Let's say your cousin took seven years to graduate college, bounced in and out of rehab a few times, married someone to keep her in the country (and then she stole money from him and disappeared), borrowed $50,000 to start a frozen-yogurt business that bankrupted him, spent three years living in Mexico "doing odd jobs" and now, he lives 20 minutes away, he's been sober for six months, he proposed to a shockingly normal woman, and he just remembered buying Apple stock in 1997 that's now worth $50 million. He hired a financial adviser. He bought a killer house in a wonderful neighborhood. He's saying all the right things. Everything seems fine.
"I've never felt this good," he tells you. "I finally turned my life around."
Do you believe him? How much baggage is too much baggage? When does the past stop mattering?
Welcome to Clipper Nation, a place where baggage never stops piling up. It's almost like the NBA's version of Hoarders. We were just breaking apart the guest bedroom and, my God! I think that's Keith Closs Jr.!!! Actually, Keith showed up for Game 4 of the Clippers-Grizzlies series on Monday night, wearing his old jersey (no, really) and cheering on his old team as they pulled out a thrilling overtime victory. Supposedly, fans took pictures with him, high-fived him and didn't find this goofy at all. It's just part of the Clippers experience. For Lakers playoff games, you might see legends like Magic, Big Game James, Elgin and the Logo in the house. For Clippers playoff games, you see Keith Closs Jr.
Ever since they trumped the Lakers in the Chris Paul Sweepstakes (with a massive assist from David Stern), the Clippers have been juggling identities like a rejected superhero from The Avengers. There's the exciting contender that features two All-Star Game starters, dominates YouTube, has a recognizable hook ("Lob City") and keeps pulling out close games because of Paul's incomparable brilliance; and there's the laughingstock of a franchise that's been owned/mutilated by the aggressively incompetent Donald Sterling, made just four playoff appearances in the past 35 years (before this season) and piled up so many injuries, bad breaks and idiotic decisions that I could barely cram them into this 2009 column.
Which identity would prevail? The Clippers started out 19-9, then unhinged after blowing an impressive victory over San Antonio in the most unlikely way: As Paul fetched an inbounds pass to dribble out the clock, he lost his balance and improbably threw the ball right to San Antonio's Gary Neal who even more improbably sank the game-tying 3 in a sports-movie ending that any producer would have rejected. San Antonio's overtime victory spawned a textbook Clippers free fall: They won just seven of their next 18, making headlines in mid-March by not firing Vinny Del Negro, then pretending five solid days of internal teetering about the coach's future never happened. It happened.1
If you remember, Sterling hired Del Negro for a decidedly Clipperish reason: The Bulls were covering half of Del Negro's salary last season, which meant Sterling only had to pay for half a coach. You get what you pay for, whether it's a recycled coach, a hooker or a slum building and reportedly, Sterling has paid for all three. But that's beside the point. Del Negro survived March for a decidedly Clipperish reason: It was simply too late to find a decent replacement. This didn't matter on Monday night, not with Dr. Paul performing yet another crunch-time surgery on Memphis. You know the recipe by now: Paul setting up everyone else for 44 minutes, then going into Isiah 2.0 mode and taking command down the stretch. The Clippers lead Memphis 3-1 in the series; all three wins came down to the final minute; all three wins happened because Paul controls the final minutes of tight games better than anyone. He's incredible. That's the only word that applies. It's not just the plays themselves, or his innate ability to make the correct decision nearly every time, but the way he carries himself as it happens.
There was a remarkable moment in Game 4 — last play of regulation, tie game, Chris looking for the winning shot against Tony Allen (one of the league's best defenders) — when everyone stood and cheered and expected Chris to take care of business, only he waited a second too long, rushed his hesitation move, got throttled by Allen and ran out of time. I was there — the fans were genuinely stunned that Chris failed. It was like watching Dom Toretto lose a street race or something. We watched him saunter back to the huddle, furious at himself, nodding to his teammates as if to say, "Don't worry, I got this."
