A very strange thing happened when ESPN the Magazine published the 2012 edition of their Ultimate Standings, ranking every sports franchise in the four major North American sports leagues from best to worst. The Los Angeles Clippers, long considered among the worst franchises in sports if not the worst, came back with an above average ranking (53 out of 122 overall, the 56th percentile). It is the first time in the 10 year history of the Ultimate Standings that the Clippers have been in the top half of the rankings. In the same survey the Clippers were ranked dead last, 122nd out of 122 franchises, in 2009 and 2010.
Ranking the Clippers in the middle of the pack might be less surprising if market size played a major role in the methodology, but as it happens, market size is not a consideration. The broad categories on which the teams were ranked are Bang for the Buck, Fan Relations, Ownership, Affordability, Stadium Experience, Players, Coaching and Title Track.
We've long known here in Clips Nation that the Clippers have been a much more grown up and competent organization over the course of the past decade or so than they were in the 80s and 90s. Whether it was the move into the STAPLES Center or the influence of head coach Mike Dunleavy or something else, the team has for the most part behaved like a normal, possibly even first class, organization for some time now. Heck, they even built a shiney new practice facility. But the "It's the Clippers" perception of a poorly run, cheap, minor league operation has persisted.
It helps that this survey is more of a snapshot than a lifetime achievement award. If anything, the survey ranked the Clippers too low in the (decidedly subjective) category of "Players" (which is supposedly gauging "Effort on the field and likability off it") where the Clippers were ranked 10th among NBA teams, one spot behind the Philadelphia 76ers (I guess the survey was conducted before Andrew Bynum became their centerpiece). At this particular point in time, the Clippers are certainly in a pretty good place, arguably the best in their history, so that helps.
But surely if we were to drill down into the category of Ownership we'd see the survey results align with the perception of the Clippers. Certainly Donald Sterling is ranked as the worst owner in the NBA, and probably in all of pro sports, right?
Not even close. While the Clippers Ownership ranking is not good (95th out of 122 franchises), at the same time it is much better than the general perception might lead you to believe. In the NBA alone, according to this survey, there are eight owners worse than Donald T. Sterling. (For what it's worth, the ownership category is further broken down into three components, called "Honesty, loyalty to core players and local community.")
What may be even more surprising is that when Isaac Rauch of Deadspin expressed surprise at the Maloof brothers in Sacramento being labeled the worst owners in pro sports, he enumerated several candidates who might be worse, but again omitted Sterling.
Where are the good memories for Bobcats' fans, who have to deal with Michael Jordan smoking cigars and drafting shitty North Carolina products just because he can? For Marlins fans dealing with the "spectacularly unlikable" Jeffery Loria, who finally spent some money this season, and of course, spent it all wrong? For Islanders fans that have to see Charles Wang lock up Rick DiPietro for 15 years, or Redskins fans, who have nightmares about Dan Snyder making them pay to park in their own driveway? For Bengals fans, who are dealing with this guy? Or for Knicks fans, who [breaks down sobbing].
Heck, Sterling barely even comes up in the COMMENTS section.
Tom Ziller at SB Nation tries to correct the oversight by breaking down NBA owners into a few more categories of bad, in order to give all the bad owners their due. Sterling wins the "Awful Human Being Edition" for Ziller:
Let's get this one out of the way first: no NBA owner -- heck, to my knowledge, no major North American pro sports team owners period -- is a worse human being than Donald Sterling. He settled a record-breaking discriminatory housing lawsuit from the United States Government several years ago, with witnesses claiming he had policies to preclude his rental properties from being leased to black and Hispanic tenants. He also had sexual harassment settlements in his history, reportedly took a woman into the Clippers locker room and told her to marvel at the "beautiful black bodies" and allegedly told his GM he wanted a white coach and black players from disadvantaged backgrounds in to replicate a plantation scenario on the Clippers. And this is just the widely reported stuff -- who knows what other skeletons hang in his closets.
Now, it's worth mentioning that Sterling has never admitted guilt in any of these settlements, so we should probably call him an "alleged" discriminator and an "alleged" sexual harasser, but where there's alleged smoke there's usually alleged fire. At any rate, the simple fact that Ziller has to come up with six categories of bad in order to do justice to the NBA's owners (and Robert Sarver didn't even make the cut at that) tells you that Sterling has plenty of company in the bad NBA owners club.
This is a point I made during the NBA lockout -- most of the NBA owners are kind of icky in various ways, and Sterling isn't really that out of the ordinary in this group. Sterling kept a low profile during the lockout while many other owners were behaving badly, and based on the results of this survey perceptions have moved significantly in the interim. In the same survey in 2011, the Clippers were ranked 118th out of 122 in ownership and 29th out of 30 NBA teams. So in the course of a year, eight other NBA owners have apparently become worse than Donald Sterling.
Which also tells you about the power of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. One season of Paul in L.A. combined with another season of Griffin and suddenly Sterling isn't such a terrible guy (or at least isn't perceived to be such a terrible guy). Now, you can say that this goes beyond a change in perception, that trading for Paul represents tangible change and therefore Clippers ownership has earned their improved ranking. It's a fair point, but it's also a pretty low standard, given that any NBA owner in the same situation would have done the same thing. Bearing in mind that one of the subcategories of the ownership ranking is "Loyalty to core players" one could argue that the Clippers' ranking should have decreased this year based on their shipping out of Eric Gordon and Chris Kaman. Again, the trade was a no-brainer, but it certainly didn't illustrate loyalty.
This shift in perception surrounding the Clippers is fascinating to me. Honestly, if you gave Clipper fans the opportunity to trade Sterling for any other ownership group in the NBA, I doubt they'd say no to any of them. And if you asked the other fans if they'd trade their owner for Sterling, I doubt they'd accept. Yet here we see a marked improvement in the Clippers ownership ranking. ESPN the Magazine has been compiling these ranking for ten years now, and the Clippers have been in the bottom three in seven of the previous nine surveys, including 29th or 30th for the past three years -- and this year they jump up to 21.
In the end this is a decidedly unscientific survey that proves nothing. Maybe it's an accurate reflection of a broader perception, but probably it's not. If you worry on an ongoing basis that the Clipper ownership costs the team directly in some way, that top free agents won't sign with them because of Sterling or that he won't pay good players to stay, you can take comfort not in this survey so much as in the fact that all NBA owners are more or less the same from the players' perspective, and if you offer them more money than the next guy, that will in most cases do the trick. Sterling may be a bad owner relatively speaking, but Los Angeles is a good market, and savvy players know that the market is more important. It turns out, there's just not that big a difference between Donald Sterling and Michael Heisley, but there's a huge difference between L.A. and Memphis.
Chris Paul knew that, and his presence in L.A. all by itself is helping to change the perception of the Clippers. Obviously he helps them win games, but this survey shows that his influence goes way beyond wins and losses.