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Notes on Clipper Coverage: Sands in the Hourglass

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The Clippers’ time in the sun is not running out. Nor is the Lakers’ ready to start. Here’s why both teams are being judged too early.

NBA: Preseason-Portland Trail Blazers at Los Angeles Clippers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

I was trying to figure out what to ponder in my first 16-17 Monday column--the Old Guard is slated to alternate on Monday mornings like this throughout the season. It was shocking enough, I suppose, that I managed to remember on Saturday afternoon that my turn was coming up, giving me a whole day to work on a tidy little preseason missive here, just a short note of two or three hundred words: no rambling, no lengthy ruminations, no rushed and random zhivian zigzag across familiar motes of the standard Clipper conundrums; pithy, focused. Or maybe not. It's a quiet Sunday morning, the weekend before the regular season is going to start, another campaign about to begin, and who's to say where this season, this week, this day, this column might go?

I reached out to SP to see if he had any ideas on possible topics. But I think I might be in the Fearless Leader Doghouse, as I mentioned a possible preseason get-together at the beginning of the month and got an instant, warm response... and then I proceeded to ignore/zhiv that contact--my own invite--for three weeks, before, a couple of days ago, getting around to saying, oops, my bad, can we maybe try to do this despite the fact that I'm lame and flaky? And is there anything you're chewing on that I might want to write about? All quiet. I could ask LH, but I know he wants hard-hitting, responsible journalism, easy to read on the phone--who wants to scroll through an entire, endless, wistful meditation on Days of Clipper Past and Present on a tiny screen, where it's extremely upsetting when you don't see the end of a paragraph come up when you start a new one. I think that I’m somehow going to manage to post this in the new SBN Beta format, which allows me proofreading, to see how it appears on the phone, but I can’t bring myself to look. Like this paragraph right here—Bye bye, many young citizen friends! See you in the comments. We want items, advanced stats, social media saturation and hypertext, not another pointless and sleepy tl;dr deep gaze into the Clipper navel, no story that starts with a long sigh and a sense of ennui. Again? Really? Why do we torture ourselves like this? Why do we care? How did this happen? We already know how it's going to end, don't we? Can't we just use some new hyper-timebend digital platform, a self-driving page view click that connects to the future and takes us to the playoffs and the first round or the second, going right up to that exquisite Wile E. Coyote/AT&T moment that comes around on a yearly basis, the anvil coming down and crushing our hopes once again, all in some new, exquisite, excruciating way?

Welcome back, brave citizens. Let's do this.

One more time, with feeling. Where to start? How about some notes on coverage, the way in which our cause and quest is presented in the media? That's where I thought I might begin. Things are different now. This has been the quietest and most uneventful preseason that I can remember as a Clipper fan. And that's good: less is more. It actually consisted of one swift and merciless item, as the Clippers met up with their newly-enhanced nemesis, GSW, in the very first preseason game, and they fell behind by 75 points in the first quarter and it was all over so quickly, as if the whole season to come was passing before our eyes right there. Okay, thanks, never mind, we get it. That team is really good. Let's go back to work and stay within ourselves and not worry about that little problem. We’ll get to it later. As Bolts stated so well in the headline of his first column: the Clippers probably aren't going to win it all this year. Somehow we managed to learn that within the first 10 minutes of the first preseason game. It was remarkably efficient, and actually rather liberating.

It's worth remembering how, back in the day, we would fire up our own humble version of punditry, analysis, and attention to detail with regards to the upcoming campaign back in the early Spring— the season being over, for all intents and purposes, after the All-Star break. And we'd start studying the draft and tanking strategies, mulling over lottery positioning and draft prospects. Then there would be the intrigue of the draft and we'd watch free agency float by, rather uneventfully, and make a big effort studying summer league. We would be deeply, profoundly engaged right now. Every day of training camp brought its news, and we'd analyze the prospects of more or less attractive scrubs finding a spot in the rotation, and watch every quarter of every preseason game, reading the tea leaves of every rookie or sophomore performance, not to mention speculating on Greek, Russian, or Australian wild cards. And there was always at least one fairly significant injury, if not more. It was all good fun. Lakers fans do that now. We don't. The Clippers are boring, until the real games start.

But then there's the coverage. It has always been highly skewed, for all sorts of plausible reasons. There are a zillion Lakers fans out there, we know that, even though the storied franchise has fallen on extremely hard times. Our citizens have to find it highly amusing, like I do, that they're new sad and second-rate stories are so much like what ours used to be, celebrating mediocre, low-impact free agents and 2nd round picks who have a chance to crack the rotation, along with the promise of lottery picks who are still years away. If everything goes just right, they might win 30 games. We know how that feels.

But it's written out with a much bigger fanfare, served up to the hungry, huddling Laker masses, and on top of that this seems to be a year for strange and false equivalency (politics). So The Ringer runs a story about how both LA teams have reason to be hopeful, sort of. Comparing the Clippers- finishing in the very top tier of teams due to not only a few key competitors weakening, but also to their own improvements- to the lottery bound Lakers is simply baffling. Yes, the Lakers don’t have to worry about Kobe taking awful shots, or Byron Scott being terrible, and some of their prospects are promising— but that doesn’t make the situations similar whatsoever. The Clippers probably won't win it all, but they will certainly compete and come close, while the Lakers will probably be in the lottery... and if everything goes well they might not be one of the worst teams in the league (in which case they give up their draft pick).

