 squad didn't come close to living up to that promise.  The 07-08 season was disastrous, as the team lost two starters to injury for essentially the entire season and suffered myriad other setbacks as well.  But briefly again in the summer of 2008, it seemed like a new era was dawning for the Clippers in LA, as Baron Davis and Elton Brand were poised to form an all star duo to lead the team back to the playoffs.  That era lasted about seven days before Brand left for Philadelphia.  Last summer, the team got lucky and won the lottery and the right to draft the surefire rookie of the year, Blake Griffin.  The euphoria over Griffin lasted a lot longer than the single week of Baron and Brand.  From the lottery on May 19th until the day before the season started on October 26th, everything was great.  Griffin was everything we had imagined and more:  he was the best player in the summer league, he tore up the pre-season, and his work ethic seemed to rub off on his teammates, especially DeAndre Jordan.  It was five entire months of unbridled Clipper optimism - and not a single day of regular season basketball from Blake Griffin.

    Once again, as we enter the off-season, there's plenty of room for optimism.  Griffin will finally make his NBA debut next season, there will be another lottery pick joining him and/or possibly a big name free agent, and the core of returning players is impressive, at least on paper if not in winning basketball games.  But I'm more than a little tired of the best days for my favorite basketball team being the off-season.

    If I haven't depressed you enough already, there's this.  Since the beginning of the 07-08 NBA season, the Clippers are 68-167.  Only one team in the entire NBA, the Minnesota Timberwolves, has fewer wins over that time frame (60).  Three teams that seemed to be in worse shape than the Clippers at the start of 07-08 (Charlotte, Oklahoma City and Milwaukee) will make the playoffs this season and a fourth (Memphis) will come close.  Blame it on injuries, blame it on the coach, blame it on karma, it doesn't really matter - the Clippers have been the second worst team in the NBA over the last three years.

    But at least we've got the off-season starting in less than three weeks.  It'll be the dawn of a new era for Clippers basketball!

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