Part of what's interesting about the upcoming season is the way that fan interest and support of the Clippers is going to take shape. In some ways it's a marketing question, but the basic premise of NBA marketing has always been to put a good team out on the floor, and let the rest take care of itself more or less, although this simple approach has been something that the Clippers have always had trouble accomplishing. The current exciting and entertaining Clipper rise has been accompanied by Laker struggles and dysfunction, further throwing the broad, decades-long lines of local fandom askew.
It's a little like politics, and the bloc of independent voters that supposedly decides elections can be compared to relatively casual fans who might be switching allegiances as we speak, if they haven't already. Even if the Lakers won a championship three years ago, it seems like it has perhaps been awhile since they were adding to their vast and substantial fan base, though there might have been a bump when they made the Dwight Howard and Steve Nash deals and assembled last year's superteam, the one that crashed so badly onto the rocks. In the meantime, the Clippers have been adding fans at a steadily increasing rate, at times perhaps even an exponential one, ever since Blake Griffin started playing and when he was later joined by Chris Paul. Younger fans especially might be less attracted by Laker mystique/arrogance and storied past during these days of declining fortunes and the tailend of the Kobe epoch, and could be motivated to attach themselves to the rising Clippers. Let's just say there could be a major tidal shift, one that might be happening at this very moment.
I'm speculating on fan allegiance because I'm trying to identify a subset, one that was probably minuscule for a long time, but it must be growing now. And I'll start by noting something that SP mentioned, as I push through this pre-training camp run: I'm an old guy. (Editor's note: you got old from eminence grise? Don't be so sensitive.) The fact is a little surprising to me, but it's true. That said, after literally cutting my teeth on Koufax, Drysdale, Roseboro and others, I was captivated by Gary Beban, Lew Alcindor, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West all at the same time, before there was even a Buffalo Braves. My primary allegiance was to UCLA basketball, since I went to every home game at Pauley Pavilion with my dad, an alum, who gave some money to fundraiser H.R. Haldeman, writing Mr. and Mrs. Sheldon Zhivkin on the side of the building in bronze (Zhiv declined to make a similar contribution to the new Pauley upgrade, alas). At that time the UCLA dynasty played well in contrast to Laker inability to win a ring, and for a lot of us (my West LA friends, that is) Laker bridesmaid status seemed familiar to the history Vin Scully told us about the Dodgers in Brooklyn having been overshadowed by the Yankees, unable to win a championship. The Dodgers finally broke through shortly before arriving in LA, and the Lakers would too eventually, we hoped, but it was a big drag to see the Lakers fall short against the Celtics time after time (a good breakthrough comparison can be made between Elgin Baylor on the Lakers and the Dodger fortunes of Saint Jackie Robinson -- the greatest Bruin player of them all, of course, as Kareem, Arthur Ashe, and all the African-American UCLA legends -- Rafer Johnson, etc. -- came in his wake.) Bruin dominance, which featured some amazing basketball, along with life lessons for impressionable youth as well, was virtually a cult, and the NBA was much less accessible, very different from what it has been for the last 25 years, let alone today.
In my grisly tenure I've written many times about my gradual disaffection from the Lakers, and a number of other citizens followed a similar path. I hate the Lakers (though I hate the Celtics even more, a vestige of my old allegiance), and I have for a long time now. Clipper fans were a very small minority group over the course of two or three decades, but they were mostly transplants or people who had some good reason or other to find the Lakers repellent, and there have always been plenty of those. To each his own. At any rate, we know who we are now, and there are countless different stories about how each of us became citizens of Clips Nation.
I suppose I mention UCLA basketball as being a cult of sorts back in the day because the Bruin success and level of execution made it easy to take basketball very seriously. The Bruin dynasty overlapped the Laker breakthrough (which occurred when I was in junior high, and the president of the John Q. Trapp Fan Club, showing early zhivian appreciation of the obscure and marginal) and it was followed by the return to LA of Kareem and the arrival of Magic and Showtime 1.0. As Bruin fortunes slowly declined, most of those hard-core UCLA fans became relatively hard core Laker fans. Like all of my friends and fellow JQTFC members, for instance.
All of which is a long (yes zhivian--what's the word count on these pre-training camp meditations? are we there yet, Dad? Not yet, but we're getting close, and it's almost October) way of wondering whether Bruin Clipper fans even exist. There can't be a big number, but it's probably growing quickly now -- going back to those "independents." Some of us showed ourselves when Baron Davis signed with the Clippers. That didn't go as well as we would have liked; too bad. A list of prior Bruin Clippers might come in handy -- is Swen Nater the greatest Clipper center? and Marques Johnson was a superb Bruin -- but it has never been a big deal. Matt Barnes was much more than a pleasant surprise last year, all the sweeter after he made his NBA debut nine years ago as a Clipper -- where would the 12-13 Clippers have been without Matt Barnes? -- while Ryan Hollins' contributions were much more modest.
