This all started as a reply to a comment from Timmy T on yesterday's post. As I got going, I realized it really deserved a post of it's own, but you should also check out Timmy T's comments to better understand from whence this cometh. Here's an excerpt: "i'd like to say it's a sea change. it's not a sea change. it's the result of, i don't know, what do you call it? oh yeah. success."
The Clippers made the playoffs in consecutive seasons in 91-92 and 92-93.... they came close to beating Utah and Houston respectively in the playoffs those years (not Phoenix-close, but close). In the 93 off-season, they let 3rd leading scorer Ken Norman, 28, leave via free agency. The next year, with Manning and Harper in the final year of their deals, they won 27 games, traded Manning for 34 year old Dominique Wilkins (whom they didn't re-sign anyway), and by the summer of 94, only Loy Vaught and Gary Grant (two non-starters) were left from the playoff teams. Before Harper left, he famously compared his time in a Clipper uniform to prison. He was just doing his time until he could get out. This is from a guy who was part of the MOST SUCCESSFUL TEAMS IN CLIPPERS HISTORY (to that point).
So something is very, very different about what's happening now, and it's not just success, because those 90's teams had a chance to be successful. Maybe they weren't as obviously loaded as this team, but they had talent. And sure, the fact that vagabond Larry left after 93 played a part, but it's also likely that money would have convinced him to stay.
In fact the similarities between the two situations are interesting.
3rd leading scorer in 92-93 - Ken Norman. A veteran and a leader, he became a free agent at the end of the season, and the Clippers allowed him to walk (encouraged it, really).
3rd leading scorer in 05-06 - Sam Cassell. A veteran and a leader, he became a free agent at the end of the season, and the Clippers re-signed him for 2 years, $13M.
At the beginning of the 93-94 season, key players Danny Manning and Ron Harper were entering final year of their contracts. The Clippers didn't even discuss the possiblity of contract extensions, allowed the issue to fester, and as the season spiraled down the drain, Manning was shipped to Atlanta and Harper packed his bags.
At the beginning of the 06-07 season, key player Chris Kaman was entering the final year of his contract, and key player Shaun Livingston was anxiously watching the developments with Kaman to see how they relected on his own upcoming negotiation. The Clippers proactively made Kaman an offer, and after a brief and amicable negotiation, the parties agreed to a 5 year,$53M extension.
And let's not ignore the coaching parallels. The wheels started coming off of the 93 team when Larry Brown left. Now, that's Larry, and maybe there was nothing to be done about that. But Mike Dunleavy is arguably more important to the current team's success than Brown was; when Brown took over the Clippers in the middle of the 91-92 season, they were 22-25, a .468 winning percentage, under Mike Shuler - when Dunleavy took over the Clippers, they had been 27-55 the prior season, .329. As we all know, Dunleavy is in the final year of his contract. We haven't repeated history thus far - let's not repeat it on the coaching front.
Of course only time will tell if these are the right moves. Maybe Cassell mopes at the reality of backing up Livingston and becomes a distraction in the locker room instead of a leader (there has been a precedent for this). Maybe Kaman regresses, never figures out how to take care of the basketball, and the $12M the Clippers owe him in 2010 becomes a huge problem.
But we don't need to be able to foretell the future to know that something has changed; we just need to look at the past. The organization is different, and it's more than just a taste of success, which they have had before. I don't know what it is. But it's different.