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Griffin pick will finally turn Clippers around

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Kevin Hench

An accomplished film and television writer, Kevin Hench's latest screenwriting credit is for The Hammer, which stars Adam Carolla. His podcast, Spider and the Henchman, is available every Friday on iTunes. MORE>>
   
 
As Jay Leno said goodbye after 17 years of hosting The Tonight Show he pointed out one thing that had never changed: "The Clippers still suck." Upon arriving in L.A. to succeed Leno, Conan O'Brien took the baton and bashed the familiar pinata with it. "This studio holds 380 people. It's exactly like being at a Clippers game." Laugh it up. While you can.
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The longest-running punch line in sports history is about to lose its rim-shot reliability. Sure, it took a draft where the drop-off between the top pick and the rest of the field was steeper than the Mariana Trench to keep the Clippers from screwing things up, but that doesn't change the fact that things are officially looking up for L.A.'s eighth-favorite team. (Watch your back, Galaxy.) Blake Griffin has heard the jokes. He's heard about the Clippers' "aura of negativity." He doesn't care. "I've heard a lot about it over the past couple of weeks," he said before being drafted No. 1 overall by the Clippers Thursday night. "When I got to Oklahoma they were 15-16 the year before. You can't linger on the past." Every new era in Clippers history begins with the standard litany of what went wrong before. (Answer: everything.) But this time it's going to be different. Blake Griffin is not Danny Ferry, a cerebral-but-unathletic set shooter who the Clippers selected over Sean Elliott with the No. 2 overall pick in 1989. Blake Griffin is not Michael Olowokandi, an unpolished project out of a weak conference who the Clippers selected No. 1 overall in 1998. No, Griffin is a physical freak who knows how to play the game and dominated a conference (Big 12) that has had 16 players taken in the last three NBA drafts. Listed at 6-10, 251 pounds, he plays on a pogo stick with absurdly quick ups for a guy his size. He has great hands, makes quick post-to-post passes when the double comes from the weak side and runs the floor like a gazelle. Against soon-to-be national champion North Carolina in last year's NCAA tournament Griffin scored 23 points on 9-of-12 shooting and outrebounded the Tar Heels' entire front line. Griffin finished with 16 rebounds in 38 minutes while Tyler Hansbrough, Deon Thompson and Ed Davis pulled down 10 in 68 minutes.
But UNC knocked Griffin's Sooners out of the tournament by building a village of defenders around him and challenging his teammates to beat them from outside. The Sooners made only 2 of 19 3-pointers in a 72-60 loss. That won't happen next season. Though not much went right for the Clippers last year, rookie guard Eric Gordon proved he is a legit NBA scorer who can stroke the three. Gordon averaged 16.1 points per game and made 39 percent of his 3-pointers. With Griffin, 20, Gordon, 20, and slasher Al Thornton, 25, the Clips now challenge the Blazers for the best young nucleus in an increasingly creaky Western Conference. Kobe Bryant may be only 30 but he will be entering his 14th season in the fall. Chauncey Billups will be 33 at the start of next season. Tim Duncan is 33, Manu Ginobli an old 31. The fragile Yao Ming, 28, gets a little more brittle each season. Dirk Nowitzki is 31, Jason Kidd 36. In a young man's game, the stars of the Lakers, Spurs and Mavericks (winners of the last 11 Western Conference titles) are all on the plus side of 30. The Kobe-Duncan hammerlock on the conference will eventually release and the Clippers are in a historically strong position to step into that void. Since the draft lottery was introduced in 1985 there have been seven drafts where there was no doubt, no debate, no dissent about who should be the No. 1 pick. Those picks were Patrick Ewing ('85), David Robinson ('87), Danny Manning ('88), Shaquille O'Neal ('92), Duncan ('97), Yao ('02) and LeBron James ('03). Blake Griffin goes into that category, with arguably as big a gap between him and No. 2 as anyone. So in drafts where there was a clear-cut, lock No. 1, how did those teams make out? Well, they all got better. A lot better. Fast. In fact, the only team that didn't make the playoffs within three years of having the no-brainer No. 1 was -- wait for it -- the Clippers, who merely improved from 17-65 prior to Manning's arrival to 31-51 by his third season. Counting Manning's +14, these teams improved by an average of 26 games in the three seasons after landing the consensus no-doubter pick. The Clips were a miserable 19-63 this season, but tack 26 wins onto that total and you're a 45-37 playoff contender. The last two drafts have sparked debates between which of the first two players should go first (Greg Oden vs. Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose vs. Michael Beasley). But Griffin ended any discussion with his colossal sophomore season at Oklahoma (22.7 ppg, 14.4 rpg, 65.4 field goal percentage). And historically, when there is only one option at No. 1, those teams get better right away. And, man, is there room for improvement. For a franchise that has been defined by plumbing ever deeper depths the Clippers may have reached an all-time low over the last calendar year. Last summer Elton Brand bolted town for Philly in a move perceived in L.A. as a knife in the back of coach and GM Mike Dunleavy. (Clippers fans should now view that departure as a godsend. Who would you rather have, Blake Griffin or Elton Brand?) Once the Clips started playing they were, of course, their old wretched selves, losing 60-plus games for the 11th time in 39 seasons. They've lost 50-plus 25 times. (They've won 50 exactly never.) Free agent Baron Davis (5-years, $65M) was supposed to team with Brand to return the Clippers to the playoffs, where they gacked away the 2006 conference semis to the Suns by failing to guard Raja Bell on a game-tying 3-pointer in Game 5. Upon returning to L.A., where he had played high school and college ball, Davis promptly came down with the Clippers Flu, shooting 37 percent from the floor and playing with a listless indifference that even Zach Randolph couldn't match. Then there was the matter of former GM Elgin Baylor's lawsuit alleging racism by owner Donald Sterling. While the owner's treatment of Baylor -- beyond retaining him long after he had proven not up to the task -- may still be a matter of debate, Baylor's performance over 22 years as a GM is not. The NBA has these things called standings that ordinary folks like you and me can use to gauge the effectiveness of team executives. Baylor was not good. Don't know if you heard. Dunleavy might not be much good as a GM either, but Blake Griffin fell into his lap. And sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. The Clips were really lucky to get Griffin (17.7 percent chance). And they will be really good within three years. That's no joke.
Tagged: Bulls, Cavaliers, Mavericks, Nuggets, Rockets, Pacers, Clippers, Heat, 76ers, Suns, Spurs, Thunder, Baron Davis, Dirk Nowitzki, Michael Olowokandi, Elton Brand, Shaquille O'Neal, Chauncey Billups, Jason Kidd, Raja Bell, Zach Randolph, Tim Duncan, Hornets, Mike Dunleavy, Yao Ming, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Al Thornton, Derrick Rose, Michael Beasley, Eric Gordon

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