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The Clippers will never be L.A.’s team; but they should be its best

Steve Ballmer wants the Clippers to overtake the Lakers in popularity. Hopefully, he’ll settle for having the better team, if not the more beloved one.

LA Clippers v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

My little brother, Jamie, is hardly my “little” brother. To me, he’s just my brother; my equal; his own person, just as I am mine. I would never call Jamie my “little brother” if introducing him to a stranger, nor would I even refer to him as my younger brother. I would clarify if asked to — “Younger or older?”

I was asked on a date last month as a follow-up to the question of how many siblings I have — but in my eyes, his age is hardly a defining characteristic. To everyone else, though, because of the 801 days between our births, he’s my little brother.

For example: When we were in high school, Jamie and I often found ourselves in the same lunch block. Being personable people, we never failed to make conversation with the lunch ladies. I had a two-year jump on Jamie in terms of cultivating a rapport with the kitchen staff, to the point where they knew me by name. When they met him for the first time, they were elated to discover that “there’s another one.”

They never called him Jamie. From that point on, he was known as “little Will.”

That distinction infuriated me then and bothers me still, despite my five-plus years removed from school and 300-plus miles between me and that lunchroom. People can often tell that Jamie and I are related, so it wasn’t exactly criminal for these cafeteria workers to immediately draw a connection between him to me. After all, some say we’re identical. (Beyond a passing resemblance, we don’t see it, but if being pasty and blonde means you’re related, then I guess Ryan Gosling and I have some catching up to do.)

But I suppose my main grievance lies with the idea that, for some, brothers can never just be brothers. There will always be a separation. One younger, one older; one taller, one shorter.

One was there first, while the other came second.

Houston Rockets v Los Angeles Lakers
A familiar sight for the Lakers: Banners and trophies, one in the same. Their little brother franchise still awaits similar glory, all these years later.
Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Founded in 1946 as the Detroit Gems before moving to Minneapolis the following year, the Lakers have been around for what one might modernly refer to as a minute.

They were iconic from the jump, boasting players like George Mikan and Elgin Baylor even before the team moved to Los Angeles for the 1960-61 season. (Which is why Jerry West, while selected by the Minneapolis Lakers, wasn’t ever really a Minneapolis Laker; he never actually played for a Lakers team that wasn’t located in Los Angeles.)

The rest, as they say, is history.

The Lakers have won a total of 17 championships as a franchise and boast an all-time roster that would easily be favored in any imaginary tournament pitting historical teams against one another.

Kobe Bryant, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Shaquille O’Neal, Wilt Chamberlain, LeBron James... should I keep going? It’s a never-ending list, and this truncated version merely scratches the surface of the who’s who of Laker legends. I could list off 50 more names before even thinking of including Shannon Brown, and anyone with a passing knowledge of this team’s history is familiar with him, even if it’s solely because of that block.

So, it’s fair to say that the Lakers aren’t merely the premier franchise in NBA history: they are the premier franchise in the history of the sport. The Lakers are to basketball what the Yankees are to baseball: intertwined with the fabric of the game and its legacy. Remove them from the equation and there’s no equation to be had. We don’t know what basketball looks like without the Los Angeles Lakers. And that’s a legacy that is both vital and undying.

The Los Angeles Clippers, on the other hand, hardly hold the historical regard that the Lakers do. The Clippers were founded in 1970, 24 years after the Lakers franchise was introduced to the sport, and were one of three expansion teams to join the NBA that year. Then known as the Buffalo Braves, they were forced out of the city due to a conflict with the Canisius Golden Griffins — yes, of Canisius College in Buffalo, New York — over the use of the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium.

As a result, the franchise moved to San Diego, where it spent six seasons floundering in the NBA’s basement. The Clippers failed to advance to the postseason in all six of their years in San Diego, before then-owner Donald Sterling moved the team to Los Angeles in 1984. Sterling — noted shithead — spurred this relocation without league approval, which was met with legal action from the league, but met with little consequence. Los Angeles was suddenly the home to two NBA franchises.

Just four times in their first 27 seasons in L.A. did the Clippers make the playoffs; they won a single series. And while the team became more relevant once the 2010s rolled around, thanks to the success of the Blake Griffin-and-Chris Paul-led Lob City squads, they still failed to advance past the second round during that regime. Only in 2021, led by Paul George and Reggie Jackson, did the Clippers battle their way to their first Western Conference Finals appearance. They fell to the Phoenix Suns in six games.