Full disclosure: I attended just enough Clippers games this season to know when Paul gets "The Look." It's not rocket science. The Look usually happens in close games — and only because Chris has more self-confidence than anyone except Kobe — but it might surface other times, like if a clumsy center elbows him in the head, or someone sets a violent pick that Chris doesn't appreciate. When Chris gets The Look, it's all over. Somebody has to pay. He starts doing his old-man walk — when he sticks his ass out and stomps around violently, almost like he's annoyed that someone pushed him to this place — and starts yelling at teammates and directing people around like an angry traffic cop. I swear this is true — even the officials fall in line when Chris has The Look. They suck up to him. When he yells at them about a missed call, they react the same way Obama's staff would react if the POTUS was pissed off. I'm sorry, Mr. Paul. You're right, I DID miss the call. You're making some great points. I'll try to do better, I promise. After blowing that final play in Game 4, Chris had The Look heading into overtime. Memphis didn't have a chance.
Look, Clippers fans have been appropriately scarred over the years. They fully expected that stupid Kia to cripple Blake in the Slam Dunk Contest, just like they wouldn't be shocked if the video scoreboard fell on Chris right as he was dribbling out the clock in Game 7 of the Finals. But that 27-point comeback in Game 1 was a seminal moment for a profoundly messed-up franchise. If they can erase a 27-point lead and guarantee themselves a spot on NBA TV Hardwood Classics for the rest of eternity, what else can happen? Has their historically low ceiling been removed?
These last two home games, I found myself mildly frightened by their unwavering optimism — almost like watching a buddy fall a little too hard for a stripper or something. They wore matching red T-shirts, cheered loudly from start to finish, jumped to their feet after every big play, started unprovoked "Let's Go Clippers" chants and basically acted like college kids. Like three decades of frustration had boiled over and turned into something else. Remember, the Clippers have always been "The Team That Sold Season Tickets to People Who Couldn't Get Lakers Tickets and/or Just Wanted to See the Other Teams."2 A superior playoff atmosphere paid immediate dividends — in particular, Griffin flew around in 19th gear in Game 3 (to his own detriment), then found the right energy/intensity calibration for Game 4 and played one of his better games. It's been an unlikely three-way match: an unexpectedly rambunctious playoff crowd, the best player in the series and the Los Angeles Clippers.
At halftime on Monday, a friend of mine (a Lakers fan) said to me, "I didn't know Clippers fans had it in them."
It was a backhanded compliment. He didn't mean it that way. Or maybe he did.
A quick story about how optimistic Clippers fans were heading into this season: I sit in a section of "Eighty-Four" accounts, the sales staff's nickname for any season-ticket holder since the 1984-85 season (when the Clippers moved to L.A. from San Diego). These fans have seen everything — they're like an emotionally scarred cross between the camp counselors at Crystal Lake and the police department in Haddonfield. At halftime of the team's only preseason game, just a few days before Christmas, a nice lady from the Eighty-Fours asked me to join their annual wins pool — throw in a dollar, then guess the team's total wins for that year. I gave her a dollar and guessed high: 41 wins. She laughed.
"You're not the first one who picked 41," she said.
Uh-oh. You never want the words "high expectations" and "Clippers" in the same sentence. After acquiring Paul and splurging on $67 million in starters (DeAndre Jordan and Caron Butler), Clippers fans were thinking big. If the Los Angeles basketball scene was ever flipping, couldn't it only happen after a seminal, double franchise-altering moment like "The Veto?" Lob City debuted on December 30 in front of an enthusiastic sellout crowd. Somebody sang the anthem who wasn't nearly famous enough. The visiting Bulls were introduced to cheers (from the Chicago transplants and residue MJ fans in the house) and boos (from the Clippers fans who were pissed off that they can't attend a big game without 20 percent of the building rooting for the other team). The lights went dark as the fans started buzzing happily, sounding like giddy Springsteen fans in those moments right before the Boss strolls out onstage. You couldn't screw this moment up. It was impossible.
Well, unless you're the Clippers.
As cheerleaders scampered onto the court and waited for a cue that never came, there was a pause and it kept going and it kept going. The mammoth video screen tried to play something, failed miserably, then started skipping that clip without sound. It didn't just last for one or two seconds it kept skipping and skipping. And wouldn't end. So much for the giddy Springsteen buzz. As fans alternately grumbled and giggled in disbelief, just then, the video stopped. Now we were standing in the dark again.
And I swear, right then, I fully expected Donald Sterling to turn into a fiery centaur and murder everyone inside the arena. After all, if that ever happens — and don't rule it out — wouldn't that have been the perfect moment?
