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The Clippers in the Time Before Blake
Long has the franchise that now resides at the Staples Center in the shadow of the mega-franchise L.A. Lakers been a joke among NBA players and fans. Bad luck, bad decision-making, shoddy and misery management, as well as a lack of big stars all contributed to the Clippers decades-long existence as a second-rate NBA franchise. Who is laughing now? In many ways, the recent history of the L.A. Clippers, who are now determined to put that other L.A. team into their shadow, can be summed up with two words: Blake Griffin. Taken first overall in the 2009 NBA draft, Blake Griffin's arrival on to the scene was anything but fluid. His fractured patella cost him the entire 2009-2010 season, but he rose from the ashes during the 2010-2011 season to steal the Rookie of the Year award away from John Wall, a very deserving candidate as well. Although a tie for the award is not unheard of, last being done in 2000 when Elton Brand and Steve Francis shared the award. Nevertheless, Blake took the award home solo and thus put the Clippers franchise onto his back to carry it into the 21st century, like chiseled Atlas holding up the world.
In the Time Before Blake (TBB), the Clippers had very little success. In 40 previous seasons that make up the TBB, the franchise as a whole had only made the playoffs seven times. The most successful run might have been either 1974, when the then-Buffalo Braves reached the Eastern Conference Semifinals led by Bob McAdoo, or the 2005-2006 Clippers who were surprisingly deep and fundamental. That team was led by Elton Brand down in the post surrounded by a number of efficient scorers, including Corey Maggette who shot a ridiculous number of free throws due to his aggressive penetration into the paint, Cuttino Mobley, and Vlad Radmanovic who averaged 2.2 treys off the bench. An old Sam Cassell was their ring leader while the then-hot prospect Shaun Livingston was one of the more interesting young Point Guards in the league due to his length and height. In the middle, Chris Kaman averaged nearly a double double with a few blocks each night. The team did not have a true superstar but was somewhat in the mold of the 2004 NBA champion Detroit Pistons who had solid defense, post scoring, and a wily leader at PG. They defeated the Denver Nuggets 4-1 in the first round and took the Phoenix Suns to seven games in the Western Conference semifinals. This Suns team was brutally efficient on the offensive end where they ran the pick-and-roll between Steve Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire. Sadly, the Clippers were not able to replicate that success and coach Mike Dunleavy's 2006-07 incarnation missed the playoffs and only won 48% of the games.
Also in the TBB, the Clippers franchise had only had winning seasons seven times. The original Buffalo Braves team had marginal success, making the semifinals three times in a row from '73-'76. The famous Bob McAdoo led these teams. In 1973, the team was fortunate enough to draft McAdoo and he won the Rookie of the Year award, much like another more recent Clipper big man. In 1975, McAdoo had a career year, winning league MVP honors. This is the only MVP the Clippers have in their franchise's history-and the team was not even called the Clippers then.
In 1978, the team moved to San Diego, becoming the Clippers for the first time. Before moving to L.A. formally before the 1984-85 season, the San Diego version of the Clippers never made the playoffs. The franchise was already on the downturn, losing Bob McAdoo in '77, Adrian Dantley in '78, and others like Randy Smith, an All Star player in '76 and '78. Bill Walton came to San Diego to play for the team in '79, but missed many games due to injury. Sadly, from the time the franchise moved from Buffalo to California, the Dark Ages in the TBB began.
Quite remarkably, the team is now alive once again and officially out of the Dark Ages. Now, in the Time of Blake (ToB), the Clippers are in the hunt for the franchise's first championship. This season, the Clippers are winning 68% of their games in a tough Western Conference full of perennial contenders like the Lakers, Spurs, and Mavericks. Despite being the newcomers on the scene, the Clippers are dangerous. While the hype over "Lob City" may have officially begun with the acquisition of Chris Paul, it is arguably the other, lesser talked about signings which have the Clippers in the thick of things out West.
Sending Baron Davis to the Cavaliers for Mo Williams and Jamario Moon's expiring contract eliminated $4.4 million from the Clippers' bank, allowing them to acquire recently crowned champion Caron Butler. Butler signed a three year $24 million dollar deal which could be useful as a trade chip in another year or two. He is 31 years old and definitely not a long-term solution, but he gives the Clippers a chance to compete right away and to wait for the team to gel together. Still having room in the purse, the Clippers acquired NBA Finals MVP Chauncey Billups, who was bitter about being cut from the Knicks via the amnesty clause. Billups, also not a young gun, is a fantastic coup in terms of salary cap because he only takes $2 million out of the re-sign Blake Griffin fund. The last piece of the puzzle came in re-signing the young anchor DeAndre Jordan, who was being aggressively pursued by in-state rivals Golden State. Jordan does not take many shots, but he shoots over 60% and is among the league leaders in blocks. Truthfully, he is probably just as good as someone like Tyson Chandler for a drastically reduced price.
Vinny Del Negro leads the Clippers in the ToB. As a young up-and-coming NBA head coach, he probably relates very well to the younger players. He has made some bad mistakes as an inexperienced coach, but he's slowly maturing. He's a creative coach and displays good balance between offense and defense. So far this year he has Blake Griffin averaging nearly a block and a steal per game, a drastically improved rate for such an athletically dominant player. It is now realistic to view the Clippers as legitimate contenders for the title in the next few years, granted they can resign their key players. A focus for the GM in the offseason should be to acquire a reliable starting wing player, as Billups, who has actually likely just torn his left Achilles tendon, does not have many seasons left in him, especially if he is forced to guard bigger Shooting Guards every night. Losing Eric Gordon this offseason hurt them, but to be honest, his defense is hardly worthy of mention on any night and would not improve the Clippers where they are most deficient. If the Clips could somehow steal Nic Batum away from the Blazers during the 2012 free agency period, then the Clippers would truly have found their man. However, since salary is likely to be a major issue, granted CP3 and Griffin don't agree to take less money in the coming years, Batum may be out of their price range. Landry Fields or Brandon Rush could be excellent additions as well. Regardless, the Clippers are here to stay. Surely the Dark Ages are over and the reign of the next Dunk King is here.