Bill Simmons, the Clippers -- and Robert De Niro

Jeff Gross

In Bill Simmons massive column covering the NBA off-season there are plenty of references to the Clippers, the team he loves to hate.

If you're interested, there's plenty of Los Angeles Clippers references in Bill Simmons' off-season column on Grantland. Props to Simmons, by the way, on building the column around Midnight Run and dedicating it to the late Dennis Farina.

In an interesting generational phenomenon, my children (who are now 14 and 17) think that Robert De Niro is a comedic actor. They know him as the ex-CIA dad in the Focker-trilogy and as the gay pirate in Stardust. In fact, since playing Jack Byrnes for the first time in Meet the Parents in 2000, DeNiro has done about as much comedy as drama. There's usually an edge to his comedic roles to be sure (his turn as a pirate wearing a pink tutu being a notable exception), but the truth is that for my kids, he's a pretty famous funny man and that's all. They love him.

This is the guy who played psychopaths like Travis Bickle and Jake LaMotta and Vito Corleone and Al Capone and Ace Rothstein. I try to explain to my kids about the real De Niro, about how that funny gay pirate is responsible for some of the most intense and disturbing performances in American cinematic history, but they just don't get it. Short of tying them to a chair and forcing them to watch Taxi Driver, I'm not sure what I can do to convince them.

The thing is, De Niro is great at comedy, and one suspects that at this point in his career, he's happy to keep things a little lighter, at least most of the time. It's got to be easier. After all, he who once gained 60 pounds to play the aging La Motta in Raging Bull -- it's far less stressful to just sign up for Little Fockers, stare down Ben Stiller a few more times and cash the check. At any rate, I love De Niro playing comedy, and it was arguably 1988's Midnight Run when we first saw what a great natural comedian he is.

This wasn't meant to be a De Niro post, but I can't move on without mentioning 1997's Wag the Dog. One of the underrated black comedies of all time, it came when De Niro was still more a dabbler in comedies, predating his Meet the Parents/Analyze This full immersion into the genre by three years. As Conrad Brean, the political operative who's seen it all and manufactures a fake war to distract the public's attention from a presidential scandal in the run up to an election, De Niro is simply magnificent. Brean is always two steps ahead and understands completely that reality is whatever the media determine it to be: "The war is over -- I saw it on TV." Great movie. See it.

But back to Bill Simmons and the Clippers. Simmons clearly has a difficult relationship with the Clippers at this point, one we've discussed at length. He's been a season-ticket holder since moving from Boston to L.A. and flirted with becoming an outright fan of the team during the Elton Brand/Sam Cassell era. Various issues, Baron Davis chief among them, have soured him on the team, and when L.A. poached Doc Rivers from Boston this summer precipitating a fire sale of his beloved Celtics, it all became a little too much for him.

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Let's rundown the Clippers references from Simmons' Midnight Run column:

"Hey, nothing personal, Jack, but f--- off."

To Chris Paul, who basically told the Clippers that after they squashed the first incarnation of their Doc Rivers trade. Chris didn't like that. He let them know he was heading to Houston to team up with Dwight. And he wasn't kidding. For about 36 hours, Morey probably felt like all 11 guys in Ocean's Eleven. You know what happened next: The Clippers blinked, the Doc trade got revived and finished, and the Clippers were offering Chris 107 million reasons to play for him. Crisis averted. The lesson, as always: Chris Paul runs the Clippers.

This is the biggie of course. Various other outlets have picked up this tidbit and presented it as news. Seriously though, take this with a GIANT grain of salt. Look, it's neither surprising nor newsworthy that Chris Paul had a say in the Doc-udrama that brought Rivers to L.A. If Paul wanted Rivers, if that made a difference to him re-signing in L.A., then of course the Clippers would work that much harder, offer that much more, to get the deal done. Duh.