Instead, another 10 seconds passed before the video mercifully started again. And, of course, it couldn't have been more dreadful. Instead of crafting a so-easy-my-young-son-could-have-edited-it highlight video called "Welcome to Lob City, Population 18,000" — just Blake and DeAndre slamming home alley-oops with a happy hip-hop song blaring — the Clippers went for a graphic-heavy, artistic think piece that was apparently directed by Tommy Wiseau. We watched players and coaches CGI'ed in front of different buildings, with some dunks thrown in, and I have to be honest, I don't know what the hell was going on.3 By the time that visual carbuncle ended, the life had been completely beaten out of the crowd. So much for the Opening Night buzz.
Somebody had the bright idea that every single 2012 Clipper should jog out, one at a time, from underneath the bowels of the Staples Center. That would have been fine, except three of the first four Clippers introduced (Billups, Eric Bledsoe and Reggie Evans) were injured and wearing streetclothes. Instead of running, they slowly ambled out like broken-down senior citizens, killing any and all remaining momentum. By the time they rolled out the Clippers' starting five, it was 11:30 at night. Or, it just felt that way. And just when we thought it couldn't get any more awkward, the rattled announcer introduced Mo Williams as "Chauncey Billlllllllllllllllllllups!!!!!!!"
What else could go wrong? Would they finish things off by having Penny Marshall run Blake Griffin over in a Kia? When the lights finally (and mercifully) went back on, everyone was laughing and shaking their heads — the same way you'd laugh when that same aforementioned black-sheep cousin makes an inappropriate joke at Christmas dinner, and nobody even gets pissed off because he's your idiot black-sheep cousin and he's been doing those things for his entire life. You laugh, shake your head and move on. That's what you're conditioned to do.
As a friend e-mailed me a few seconds later, "Biggest home moment in history and they couldn't even get that right. I love the Clippers."
Exactly. That's why a certain group of Los Angeles natives were patiently waiting for the Clippers to revert to being the Clippers again. Before the season, these people sneered at Chris's MVP odds dropping to 5-to-1 and his team fetching 8-to-1 title odds. They pooh-poohed any notion of a local basketball rivalry, refusing to acknowledge that the young-and-hungry Clips could ever supplant the old-and-satiated Lakers. They did an inordinate amount of scoffing and guffawing. They never wavered. They were Lakers fans. They were the hammer, and the Clippers were the nail. That's the way it would always be. Or so they believed.
Chris Paul believed differently. From day one, he said the right things, adopted everyone else's deep-seated contempt of the Lakers, even signed off on Blake being introduced last for home games — a bigger deal than you'd think because it's like getting the biggest piece of chicken at dinner (copyright: Chris Rock). Chris expected the Clippers to contend for an NBA title because he was Chris Paul, one of the best eight players on the planet, someone fundamentally wired to make a shitty team mediocre, a mediocre team good and a good team great. His swagger, talent and intelligence would trump decades of baggage. That's what he expected.
Less than three months later, his bravado seemed a little foolish. The Clippers were bumbling their way out of the playoffs. At the time, I made the mistake of mentioning that to Jimmy Kimmel (a Lakers fan). Here's what he e-mailed back.
"I don't know why you keep falling into this trap. The Clippers are the Wile E. Coyote of basketball. They can't win. If they win, everything is ruined."
You might not remember this; you may have blocked it out of your mind. I know Clippers fans have. But during another hopeless season last year, the Clippers dumped Baron Davis's contract on Cleveland for Mo Williams and stupidly gave the Cavs an unprotected first-round pick for their troubles. Had this been any other team, the word "unprotected" wouldn't have come back to haunt it. But it was the Clippers, so naturally, that pick ended up winning Cleveland the lottery. Clippers fans spent the summer consoling themselves by saying, "Well, at least it was a lousy draft" and "maybe Kyrie Irving will be a total bust." Then the season started and, of course, Irving turned out to be an absolute stud, one of the league's best young players. In an alternate universe where the trade didn't happen (think Lost), a nucleus of Irving, Griffin and Eric Gordon would have rivaled any under-27 nucleus in basketball except for Oklahoma City.
And if you think Clippers fans weren't obsessing over this fact in mid-March, you're crazy. The Lakers were rolling; somehow they had survived the non-Gasol trade AND the Odom trade, kept Kobe and Bynum healthy, and managed to become contenders again. Meanwhile, fans of the floundering Clippers were freaking out about the summer of 2013 you know, when both Chris and Blake can flee as free agents. Or, as it's more commonly known, the Clipperocalypse. Can you think of a more Clipperish scenario than Chris, Blake AND Irving making the 2014 All-Star Game for different teams while the Wile E. Coyote Clippers were headed for their umpteenth 12-70 season? It was just realistic enough that, again, Clippers fans were freaking the eff out.
They needed a fall guy, and frankly, so did the people running the Clippers. That's when #firevinny became something more than a hashtag. In their defense, it's perplexing that any NBA team would swing a blockbuster deal for a superstar point guard, splurge for Jordan and Butler, then bring back the cheapest coach possible. And maybe assigning too much blame to basketball coaches is one of my default weaknesses, right up there with accidentally swearing in front of little kids and forgetting to purchase gifts until the last possible minute. But trust me, Vinny was missing basic things. He kept leaving his players on the bench too long, couldn't stick to a rotation, routinely screwed up offense/defense situations never, not ever, did you feel like you were in good hands. You can tell when a team is quitting on its coach (please read this footnote4). In mid-March, the Clippers were quitting on their coach. Period. That's why they almost fired him. And that's why Vinny doesn't have a contract for next season.
Quick tangent: On Monday night, remember when Vinny played Chris for the first 14-plus minutes of the second half, rested him, then didn't bring him back until there was 4:30 remaining in the game, and you kept thinking to yourself, This is weird — why isn't Chris Paul playing right now? Or remember late in overtime, with the Clippers nursing a two-point lead and Memphis needing to foul, when Vinny accidentally left Reggie Evans (a .522 career free throw shooter) on the floor, realized it was too late, then called timeout right as Kenyon Martin was throwing an inbounds pass to a wide-open Mo Williams — by the way, the team's best free throw shooter — followed by Martin and a few other Clippers yelping in disbelief, then Vinny using that timeout AND a 20-second timeout so he could diagram a play that ended up with (you guessed it) the ball being inbounded to a wide-open Mo Williams?
Vinny made those head-scratching moves all season, to the point that the 2012 Clippers could have been sponsored by Head & Shoulders.5 Again, he only survived March because they couldn't find anyone else. An optimist would say that everything happens for a reason, that the turmoil galvanized the Clippers and propelled them to a 40-win season (and a no. 5 seed). A cynic would say that things turned only when the players realized Del Negro wasn't going anywhere. A wiseass would quip that the Clippers can't even quit on their coach without screwing it up. The truth probably lies somewhere in between.
In Vinny's defense (three words that haven't been written too often), the team's biggest issue was philosophical — they were two teams crammed into one. The young'uns wanted to run-run-run-run-run-run, but Paul wanted to slow everything down, save his knees and grind out the halfcourt game (his bread and butter). That works for the playoffs, but in the regular season, when you're trying to entertain fans and find ways to remain engaged? Not as much.
And that's where Billups helped the most. Before his injury, even though a 35-year-old Chauncey couldn't defend Yi Jianlian's chair, and even if Chauncey still believed in that Mr. Big Shot nickname a little too much — he brought a certain credibility to the proceedings. There's a reason Chauncey was and is the league's single most respected veteran. During the lockout, whenever insiders were ripping Derek Fisher (and it happened often), they always pointed to Chauncey as the one who should have been running things. I asked one of those people what made Chauncey special — that person said, "I don't know, some people just HAVE it." You know how we know this is true? Before Chauncey got hurt, even Chris Paul (a dominant personality and alpha dog in every sense) deferred to Chauncey to maddening degrees.
Sure, Chauncey, I'll play off the ball for a few plays, I'm only the best pure point guard in 20 years.
