Let's Appreciate This LA Clippers Golden Age for What It Is

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Let's Appreciate This LA Clippers Golden Age for What It Is
Associated Press

Don't look now, but the Los Angeles Clippers are rewriting their history books. Again.

If they just split their six remaining games, they'll set a new franchise record for wins—besting last season's standard-setting 56-win group. As it stands, they've already clinched the second Pacific Division title in the organization's history and ensured the team will be playing in three consecutive postseasons for the first time in nearly four decades.

Needless to say, success hasn't always come this easily.

Punched playoff tickets weren't always annual traditions. Before Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and Co. turned this offense into a Cirque du Soleil act, division titles and 50-win seasons were no more obtainable than unicorn rides or crystal-clear photos of Bigfoot.

Forgotten by the basketball world, the NBA and even their own city, the Clippers' history is more boring bummer than true tragedy. A handful of peaks breaks up the otherwise monotonous stream of valleys that make up this team's 44 years of existence.

 

From a Promising Beginning to a Quick Fall from Grace

Born as the Buffalo Braves prior to the start of the 1970-71 season, this franchise found its niche early on.

The Braves won 22 games during their debut campaign, another 22 in the following season and 21 games in 1972-73. This was an early indication of just how this team was going to play—not good, but not rock-bottom bad, either. Of the 43 seasons the Clippers have put in the books, 23 have ended with a winning percentage between .250 and .450.

Those dark days didn't last long—although they would return in short order—as Hall of Fame big man Bob McAdoo and Hall of Fame coach Jack Ramsay lifted the organization to relevance in the mid-1970s. From 1973-76, the Braves averaged 46 wins and made three straight trips to the Eastern Conference semifinals.

McAdoo, in particular, was magical during the run. He captured his first scoring title as a sophomore in 1973-74, then added two more to his resume over the next two seasons. During this stretch, he averaged 32.1 points per game on 51.4 percent shooting, 13.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks.

Dick Raphael/Getty Images
Bob McAdoo (1974-75) is the franchise's only MVP winner.

But Ramsay left after the 1975-76 season, and McAdoo was shipped out 20 games into the 1976-77 campaign. The Braves didn't last much longer.

Buffalo burned through four coaches over a two-year span, its final two years in the Empire State. By 1978, the franchise moved to San Diego, adopting the Clippers name in the process.

The San Diego Clippers are more like the Clippers we remember from recent history. The team spent six playoff-less seasons in Ron Burgundy's backyard, winning just 37.8 percent of its games over that stretch.

The Clippers just couldn't seem to get out of their own way. Even the right moves they made were the wrong ones.

They landed scoring guard World B. Free from the Philadelphia 76ers in 1978. He averaged 29.4 points and 4.3 assists during his time with the team, but he lasted just two seasons there before being traded again. The Clippers gave up a 1984 draft pick to originally bring him in, which the 76ers eventually used on Hall of Fame forward Charles Barkley.

Marty Lederhandler

A swing-for-the-fences signing of Hall of Fame center Bill Walton was predictably rocky.

He arrived after missing the entire 1978-79 season with a foot injury, then missed all but 14 games of the following campaign with foot problems. He missed each of the next two years with the same injury.

While he wound up playing four seasons for the Clippers, he never looked like the player they had signed. From 1976-78, he averaged 18.8 points, 13.8 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 2.9 blocks for the Portland Trail Blazers. For his Clippers career, those numbers fell to 11.9, 9.0, 2.9 and 2.3, respectively.

 

Becoming L.A.'s "Other Team"

The Clippers headed up the coast, landing in Los Angeles in 1984. The Lakers took the title during the 1984-85 campaign (already their third of the 1980s). The Clippers won 31 games, their sixth straight losing season.

As if there were any questions about the city's power structure, order had been firmly established.

Rick Stewart/Getty Images

The first seven seasons of the Clippers' L.A. stay were all losers, lowlighted by a brutal 12-70 campaign in 1986-87. They had the league's worst offensive (101.2) and defensive (112.3) ratings that year, via Basketball-Reference.com, with current New York Knicks coach Mike Woodson's 17.1 points per game pacing the team.

The rosters weren't nearly as bad as the numbers suggest. But the injury bug attacked the lineup like a scorned lover hellbent on exacting revenge.

Post player-turned-swingman Derek Smith, who averaged 22.3 points from 1984-86, made it through just 11 games of the 1985-86 campaign due to a knee injury. The then-24-year-old would never play another game for the Clippers nor average better than 16.6 points again.

History doesn't beg Smith as the biggest loss, but our perception may be clouded by that ailment.

"I truly believe that Derek Smith would be known as the Greatest Clipper of all-time were it not for that career changing knee injury," Clippers.com's Ralph Lawler wrote. "HBO would likely have followed its epic 'Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals' documentary with one on Michael & Derek. He was that good."