But "He let them know he was heading to Houston to team up with Dwight"? Really? Why is Bill Simmons the only person with this very significant scoop? And by the way, don't pull at that thread too much because it unravels pretty quickly. The Rockets had to dump Thomas Robinson just to afford Howard. They would have had to dump Jeremy Lin AND Omer Asik to get Paul. As threats go, Paul would have been better off saying he was teaming up with Dwight in Atlanta, a team that actually had the space to sign both. I'm not saying it wouldn't have been possible for Houston to get it done, and obviously Morey would have moved mountains. But Paul had plenty of leverage with the Clippers front office already -- he didn't really have to threaten a free agency scenario that involved Houston dumping $17M in salary for it to be feasible.

We'll return to the "Chris Paul runs the Clippers" meme a little later.

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"What, do you think I was gonna try to stiff you?"
"You? Never. You would never try to stiff me."
"Do I detect some kind of sarcasm here?"
"Never."

To the summer's goofiest three-team trade: The perimeter-heavy Clippers cashing their Eric Bledsoe stock for two more perimeter guys (Jared Dudley and J.J. Redick); Phoenix grabbing a second point guard (and Caron Butler's expiring contract) when they already have Goran Dragic; and Milwaukee ending up with two measly second-rounders and a trade exception for Redick (after giving up Tobias Harris for him in February - D'OH!). The Clippers won this trade but never addressed their biggest flaws: (a) They won't be able to get stops, and (b) they're not winning a title playing Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan at crunch time. Although they did sell high on Bledsoe, a ridiculous athlete and a lockdown defender ... but one of those high-ceiling/low-basement guys who hasn't proven he can run a team yet.

This Clippers reference and the next one demonstrate one of the bigger problems with trying to take Simmons very seriously -- he's constantly contradicting himself. Is he criticizing the Clippers here or praising them? It seems like he wants to criticize them with the whole "perimeter-heavy" team gets "more perimeter guys" thing. But then he flat-out states that the Clippers won the trade. So which is it? Apparently he thought the Clippers should have won the trade more, since they didn't address what he considers to be their biggest needs.

The biggest problem here is in his premise that last season's Clippers were "perimeter-heavy". Every team in the league is currently trying to add outside shooting, and the Clippers did that, and basically every other NBA observer has recognized the value of adding Redick and Dudley. I can get behind the idea that maybe, just maybe, the Clippers could have squeezed more out of the Bledsoe trade. But it's ridiculous to complain about Redick and Dudley being "perimeter guys." (Strangely, Simmons points out in a footnote that he thinks Bledsoe was overvalued -- so finding his point here becomes that much more difficult.) The Clippers big failure last season was the playoff loss to the Grizzlies, and in that series their wings were worse than useless. Upgrading on the wing was the obvious priority this off-season and this trade did that. If they have other issues that remain unaddressed that's as may be. You can't have everything.

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"You're a f---ing criminal and you deserve to go where you're going and I'm gonna take you there and if I hear any more shit outta you, I'm gonna f---ing bust your head and I'm gonna put you back in that f---ing hole and I'm gonna stick your head in the f---ing toilet bowl and I'm gonna make it stay there."

To Doc Rivers, who will definitely be yelling mean things like this at Mullens by mid-November. I know they didn't pay much for him, but pound for pound, that was my least-favorite summer signing. The Clips desperately needed a backup big man who could rebound and protect the rim, and they desperately did NOT need another guy standing 25 feet from the hoop and jacking up 3s. So why waste a valuable free-agent slot on the one NBA big guy famous for jacking up bad 3s and doing nothing else?

I'm no fan of Byron Mullens, but as I've said all along, getting a legit seven footer with skills for the NBA minimum is not a bad risk. The crazy thing about this Simmons rant is that in the previous paragraph -- I'm talking the previous paragraph -- he compared Andrea Bargnani to Mullens and concluded that he liked Bargnani for the Knicks! WTF? In the course of consecutive paragraphs, he put together the following argument:

(a) I think Bargnani and Mullens are very similar players ("the Italian Byron Mullens")

(b) I like Bargnani on the Knicks making $23M the next two seasons ("I'm buying Bargnani stock!");

(c) I hate Mullens on the Clippers making $2M the next two seasons ("my least-favorite summer signing").

