The Los Angeles Clippers’ 92-87 road win against the San Antonio Spurs on Monday night was the starkest proof yet that it no longer takes several years and a couple of lucky bounces in the NBA lottery to fashion a winning, sustainable basketball culture.
Today, in a climate in which one galvanizing star can become the magnet to attract more stars and a bevy of depth behind them, even the most hapless organizations can quickly turn themselves into a force capable of having its way with one of the league’s most consistent winners.
All it takes is a guy like Chris Paul deciding that, sure, playing with Blake Griffin for a few years could be interesting. That he’d agree to do so even though it would mean playing for the Los Angeles Clippers speaks to a rewriting of the very DNA of the NBA.
The Clippers entered last season as one of the most solid bets in sports: A team with an owner who radiated dysfunction and players who inevitably found themselves hampered by a vortex of losses, drama, frustration and broken seasons.
It was so bad, the Clippers had boasted only two winning seasons since moving to Los Angeles in 1984. During that span, the Clippers won just one playoff series and became a laughingstock that in 2000 was labeled the worst franchise in sports history by Sports Illustrated. Then came last season, when the group that took care of the Spurs in San Antonio on Monday night was still coming together and yet still recorded the franchise’s best winning percentage in LA and advanced to the Western Conference semifinals for just the second time.
And this season?
The Clippers, led by Paul and Griffin and a cast of characters who seem happily in sync with one another, have now beaten the Lakers, Grizzlies, Heat, Bulls and, twice, the Spurs.
As in: They’re very much for real.
It’s particularly impressive given that their sixth straight win came against the Spurs, a team conversely bearing one of the finest cultures in professional sports. Since drafting Tim Duncan with the No. 1 overall pick in 1997, the Spurs have won four championships, won at least 50 games every season except the strike-shortened 1998-99 season, and crafted deep in Texas and under the steady and glaring eye of head coach Gregg Popovich a culture of selflessness and consistency.
While Sports Illustrated was putting Clippers fans on its cover with messages written across their bags reading, “Just shoot me,” the Spurs were building something grand and lasting.
There was no drama in San Antonio. No angst. No egos overriding the team. No owners screaming at their own players or highly touted draft picks turning to ash under the miserable glare of Clippers basketball. There was just a quiet execution of one of the finest dynasties in sports history, so unassuming and successful it was decidedly un-Clipper like.
That’s part of the Clippers magic right now: They are in the midst of a struggle to redefine what Clippers basketball is all about, to shift the focus away from Donald Sterling and toward what increasingly looks like a championship-capable team. They’re also underscoring for a league used to using them as a punching bag just how much the past is having to adjust to the future.
The Spurs have defined greatness for a very long time. But the Clippers might be what comes next: A pooling of talent in once-barren franchises where bench players take less money or fewer minutes to be part of something bigger and the stars who make it possible define what their team is about more than any owner or head coach can.
The Heat created this, or at least made the trend clear. But it’s the Clippers, fighting years of incompetence and struggle, who can prove that way transcends LeBron James pairing with a couple of All-Stars or Boston’s former Big Three striking lightning their first time around.
In holding off San Antonio on Monday night behind Paul’s 19 points, Griffin’s 16 and 12 and a bench that scored 42 points, it seemed evident times are changing.
Last season, the Spurs swept the Clippers in the playoffs, a predictable act of domination. The team with the NBA’s most reliable culture easily dispatching the team with the worst seemed like more of the same.
Today, the culture of the league itself is changing, and with it the notion of who does and does not control the Western Conference.
The Spurs, dating back to December 1997, had been 52-6 against the Clippers, including 28-2 at home. They’ve already lost two straight to them this season, one at home and one at the road, because the past now has the future to contend with.
And incredibly the future might just be the Los Angeles Clippers and everything they suddenly represent.