Los Angeles Clippers' Biggest Test Has Yet to Come

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Los Angeles Clippers' Biggest Test Has Yet to Come
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In the most unfortunate way possible, the Los Angeles Clippers haven't seen, faced or overcome anything yet.

One audiotape has changed everything for these Clippers, championship seekers who must now brave adverse conditions with lasting repercussions.

All of this is on Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who was (allegedly) captured on tape making wildly racist, despicably savage remarks. The recording was first released by TMZ, while an extended version was eventually obtained by Deadspin. Both pieces of audio seem to confirm what we already know: Sterling is an unrepentant bigot. 

Calls for the NBA and its owners to act have since dominated headlines. Commissioner Adam Silver has already addressed the issue publicly and the NBA is scheduled to hold a press conference Tuesday, ahead of Game 5 between the Clippers and Golden State Warriors, per USA TodayAdditional details pertaining to its investigation are expected to be provided.

Sadly, this is just the beginning. 

Whatever punishment Sterling receives—assuming he is (finally) reprimanded—doesn't solve anything. Suspensions and fines do nothing. The consequences will never fit the crime. Even if they did, and by some miraculous act of justice Sterling was forced out of power, there is no purging the team of this cancer overnight.

There isn't an immediate solution capable of righting this vile wrong. And while that's all on Sterling, it's the Clippers players, coaches and fans who must now withstand what comes next.

 

The Uncertainty of Game 5

Danny Moloshok

Game 4 went just as we should have expected. 

The Clippers lost. Badly. Chris Paul battled foul trouble, DeAndre Jordan was a non-factor and their usual harmonious, free-flowing—yet structured—offensive sets were replaced with inchoate possessions underscored by abrupt three-point attempts.

Credit the Warriors with making necessary adjustments. Head coach Mark Jackson re-implemented the same small-ball philosophy that carried Golden State out of the first round last year. Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes were more active on offense and the increased space and support left Stephen Curry more room to operate.

Yet by all appearances, the Clippers were distracted. They walked onto the floor as one, symbolically placing their warmups on the timeline. But their on-court unification ended there.

Afterward, Paul acknowledged that Game 5 poses a more difficult task. Not for the prospect of going down 3-2 and facing elimination in Game 6, but because of the uncertain atmosphere that awaits.

Tuesday will be the first time these Clippers face their fans since Sterling's purported closed-door comments went public. Not even Paul knows what to expect at Staples Center, per the Los Angeles Daily News' Mark Medina

I would by lying if I said I wasn’t nervous about what it is going to be like because our fans have been amazing all season long and, obviously, I hope that it will be the same. You just never know. They’ve been amazing, and we wouldn’t be where we are without them. But it’s tough.

One would hope the fans are able to differentiate between what the Clippers are trying to do and Sterling's reported intolerance. Booing the players won't change a thing. They, like their fans, are the victims of primitive and unacceptable barbarism. 

But while a shared enemy should make it easier for the Clippers and their fans to find common ground, Game 5 is about more than the relationship between players and supporters.

If the Clippers fail to hold home court, they're suddenly down 3-2, facing elimination in Game 6. Everything they've worked for will be in danger of falling out of reach. And if it happens, it won't matter why or how it happened.

Sterling will be at the center of it all. The Clippers will be the contender he found some way to ruin. They will be the team that perished in the wake of its small-minded, habitually slant owner. 

How will they respond knowing their home court is no longer a sanctuary?

At this point, we don't quite know.

 

Future Losses

Rocky Widner/Getty Images

The consequences of Sterling's reported words don't end with the NBA's disciplinary action, nor will they come to pass after Los Angeles' postseason crusade, whenever it ends.

This is going to stick with the franchise. It's a black mark on an organization that was, until recently, beset by an inferiority complex. Gradually, they have scrubbed themselves clean of the stain that came with being second-best in a town of two. Slowly but surely, they overcame the obstacles Sterling's past penny-pinching and potentially racially charged transgressions imposed. 

Now they're here, being forced to the labor through a more oppressive version of the latter.

The Clippers aren't going to be a free-agency or superstar hotspot anymore. Not while Sterling is in power. They will be fortunate to retain their current personnel.

When asked whether he would be back coaching the Clippers in 2014-15—if Sterling was still in charge—Rivers was non-committal in his response.

