Prior to Game 7 of the first-round series between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Golden State Warriors, Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher pondered the potential repercussions that a loss might have for the West's third seed, particularly with regard to head coach Doc Rivers and superstar point guard Chris Paul:
While their union has barely begun, the patience for allowing championship aspirations to mature with the same core is growing ever shorter, largely because of a far more punitive salary cap. The Clippers are slightly over the luxury-tax threshold for this season and only a couple of million dollars below next year's projected numbers.
The limbo in which the team's ownership could be placed by Donald Sterling's proposed banishment poses an interesting dilemma: What if the team's ability to spend or make moves is suspended while attempts are made to get him to sell? Other teams, most recently the Detroit Pistons, have suffered mightily thanks to the need to maintain a status quo because of the 'for sale' sign in their front yard.
Of course, the Clippers won't have to consider such disconcerting consequences—not yet, anyway. A 126-121 win over the Warriors in that seventh game at Staples Center assured them of as much. L.A.'s 122-105 flaying of the Oklahoma City Thunder suggested that Paul, Rivers and the rest of the Clippers might have to postpone their offseason vacation plans awhile.
Now, it's not so much a matter of planning for the worst as it is of striving for the best for the Clippers. They're playing every bit like the title contender for which they were pegged when Rivers first came to L.A.
And they couldn't have picked a better time to do so.
The points at which Bucher hinted (i.e. salary-cap considerations, the Donald Sterling controversy) are certainly part of the equation. Yes, having a payroll that's due to butt up against the luxury-tax line is far from ideal.
But it's not as though the Clippers have any holes on their roster that are so massive as to require serious spending intervention. So far, they've managed to scrape by (and then some) while squeezing Weekend at Bernie's-esque performances out of the likes of Hedo Turkoglu, Danny Granger and Glen Davis in their respective roles as a small-ball "4," a floor stretcher and a backup big.
Surely, the appeal of playing for Rivers on a championship-caliber club in Tinseltown will attract even slightly more lively options via free agency this summer.
And yes, the fallout from Sterling's pending ouster could hamstring Rivers' efforts to do so. Any directive from those put in charge to cut corners ahead of a potential sale could undercut whatever progress the Clippers have made toward that first, elusive Larry O'Brien Trophy. The potential legal proceedings alone would be distraction enough for the entire organization.
But this crisis, like any crisis, has afforded the Clippers a unique opportunity as a franchise. Where once the team's postseason push would've barely registered on the Richter scale in earthquake-conscious Southern California, it's now become a matter of national intrigue, "thanks" to Sterling's comments and the speed with which they scorched the media landscape far and wide.
As Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding put it, these Clippers have become America's team. It's all the more important then, if these red, white and blue-clad "underdogs" battle back from such unprecedented off-court adversity—handled so masterfully by Rivers—to achieve the organization's first trip to the Western Conference Finals.
This team has never had such a golden opportunity to establish its brand on such a large scale, to go from the Los Angeles Lakers' runty stepbrother to a team recognized and revered from sea to shining sea.
And, with the Lakers mired in a swampy valley between their innumerable historical peaks, the Clippers could stand to gain some ground in their own backyard as well. Come May 20, the Clippers could still be fighting for their playoff lives while the Lakers nervously await their fate in the 2014 NBA draft lottery.
It could be some time before the Lakers are equipped to compete with the Clippers, both head-to-head and across the larger basketball landscape. There's no telling what the team will get out of Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash next season, much less with whom they would play, via the draft or free agency.
Or even who might stalk the sidelines as Mike D'Antoni's successor.
Folks in Lakerland would certainly celebrate if the Purple and Gold landed the No. 1 pick, but can you imagine how much bigger and more boisterous a Clippers coronation down Figueroa Street would be? L.A. sports fans flock to winners—often to the snarky chagrin of diehards in other cities—and would figure to do the same for the Clippers if they brought home some serious hardware in June.
Even those fans who've long detested the Clippers for their ties to the despicable Sterling might offer some applause, assuming the slumlord himself is properly stripped of ownership.
Will the Clippers ever be as popular as the Lakers?
Not to mention how the Clippers reaching their apex at the exact moment of the Lakers' nadir would embolden the former's long-suffering faithful to assert themselves, if not siphon off new members from their neighbors.
In truth, the Clippers won't be able to usurp the Lakers' preferred position, neither locally or nationally, with just one triumphant playoff run. After all, the Lakers are the NBA's glamour franchise, with a legacy of excellence that began long before they won the first of their 11 L.A.-based championships.
That doesn't mean, though, that the Clippers can't chip away at the Lakers' established advantage—and make a few (hundred million) extra bucks on their next TV deal as a result. That doesn't mean the Clippers can't expand their footprint to one more befitting a major-market franchise peddling an exciting, high-quality product.
But doing so will require more than a brief flash of brilliance. Rather, it'll demand a stretch of sustained excellence, of relevance beyond the "bigger than sports" headlines and network news stories and sit-down interviews with Barbara Walters.
To that end, some concern about the Clippers is warranted. They have Blake Griffin under contract until 2018, sure, but he's already at particular risk of winding up in harm's way. He's a big, strong guy whose game is predicated on physicality and flying through the air—a style that's dangerous in and of itself, but that only grows in that regard when considering the beatings he absorbs on a nightly basis from his jealous peers.
Chris Paul's deal runs as long as Griffin's does, with even more injury risk attached. Paul has dealt with his fair share of knee problems, dating back to his playing days in New Orleans. He's been plagued this season by shoulder, ankle and hamstring issues as well. At his age (29) and his size (generously listed at six feet), at his primary position, he's not likely to be done any favors by his own body from here on out.
The same goes for Jamal Crawford, who, at 34, may soon find that this Sixth Man of the Year-worthy season was the last of his peak and that a decline in his skills and physical abilities is on the horizon. That could come before DeAndre Jordan, an All-Star-in-the-making, re-enters free agency in 2015. Who knows if the Clippers will have the requisite resources to retain him by then, or if he'll want to explore other options around the NBA?
The Clippers can't count on contending forever. If the mighty Lakers, with all of their past successes, can't dodge the occasional dip, how could the Clippers, with their legacy of curses and calamities, expect to do so? And what might a messy legal battle with the litigious Sterling do to hasten an all-too-rapid return to on-court mediocrity?
These are all legitimate concerns, but none can be addressed by the team in any meaningful capacity right now. At this point, all the Clippers can do is focus on the task at hand and make the most of the opportunity in front of them before it vanishes into thin air.
"You feel like you're always going to be back there, and that's not the case," Paul told The New York Times' Billy Witz. "The team here, I think, is a special team. Not only do we have a good team, but also it's fun to be around each other."
It's a special team, indeed, one that's well on its way to flipping all the nasty negatives with which it's been faced into fuel for more positive, franchise-changing pursuits.
To strengthen its foothold in L.A. To become one of the NBA's marquee franchises. To write for itself a new history, devoid of the disappointment and disgust spurred on by Sterling but not without acknowledgement of the team's tragic roots.
Wins in Game 7 against Golden State and Game 1 in Oklahoma City demonstrated the Clippers' capacity to carpe this particular diem. The more they win, the further they'll separate themselves from their dark and tortured past.
And the brighter their future will ultimately be.
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