But now, with the addition of Darren Collison in an important role in the rotation as backup PG, along with the signing and follow up to Barnes' remarkable campaign and Hollins' return, there's a decided Bruin tincture on the Clippers, especially within the new iteration of the Bench Mob. As at least one olde tyme Bruin Clipper fan, I'm excited about the Blue and Gold Bench Mob, so please allow me to think about it for a minute here.
I guess we start with Ryan Hollins, since I covered DC pretty thoroughly and we had a good discussion about him already. And there's some good background to an analysis of Hollins in the preceding studies of both Byron Mullens and DeAndre Jordan -- Hollins is a quiet figure lurking in the background of both those posts. Leaving aside what we know about Hollins from seeing him on the team last year for a moment, the notable fact about him is that his previous NBA stop was a brief stint in Boston, playing for Doc Rivers. Hollins joined the Celtics for the 11-12 playoff run, playing in just 15 regular season games. Rivers used him in the playoffs (10 mpg) more than VDN did (7.4 mpg, with one DNP) in last year's first round exit. And Hollins seemed to make a minor leap with that Celtic playoff contribution and visibility -- he became a more credible NBA backup center. Rivers apparently liked him and seemed to know how to motivate and use him, albeit in a limited role and for a short but critical skein of games.
Hollins' performance on the Clippers last year was mixed, and relatively inconsequential He didn't play poorly, and he actually played better and was more productive in some ways than he had ever been before in his NBA career. Like any other QCBM, he just wasn't that good. We had trouble figuring out why he was such a poor rebounder, and he showed some improvement in that area. He was able to make free throws, which we unduly appreciate of course. He blocked a few shots, but didn't do anything special in that regard, but his athleticism, length and motor are all impressive. Doc Rivers is probably excited to see what Hollins looks like in training camp, and for myself I wouldn't at all mind watching Hollins, DJ and Mulligan run wind sprints back and forth on the court until only one big man is still standing, and then I'd like to see them come back in the evening, or whatever, a few hours later, and do it again. They all run really well, and it would be fun to watch them race each other. Would Ryan Hollins emerge victorious? Mullens is young and unformed, DJ has the full burden of expectations as he seeks to go where no QCBM has gone before, but Hollins has nothing to lose. Another plus for Hollins is that Rivers will presumably figure out his role, and he won't move in and out of the rotation haphazardly, as he did under VDN -- but that's if he's in the rotation at all, something that will probably be determined in the preseason. Hollins seems like he should be DJ's backup, but Mullens could conceivably shoot and hustle his way into that spot, or it could be Antawn Jamison or Matt Barnes coming off the bench, with Griffin sliding over to center. Hollins could be held in reserve on the bench, or he might be in the rotation: there's no way to tell just yet. Another wrinkle is that if Mullens is more than capable, and he's actually good, he and Hollins could be on the floor together. Or not -- let's not get ahead of ourselves. But Ryan Hollins should be utilized fairly effectively by Doc Rivers, one would think.
Which gets us to Mr. Barnes. Matt Barnes was nothing less than a spectacular late off-season pickup for the Clippers, and we shouldn't forget that he was third on the depth chart at this time last year behind Caron Butler and Grant Hill. Barnes' ascendance was proportionate to Grant Hill's disappointing season (I still haven't gotten over VDN's inability to figure out how to use Hill over the last third of the season and the playoffs), as he grabbed his Bench Mob role by the throat from opening day and never let go, and he even showed that he could be a credible starter at SF as well. The Clipper bench, with Barnes, Jamal Crawford and others, was a great weapon and an important component of Clipper success, even if VDN gave it a weird and ham-fisted hockey line change element. The effectiveness of the Barnes-Crawford combo should remain intact as Darren Collison replaces Eric Bledsoe. I'm happy that Matt Barnes has found a clear and dynamic role on an LA team, especially this one, and that he got paid, signing a nice if not exorbitant contract. He worked hard and waited a long time for the stars to align so that he could make a good deal.
As I was going through the earlier stuff and just beginning to ponder this trio of Bruin Clippers, I thought of how they might even do well putting on the old UCLA full-court press. All three of them have great speed and athleticism at their respective defensive positions, and stretching the court on defense would work to their advantage. It's just too bad that kind of defense doesn't work in the NBA, but the idea of it suggests something about the kind of defensive pressure the Clippers should be able to exert under Rivers. Matt Barnes as the first player off the bench should crank up the defensive intensity just the right amount, I would think. It's pretty interesting to try to figure out the different ways that the Clippers should be able to punch at their opponents. I guess we're more or less ready now to stop speculating and start watching it all take shape and play out. Three different Bruins wearing Clipper uniforms seems to hint strongly that a sustained run of high-level Clipper success, even as I want to be careful not to overreach and even contemplate any dynastic pretensions, would make a nice bookend to the way a love of basketball began for some of us, worshiping the wizard of Westwood.
In case you missed them, be sure to check out Citizen Zhiv's other pre-training camp posts: