Sometimes, it seems as though the NBA's schedule-makers could double as storytellers, albeit unintentionally so.
Case in point: the Los Angeles Clippers' recent homestand, during which they dominated the San Antonio Spurs upon returning from a grueling seven-game road trip before beating the New Orleans Pelicans. In the span of two games across three days between three Western Conference squads, we can see, in three distinct stages, the "life cycle" of a club whose management capitalized on some tremendous luck to construct a championship contender—first, by drafting a once-in-a-generation-type forward, and then by placing him in the care of a quality coaching staff and building a well-balanced team around him.
It's Good to Be No. 1
All three franchises that stormed through Staples Center during that aforementioned span have had the good fortune of nabbing transformational talents with the first pick in the NBA Draft: the Spurs with Tim Duncan in 1997, the Clippers with Blake Griffin in 2009 and the then-Hornets with Anthony Davis in 2012. Those three just so happened to be precocious power forwards whose multi-dimensional skill sets and prime physical attributes made them not only successes from the jump, but also foundational superstars around whom could be constructed highly competitive clubs over the long haul.
San Antonio's decade-plus head start on L.A. and New Orleans has yielded four Larry O'Brien Trophies for the Spurs. Gregg Popovich's first title team in 1999 succeeded on the strength of a "Twin Towers" tandem between Duncan and Hall of Fame center David Robinson.
Since then, his front office, orchestrated by general manager R.C. Buford, has struck gold in the mid-to-lower rungs of the draft with the likes of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and, more recently, Kawhi Leonard. The former two, along with Duncan, have constituted the core of a club that hasn't missed the playoffs and has failed to win 50 games just once (in 1999, when the lockout shortened the season to 50 games total) since Timmy's rookie year.
Boats and Birds
As far as this conversation is concerned, though, the Spurs might as well be in their own universe. Their run of success during the Duncan-Popovich era is practically unparalleled in NBA history—and has shown no signs of slowing down. The Spurs are once again perched toward the top of the Western Conference standings, mere months after nearly upending the Miami Heat in the 2013 Finals.
The Clips and the Pellies, meanwhile, are currently much closer on the developmental curve to one another than either is to the Spurs, despite what L.A.'s recent thrashings of San Antonio and New Orleans might suggest.
Neither the Clippers nor the Pelicans has so much as advanced to the conference finals—not just during their recent renaissances, but in the histories of their respective franchises. The Clips went seven games against the Phoenix Suns in Round 2 back in 2006 and were swept away by the Spurs six years later. Prior to those runs, the Clippers hadn't won a playoff series since 1976.
New Orleans has come close twice, losing Game 7s in the second round against the Milwaukee Bucks in 2001 and to (you guessed it!) San Antonio in 2008.
The latter of those shortfalls came when Chris Paul was still in a Hornets uniform. He pushed his way out of the Crescent City in the wake of the 2011 lockout and subsequently wound up in L.A. David Stern's "basketball reasons" nixed CP3's potential turn with the Lakers, though the presence of reigning Rookie of the Year Blake Griffin (and, to a lesser extent, DeAndre Jordan) made the Clippers a palatable suitor, one to whom Paul would feel comfortable committing through the end of his contract.
Just Like Starting Over
New Orleans wasn't left empty-handed. In exchange for CP3, the then-Hornets acquired an up-and-coming wing scorer (Eric Gordon), an athletic forward (Al-Farouq Aminu), a cap-filling center (Chris Kaman) and a first-round pick who eventually yielded Austin Rivers.
But the biggest prize of all was New Orleans' futility. The post-CP3 Hornets were bad enough to land the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft, which they used to select Kentucky wunderkind Anthony Davis.
The Brow, though, wasn't exactly a superstar from the start. He put together a solid rookie season (13.5 points on 51.6 percent shooting, 8.2 rebounds, three combined blocks and steals in 28.8 minutes per game), albeit one interrupted by a litany of injuries. Davis showed flashes of that to which his unique combination of size, skill, length and athleticism might amount, but it clearly lacked the strength and proper seasoning to dominate in the pros to the extent that he had at the collegiate level the season prior.
Still, there was every reason to believe that Davis, at the tender age of 20, would take a significant step forward in Year 2. To better prepare the Pelicans to take advantage of Davis' highly anticipated coming-of-age, GM Dell Demps cashed in some of his team's long-term chips (i.e. draft picks and cap space) to bring in an All-Star point guard (Jrue Holiday) and a former Rookie of the Year (Tyreke Evans) to serve as New Orleans' sixth man.
New Orleans' additions solidified an intriguing core of precocious, young talent that, in time, should serve as the foundation for a dangerous Western Conference club. "We’ve got a lot more pieces," Al-Farouq Aminu recently told Bleacher Report. "We’re winning some games this year. Last year, we were below .500. It’s good to see all the players coming together and helping us to win."
The wins aren't exactly rolling in just yet—the Pelicans lost their first two games with Davis and Evans back in the lineup—but at least those pieces are (finally) playing together. According to NBA.com, the featured fivesome of Davis, Evans, Holiday, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson has scored at an astounding clip of 125.7 points per 100 possessions—far outpacing Portland's league-leading clip of 110.4 points per 100 possessions.
As impressive as that sort of offensive efficiency may be, it comes with (at least) two major caveats:
1. That group has given up an unflattering 118 points per 100 possessions, far more than the Utah Jazz's NBA-worst defense at 108.2 points allowed per 100 possessions.
2. New Orleans' "Fave Five" has played a measly 81 minutes together, due in large part to the injury-related absences of Davis, Evans and Anderson.
Such defensive struggles are to be expected from a unit that sports so little experience, both individually and as a unit. Pelicans head coach Monty Williams addressed that issue following New Orleans' recent loss in L.A.:
To some extent, those problems should dissipate in the weeks, months and years to come, as Davis and his talented supporting cast grow together on the court—and as Williams has had time to instill in them the discipline and principles that he wants to see.
The Clippers are just now starting to reap the rewards of the system that Doc Rivers has been installing since he arrived in L.A. this past summer. Sunday's 120-116 overtime thriller against the Minnesota Timberwolves snapped a four-game streak during which the Clips had held their opponents under 100 points.
All told, L.A.'s defense has ceded triple digits in the scoring column just six times in 18 outings since November 24th. According to NBA.com, the Clips have limited their opponents to just 96.7 points per 100 possessions on an effective field-goal percentage of .462 in that span—both numbers that would rank second-best in the Association this season.
L.A. would appear to be developing the sort of consistency on both ends of the floor that serves as the foundation for any successful squad, especially those coached by Rivers:
Leading from the Sidelines
Doc's arrival in L.A. this past summer helped the Clippers to complete the puzzle of a consistent contender by installing a coach capable of commanding the respect of not just his own players, but of an entire organization—a crucial but oft-overlooked ingredient of any championship "recipe."
Rivers, a head coach for 13 years between stints with the Orlando Magic and the Boston Celtics, replaced Vinny Del Negro, who'd come off as little more than a low-budget placeholder during the dawn of the Blake Griffin era. Rivers had twice guided a team to the NBA Finals, winning the title in 2008 and coming oh-so-close in 2010.
Both times against the Los Angeles Lakers, the Clippers' cross-hall rivals.
As it happens, Rivers and Del Negro came from similar coaching backgrounds. Each began his time as a head coach at the helm of a team built around a premier perimeter talent: Doc with Tracy McGrady's Magic, Vinny with Derrick Rose's Chicago Bulls. Both were fired and moved on to foundering franchises (the pre-Big 3 C's and the pre-Blake Clips, respectively). Both then hung around long enough to see their fortunes flip.
The greatest and closest coincidence between the two, though, was also the most important: they were teammates with the Spurs in the mid-1990s. Rivers never played for Gregg Popovich—Bob Hill was the coach at the time—though he did interact with Pop, then the GM, plenty while in the Alamo City.
"He was around quite a bit," Rivers told Bleacher Report. "You just loved how they worked their organization. It was very helpful for me."
Monty Williams, the current head coach of the Pelicans, absorbed some of that Spurs magic when he came to the Alamo City in 1996, just after Doc departed. The two had briefly been teammates with the New York Knicks in 1994 and came together again in Orlando in 1999, when Rivers landed his first head coaching gig and Williams signed on as a veteran with the Magic.
"He talks a lot, and I listen. That’s about the size of it," Williams said of his relationship with Rivers prior to New Orleans' recent loss in L.A. "Doc is a talker, and I usually end up listening, and then we get off the phone. There’s not much more to it."
"Just knowing that he was a vet when I was a rookie, and I played for him. He’s just meant a lot to my career. He’s always poured into me, from a wisdom standpoint."
Those two have since passed that wisdom onto Griffin and Davis, just as Pop did and has done with Duncan for the better part of two decades. They've learned from the best and are now attempting to replicate the league's "gold standard" with their respective squads. There's no winning in the NBA without talent, but maximizing said talent at a championship level requires a coach in whom everyone, from the superstars at the top of the food chain to the guy clinging to the end of the bench, can trust.
Not only to mold the team that he has on hand now, but also to have a hand in reshaping the roster and the team's operating philosophy as needed in the years to come.
How to Succeed in Basketball...
The Clippers' path forward isn't a carbon copy of that which the Spurs have followed for years. Nor is New Orleans' plan entirely co-opted from L.A.'s and/or San Antonio's. But all three have taken similar steps at the outset: drafting a franchise-changing big man No. 1, pairing him with a head coach of reputable pedigree and surrounding him with a strong supporting cast.
The Spurs are nearing the end of their "life cycle" with Duncan, with more than 1,100 wins between the regular season and the playoffs to show for it. At this point, the Clippers and the Pelicans can only hope that their hard work and smart management will yield similarly stunning results.
And that their respective links to one of the NBA's great dynasties will be more than just the result of a scheduling coincidence.
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