They are the league’s oldest franchise not only to have never won a title, but to have never played in the NBA Finals.

One might even go as far to say they are and forever will be the Los Angeles Lakers’ little brother. No matter what they do moving forward.

Golden State Warriors v Los Angeles Clippers
The banners hanging for Clippers home games at Staples Center in 2014. A slight difference from those that populate the rafters when the Lakers take the court.
Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Steve Ballmer’s latest dream isn’t something he can buy. He wants his Clippers — the team he’s owned since 2014 — to surpass the Lakers in popularity. While taking ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk on a tour of the Intuit Dome construction site late last month, Ballmer noted how important it is for the Clippers to not have to share an arena with the Lakers.

“I think it’s another statement that says, ‘Hey look, we’re nobody’s little brother,’” Ballmer said. “We’re a real team. At the end of the day, we still got to win games. We got to win championships. If we can give that to Clipper Nation and fulfill my responsibility as a steward, then I’ll feel good.

“You said this is Laker town,” he added. “No. Laker-Clipper. And someday, I want to be able to say Clipper-Laker.”

While it will never alter the past and is unlikely to reshape their popularity in the future, perhaps the “someday” to which Ballmer is referring to is closer than we think. Despite the back-to-back losses the Clippers suffered in last season’s Western Conference play-in tournament, a gulag from which they were heavily favored to escape and instead stumbled toward elimination at the hands of the New Orleans Pelicans, they still managed to have an upper hand on the Lakers in 2021-22.

The Clips finished the regular season — one spent largely with one or both of their star players sidelined with injuries — with a better record (42-40) than their in-town rivals (33-49).

And while they didn’t exactly have a postseason to remember (or a postseason at all, for that matter), the Clippers made it further than anyone may have imagined if you told them at the beginning of the season that Kawhi Leonard and Paul George would miss 133 combined games.

Out of 231 all-time head-to-head matchups, the Lakers have won 150, and the Clippers, 81. The latter squad, however, has taken seven contests in a row, and 11 of the last 15 since 2017-18. Of course, they don’t hang banners for these sorts of accomplishments, if you can even call them accomplishments. What they may prove, however, is that these winds are ones of change; “The future’s in the air / Can feel it everywhere.” Can’t you?

Plenty of fans, writers, analysts, and players alike have spent at least a portion of this offseason positing the Clippers as title favorites heading into next season. At the moment, our sportsbook partner, DraftKings, has the Clippers tied for second in overall championship odds (+600, same as the Golden State Warriors), just behind the betting favorite Boston Celtics (+450). And it wouldn’t be at all farfetched to place a decent wager on the Clips to win it all next year, considering the pieces that will be returning (George and Leonard from injury; Norm Powell, Reggie Jackson, Terance Mann, Luke Kennard, Ivica Zubac, Nic Batum, Robert Covington, and others just for another shot at the title) and the one big one they added (the ever-tantalizing John Wall).

They will be one of the deepest teams in the NBA when the 2022-23 season begins, and that’s just taking into account the guys that will be getting consistent minutes. Brandon Boston Jr. is as intriguing a homegrown prospect as the team has had since Blake Griffin; Jason Preston lingers in the wings as a possible backup point guard for the near future, and he’s yet to play a regular-season game with the team due to an injury he suffered soon after he was drafted back in 2021.

The Lakers (+1600, in case you were curious), meanwhile, are in the midst of another offseason from hell. Calls to trade Russell Westbrook for a bag of magic beans are growing louder and more convincing by the day. Reportedly, the Lakers are Kyrie Irving’s preferred next destination, whether he arrives there via trade before next season or in free agency next summer. And the chatter about LeBron James returning to Cleveland, no matter how little truth there is to those talks, certainly can’t sit right with those rooting for his current team, and thus, him. The vibes, as they say, could use some work.

Across the hall — not for long, but for now — the vibes have never been better, even if they exist on paper... for now. Long gone are the days when only one team in Los Angeles could garner attention, respect, and expectations. Long gone are the days of ridicule, of early postseason exits. And long gone are the days when a fan named Darrell would even consider defecting from his longtime Clipper fandom to join the dark side.

Still a long ways away lies the day when Los Angeles becomes the Clippers’ domain to rule in every capacity.

But in terms of basketball supremacy, it’s hard to argue why Steve Ballmer’s “someday” can’t be today.