Rick Stewart/Getty Images

Point guard Norm Nixon, who averaged 16.5 points and 8.4 assists over his first eight NBA seasons, missed the 1986-87 campaign with a left knee injury and sat out the following year with a ruptured Achilles. He retired at the age of 33 in 1989.

Five-time All-Star forward Marques Johnson had career averages of 20.4 points and 7.1 rebounds after wrapping up his ninth season in the league. His 10th, 1986-87, was derailed after only 10 games by a neck injury. His 11th year, which also consisted of only 10 games, was his last.

There was a reward for this futility, though, and it came in the form of Danny Manning. The No. 1 pick in 1988 seemed destined for greatness after four fruitful years under Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown at the University of Kansas.

Manning was a franchise-changer, the consensus college player of the year as he picked up Naismith, Wooden and Kodak awards during his final season in Lawrence. Grantland's Corban Goble described him as "something of a stylistic predecessor to Kevin Durant or Jabari Parker, other big forwards who could score in a lot of ways from basically anywhere."

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

But Manning was also a Clipper, and Clippers get hurt. Just 26 games into his rookie season, he did just that, tearing the ACL in his right knee. He was good at the NBA level (18.5 points per game over his first five seasons) but not quite special—no doubt the aftereffect of his injury.

He helped the Clippers to their first two playoff appearances in L.A. (1992 and 1993) but was traded for 34-year-old Dominique Wilkins midway through the 1994-95 campaign. Wilkins left as an unrestricted free agent the following offseason.

Despite having bottom-half efficiency ratings at both ends of the floor and an underwhelming 36-46 record in 1996-97, the Clippers slipped into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed. The roster was pretty forgettable (Loy Vaught led the team with 14.9 points and 10.0 rebounds), as was the postseason trip (a first-round sweep by the Utah Jazz).

It would take another nine seasons before L.A. made its next playoff appearance.

After a colossal draft day reach on Michael Olowokandi (the top pick in 1998), the Clippers slowly started figuring out the annual talent grab.

Forward Lamar Odom arrived in 1999 (No. 4), Corey Maggette and Elton Brand came via draft-day trades in 2000 and 2001, respectively, Chris Kaman landed in 2003 (No. 6) and Shaun Livingston joined the team the following year (No. 4). Bolstered by the savvy free-agent signing of Cuttino Mobley and trade for Sam Cassell, the Clippers had their first winning season in more than a decade during the 2005-06 campaign and, finally, another playoff trip.

Tom Hauck/Getty Images

A first-round upset of the third-seeded Denver Nuggets gave L.A. its first series win since 1976. But the magic ran out during a hard-fought, seven-game series with the second-seeded Phoenix Suns.

Just like that, the Clippers became the Clippers again. Livingston suffered a horrific knee injury in 2007. Brand and Maggette bolted as free agents in 2008. After winning 47 games in 2005-06, the number plummeted to 19 by the 2008-09 campaign.

By then, the basketball gods had finally seen enough. The Clippers, after decades plagued by misfortune and mismanagement, caught a badly needed break. Several of them, actually.

 

A New Reality and New Expectations

Noah Graham/Getty Images

Following a dismal 19-win 2008-09 campaign, the Clippers struck lottery gold. Not only did they snag the jackpot prize with only the third-best odds to win it, they did it during a year when a difference-maker was available: Griffin.

Still a Clipper, though, Griffin naturally missed all of what should have been his rookie season with a stress fracture in his left kneecap he suffered during training camp. Thankfully, he was worth the wait. A 22.5 points-per-game scorer in his debut season, he's since upped the ante to a career-best 24.0 points a night in 2013-14.

Paul came over by way of a trade with the then-New Orleans Hornets in 2011, with a major assist from former commissioner David Stern, who infamously vetoed a deal that would have sent Paul to the Lakers. The Clippers are 150-74 since CP3's arrival and on their way to the postseason for the third consecutive year.

Mark J. Terrill

First-year Clippers coach Doc Rivers has established new confidence, new strategies (DeAndre Jordan looks like a completely different player) and, ultimately, new expectations.

"Oh, great," Rivers said of the Clippers' division-clinching 112-108 win over the Phoenix Suns Wednesday night, via ESPN Los Angeles' Arash Markazi. "I mean it's good. It's nice."

It's parade-worthy for the Clippers of old, but nothing more than the latest sign that times have changed. That this golden age of Clippers basketball won't be defined by rare moments of regular-season relevance but rather measured in playoff success.

"Granted, the organization hasn't accomplished much, but they've put a great team together and we expect much more out of ourselves," forward Matt Barnes said, via Markazi. "Those small things like winning streaks and division titles and playoff berths don't mean much. We expect a championship."

And, by some divine intervention, the NBA's most unlucky team now has the tools to realize that dream. One of only two teams (along with the scalding-hot San Antonio Spurs) holding top-six efficiency rankings at both ends of the floor, this looks every bit like a full-fledged championship contender.

More importantly, it looks nothing like the Clippers we remember. Nothing like the ones responsible for scripting such a tragic tale that this group hopes can finally have a happy ending.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.

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