We're used to it, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't say anything about it. And we understand it--we know what it's like for a player like D'Angelo Russell to have been underappreciated, rather than underwhelming, as a rookie, hoping that he might be a big thing. We went through the very same thing with Shaun Livingston, Eric Gordon and Eric Bledsoe, along with others--we won't dwell on Blake Griffin, clearly the real thing, having to sit out the year after he was drafted, which seems like a long time ago now. And we can't blame media or Laker fans for being interested in their team taking shape, and watching the preseason carefully, hoping that it's meaningful and that the team has a chance to compete.

Conversely, however, media and LA sports fans should have some appreciation for the fact that the preseason is boring and couldn't mean less for the Clippers--no one cared about the Laker preseasons during their various heydays. There was coverage, stories and photos, but the games didn't mean anything, and most of it was marketing, stoking the fires of interest for the faithful. The Laker marketing machine would be getting warmed up too, building up the personalities and characters on the team— never enough Kobe, Magic, Phil or Shaq.

Seeing the Lakers take the headline and the primary NBA feature in the LA Times every day over the past month was bugging me, but only a little bit. And at least the Clippers were no longer being ignored. But that Ringer article soured my mood, and as I was trying to figure out what to write about, I saw today's NBA Season Preview in the Times. And it was the Ringer story, writ large, with an annoying bit of artwork. The front page is an hourglass, with an illustrated Blake Griffin on one end--it's the top, only because if you open up the sections the stories inside are printed in that direction--holding his hands up in the air, and it looks like the Larry O'Brien trophy is out of reach, while he's being sucked down along with the sands of time. On the other side is D'Angelo Russell, falling into the bottom— except that if you flip the paper, or the hourglass, as you're supposed to do, since the Laker headline is printed that way( as well as a second "NBA Season Preview" footer(or header, depending)), it looks like Russell is rising up, along with the sand beside him. And for some reason (Ringz!) he's actually holding the Larry O'Brien trophy, with a look of surprise on his face. All of this is as confusing as it sounds, and I had to keep looking at it to try to figure it out.

But the headlines make it pretty clear. Next to Russell it says "His time Is Still To Come--Point Guard D'Angelo Russell hopes to someday lead the Lakers to a championship, with his family's support." And you have to flip the paper upside down in order to read that. But if you're a Laker fan, you can live in upside down world, and you get your own NBA Season Preview header/footer. What does it mean? What are they saying? They're saying that Russell might be pretty good, but the Lakers are going to be really bad. And by falling onto the trophy (trophies of the past), he's rising somehow. And oh yeah, you can read about his family supporting him, and maybe forget that thing with Nick Young, but you're going to have to turn the paper back right side up.

And it sure looks like Blake Griffin is getting sucked down, his time running out, the trophy well out of reach. Too bad, Clippers. The headline? Do you really want to know? Any guesses? How's this: "Their Time Is Now Or Never--The Clippers' window for winning a title with their core players, including Blake Griffin, is closing fast."

It is? Really? Well that's pretty positive, local newspaper, good bit of boosterism there. Thanks! Now or never? Never? Really?

How is this for a possible scenario: the Clippers put together a good season, stay relatively healthy (as opposed to last year) and they win between 55-60 games. They succeed within reason in the playoffs, but they lose to the Warriors or the Spurs or some other elite team and they don't make it to the Finals. Maybe they don't even make it out of the second round once again. Horrors! Break them up! Surely Griffin and/or Chris Paul will opt out of their deals and sign elsewhere, escaping the sad mediocrity of Clipperdom. And believe me, no matter how well the Clippers play this season, we're going to be hearing that conversation all year long. There's no way around it, despite the fact that we're sick of it already. How do you think the Clippers and Griffin and Paul must feel? Luckily, they get to play basketball, and that will help them to shut out the meaningless, endless conversation.

But this hourglass idea didn't get started with thinking about D'Angelo Russell--the entire image doesn't even make any sense, when you look at it that way--it's all about time running out for the Clippers.

Here's the thing. Good teams, with solid, non-racist/cheapskate owners, don't just fall apart overnight. Teams fall apart when they have horrible contracts or bad injuries, or when they make bad trades and don't recognize the reality of their situations. The Lakers are only sleeping in the bottom of the hourglass (next to their trophies) because they compounded critical mistakes, one of top of another. The Thunder, for instance, traded James Harden instead of signing him, just lost Kevin Durant for nothing, and traded Serge Ibaka--and they're going to be a very good team. We're going to have all sorts of time, all season long, to discuss the potential continuity of the Clippers going forward.

As I was feeling my way along here, I got a note from the Fearless Leader Himself: "I'd love to see you zhiv on the Clippers window. The idea of "blow it up" or try again. It's a big subject and I don't even know how I'd approach it right now (beyond the obvious that they had to keep it together for this season) but it's definitely a zhivian topic." I like it. I want to think about it. Another 2000 words, anyone? Is that what we were just talking about? Sort of, but not really. And I think what I was saying was that we're going to be talking about it and having that conversation all year, despite ourselves. Maybe we'll know more when that anvil crashes down once again, but maybe we won't. Maybe the anvil will actually be the Larry O'Brien trophy, landing on top of Blake Griffin's head--and what will the sands of the hourglass mean when that happens?

And yes, in case you're wondering, I think I'm out of the doghouse. "What's your week like?" SP asks. It's pretty damn good--the basketball season is going to start. Go Clippers!