"Don’t know yet," he said, per ESPN’s Marc Stein. "And I’m just (going) to leave it at that."

Rest assured, we're doing a lot of between-the-lines reading, but losing Rivers is a distinct possibility. He of all people won't want to be in the employ of a mulish racist, as the Detroit News' Vincent Goodwill points out:

One thing is for certain: Rivers didn't sound like he was convinced he would still be coaching the Clippers next season. He rightfully didn't look like someone who wanted to do anything for Sterling. And if he goes, he won't be the only one.

Rivers was part of the Clippers' sales pitch to Paul this past summer. Part of the reason he is still in a Clippers uniform is Rivers. Should Rivers opt to leave, certain players will follow suit. Those who aren't free agents may demand trades, while those who are will run. 

Those who were once interested in playing for the Clippers won't even give them a cursory glance. 

On the subject of free agents showing interest in the Clippers, the Miami Heat's Ray Allen told Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick that both prospective and current players won't be chomping at the bit to play for Sterling:

Yes. But what do Clippers players do now, how do they feel? It's a tough situation for those players, because I would have real mixed feelings about who I'm playing for now. If that's how he feels about us in this locker room. This guy is signing their paychecks. And he doesn't respect them. By saying what he says, he doesn't respect his own players. Doc Rivers is the coach. What do you really feel about (him)? What are you saying? Your whole coaching staff is minority. It's a terrible situation.

It's a terrible situation that's only going to get worse.

The Clippers are already losing sponsorships left and right, according USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt and CNBC's Ryan Ruggiero:

Once a team loses marketability, individual player appeal plummets with it. Corporate sponsors won't readily associate with players who sport Clippers red no matter who they are. It will be bad press, and potentially damaging to their image.

Beyond everything and everyone, though, is Sterling, who (apparently) considers his players to be property and the byproduct of his individual superiority. He still issues the paychecks. Every time Paul, Rivers, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and everyone else gets paid, it will be by Sterling's hand and signature. 

Radicals will see that as a form of empowerment. Players and coaches will still be under Sterling's control. They will be enabling the status and success of someone so deeply irrational, his latest verbal assault isn't even close to atypical.

What player, by way of free agency or trade, will want to play for a team enveloped in such controversy? What current Clipper will want to play under those circumstances? Who in their right mind would want to coach this team?

We'll soon find out.

 

The Difficulty of Moving Forward

Moving forward with Sterling isn't an option for the Clippers. It won't happen.

As long as he is still the team's owner, the Clippers name will forever be sullied by Sterling's unprecedented ignorance.  

"Maybe our focus wasn't in the right place," J.J. Redick said following Game 4, per the Los Angeles Times' Bill Plaschke. "That's the easiest way to say it."

Distracted. Disheartened. Disgusted. Confused. 

Players and coaches are undoubtedly experiencing a wide range of complex emotions that won't soon vanish unless Sterling is removed from the Clippers entirely. He has to go. Forget the fines, the suspensions and the public backlash. None of it's enough. The only way moving forward becomes a possibility is if Sterling ceased to be attached to this franchise.

But like most necessary things, that's not as easy as it looks.

Forcing Sterling to relinquish ownership would take time and extensive litigation. Per Stein, there may not even be grounds for the NBA to make it happen:

This is the predicament the Clippers find themselves in. They can't move on or find closure with Sterling, and they may not have the means to banish him entirely. They could be stranded, stuck in a rut that lasts years and costs them players, coaches and everything they have built in spite of Sterling.

"Yeah, I believe he said those things," Rivers said of Sterling, per the Mercury News' Tim Kawakami.

You better believe the Clippers will now have to pay for those things Sterling is accused of saying. After making inroads from top to bottom, their progress may be wiped clean by one man, and it will be up to remaining figureheads to pick up the pieces and salvage what's left.

None of that's possible immediately. It won't happen instantaneously.

Sterling's alleged words were just the beginning. 

The next part of this process will test the Clippers' resolve into this summer, next season and beyond. It demands they overcome a series of obstacles they should never have to face. It puts their present and future plans in jeopardy of rotting into something they shouldn't.

What follows will either be remembered as one of the most resilient triumphs in all of sports, or one of the most tragic undoings we will ever see.

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