Someone explain that sequence to me.

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The day after we exchanged barbs during the NBA draft, Doc and I talked for 45 minutes on the phone and agreed to disagree on how the Boston thing ended. He truly believes the Celtics didn't want him to come back or pay him all that money as they were rebuilding. I don't buy it, as I told him - I thought that they didn't want to pay him that money once they believed he didn't want to be there. Also, I told him that I thought he didn't want to rebuild for a third time, and that the thought of coaching a contender and starting fresh in Los Angeles - where he gets to pick his own players, no less - was overwhelmingly enticing for him. He actually agreed with that. He just doesn't think he quit on the Celtics - he thinks the situation ran its course. So it's a he-said, he-said thing. We're never going to agree on what happened, but one thing is clear: In the long run, both sides are better off.

The above is a footnote in the article. It seems like a reasonable recap of the mini-feud between Simmons and Rivers, with a reasonable conclusion as to where they differ on the interpretation of events. But doesn't it all seem a little too reasonable in the context of what was being said at the time? Simmons says they spoke for 45 minutes they day after the draft. You know what else happened the day after the draft? Simmons told his millions of twitter-followers that Rivers was a liar.

So did this 45 minute phone conversation, which supposedly occurred on the same day, happen before or after Simmons said that Rivers was "making sh*t up"? Either way, they seem to have been remarkably composed considering. Or is it possible that Simmons is trying to present himself as a slightly more reasonable person in his column a month later?

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Now, as promised, let's return to the "Chris Paul runs the Clippers" meme. In the course of this single Simmons column (a big effing column to be sure, but still just one column) he seems to be saying that Paul is power mad and running the Clippers and that Rivers is power mad and running the Clippers. Which doesn't seem to make a lot of sense, right? I mean, which one is really "running the Clippers"? He believes that among Rivers' motives for wanting to be in L.A. is the power ("he gets to picks his own players, no less") but he's already made it clear that "Chris Paul runs the Clippers."

There's always been a basic disconnect with criticizing Chris Paul for "running" the Clippers -- and that is that it's not a problem. Does Paul have a significant voice in regards to the direction of the franchise? Of course he does. Just like Kobe Bryant does with Lakers, and Kevin Durant does with the Thunder, and LeBron James does with the Heat, and every superstar does in this league. It's a superstar league. If we accept the proposed facts of Rivers' hire -- the Clippers were playing hardball on what they'd give up, Paul said he wanted Rivers and they should get it done, the Clippers then increased their offer -- where, pray tell, is the problem? Why should either Paul or the Clippers come in for any criticism there? Isn't that exactly what should have happened?

Consider also who was in the Clippers front office at the time -- Gary Sacks, about a year of front line management under his belt, and Andy Roeser, a non-basketball guy. For most of Paul's tenure with the Clippers, those two and Vinny Del Negro have been the alternative to "Chris Paul runs the Clippers." So yay! We should be happy Chris Paul was running the Clippers, right?

Now consider the idea that Paul is power mad and that it is goal to run the Clippers. Why would he push for a powerful, experienced, influential leader like Rivers? If indeed Paul was running the Clippers when he insisted on Rivers, didn't he just push himself right out of a job as the Clippers most influential decision-maker? It seems to me that, yes, maybe Paul was running the Clippers, but that really he'd rather be playing point guard, and so he insisted that they hire someone to make him obsolete in the front office.

All of which makes perfect sense.

*****

Bill Simmons remains one of the most entertaining basketball writers on the planet, there's no question about that. His love-hate relationship with the Clippers (which seems to have taken a distinctive turn to the dark side recently) will ensure that he'll have plenty to say about the team this season, especially with Rivers at the helm. If the Clippers falter, he'll relish the opportunity to heap criticism on the organization and Rivers. But what If the Clippers play really well? We'll see what he has to say in that case.

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