What???? After watching everyone fall over themselves to follow Chauncey's lead, I started wondering if Billups could have cruised past Willard Romney for the 2012 Republican nomination. Here's how much Chauncey means to the Clippers: After his season-ending Achilles tear, the team kept dressing Chauncey's locker (situated right next to Paul's) for every home and road game. You know, like he's still there. Jerseys, shoes, socks, everything. Like they didn't want to admit he's gone. Not so coincidentally, Billups returned to the Clippers bench two days after their embarrassing Phoenix loss, started traveling with the team and doing Chauncey things, and within a few weeks, the Clippers looked like a contender again. To Vinny's credit, he embraced having Chauncey there — on the sidelines during Game 4, there were times when they almost seemed like co-coaches.
Throw in Chris and the Clippers actually seem (hold on, I just want to make sure my fingers can type these words) stable.
Remember, a basketball team follows the lead of its coach and its best players. They have to be in synch or everything falls apart like it's the end of a Jenga commercial. That's why the Spurs never go away — because Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan built something that transcends the grind of any season. That's why the Lakers never cave — because Kobe's teammates are petrified to let him down. That's why the Celtics never folded before the 2012 deadline — because Doc Rivers, Rajon Rondo and the vets had built too much collective pride to get submarined by rumors and hearsay. That's why Miami ebbs and flows depending on the moment — because their best player (and the league's best player, by far) can't totally decide what he wants to be.
And right now — even if they did it ass-backwards, and even if you can't help staring at the Grim Reaper (Sterling) at midcourt during these playoff games just to remind yourself, "Oh yeah, they still have one of the worst sports owners of all time" — the Clippers suddenly seem like they know who they are. You're always looking for identities in May and June; the Clippers definitely have one. They can play big or small depending on the matchup. They can shoot 3s. They can play above the rim and ignite their fans in the span of 2.2 seconds. They have Vinny and their frustratingly spotty free throw shooting to keep everyone on their toes. They are the biggest wild card in the playoffs, hands down; nobody else comes close.
The worst thing you could say about them? I wasn't even a little shocked when they fell behind by 27 in Game 1.
The best thing you could say about them? I never turned the channel and I wasn't even a little shocked when they started coming back.
Of course, none of this happens without Chris. And that brings us back to the baggage question. At what point do you just throw it out? The jerseys didn't matter on Saturday or Monday; neither did the coaches, the general managers, the owners, the histories, anything. All that mattered was that the white team had Chris Paul. For the first time since they moved to California, the Clippers have a player who can back up the three most valuable words on a basketball court: "I got this."
Time and time again, he pounded the ball 35 feet from the basket, surveyed the clutter in front of him, figured out a plan, then executed that plan. To clinch Game 3, he dribbled into the paint to shoot his patented stepback floater, changed his mind at the last possible second, then found a cutting Griffin in stride with a what-the-F-just-happened bounce pass for the finishing dunk.6 To clinch Game 4, he swished consecutive 15-footers from the same spot even though the Grizzlies — a quality defensive team, by the way — knew exactly what he wanted to do and exerted an inordinate amount of effort trying to keep Paul from getting to that spot. They failed. Almost always, Chris gets what he wants.
Playoff basketball can be exceedingly simple. Sometimes, one team has someone who can say the words "I got this" and that's that. There are two levels to that mind-set. The more common level is something I called "The Hero Complex" during the darkest points of Paul Pierce's career, when he wanted to be Jordan and didn't quite know how to get there, so he thought it meant clearing everyone out and taking game-deciding 20-footers and 3s.7 If you're lucky, you graduate from that level to "I Got This," which is what happened to Pierce in Game 2 of the Atlanta series, when the Celtics were missing Rondo and Ray Allen and couldn't compete unless Pierce played a transcendent game. It's one thing to run your team's offense, catch fire at the right times, score 36 points, make every dagger shot, defend the best player on the other team and win a crucial game. It's another thing to do it when you got dressed that night thinking to yourself, Unless I play great tonight, we're going to lose. That's why Game 2 immediately went into the "Paul Pierce's Greatest Hits" collection. Few players can say the words "I got this" and actually mean it.
Anyway, if you watched Chris Paul in New Orleans, you know two things: He shifted to a higher gear in the playoffs, and he leaned heavily on teammate David West in big moments. Together, they figured out every hairy situation. There will come a time when Griffin assumes that partner-in-crime role for the Clippers, but he's just not ready yet. For now, it's Chris and Chris only. He's fine with that. Actually, he couldn't be more fine with that. He wants it that way.
I got this.
Keep saying it, Chris. You might as well be talking about the whole franchise.