This is a story about hate.
Not hate in the contemporary usage, in which the word is indiscriminately deployed as a cheap defense against unwelcome opinions. ("You think Kobe shoots too much? You're just a hater.")
Not hate in its purest, most lethal form, either. This is sports, not war.
This is about textbook hate: extreme disdain, profound hostility, searing resentment.
This is about the Los Angeles Clippers, a fabulously talented, fantastically entertaining group of basketball players who, despite their stardom and high-flying aesthetic appeal—or perhaps because of it—inspire an astonishing level of antipathy.
The Clippers irritate. They infuriate. They inflame. They chafe.
People hate the Clippers, and by "people," we mean everyone: players, coaches, scouts, owners, executives, scalpers, ushers, popcorn vendors. Probably the Dalai Lama, though he could not be reached for comment.
This is not a debate in NBA circles. The Clippers are not a hated team or among the most hated, one option on a multiple-choice quiz. They are the hated team.
"The most hated team by far," said a veteran NBA coach, speaking for, well, everyone.
"Something about them," said a longtime team executive. "It's just an irritant."
In this season of joy and giving, the Clippers are the lump of coal in your NBA logo socks, the hair in your eggnog.
The Clippers will be playing on Christmas night, in a nationally televised game against the Los Angeles Lakers. Forget good tidings to all. Brace for a scowl-fest that would make Heat Miser blush.
Someone will leave angry. Someone always leaves angry.
It's not that the Clippers are overtly brutish, like the Bad Boys-era Pistons. They're not off-court troublemakers, like the old Portland Jail Blazers. They don't lead the league in trash talk, though they dish out their share. They can't be hated for their playoff success—they haven't had any. This hate goes deeper.
"It's about personnel, personality and just their demeanor, how they carry themselves," said Houston Rockets veteran Jason Terry, who added cheerfully, "But it's a healthy hate."
The roots of this revulsion are varied:
The Clippers whine too much, mostly about the officiating.
"That's who they're always going to be—especially if they're losing," said Wizards forward Jared Dudley, who played for the Clippers in 2013-14.
The Clippers strut and preen too much, usually when they're up by 20 points.
"If you're that good, you shouldn't have to do all the antics," said another veteran player, who preferred to remain anonymous.
"People do not like stars that flop," said the veteran coach.
And those are the kinder criticisms. Here are some other adjectives used by rivals: dirty, arrogant, fraud. And that's just about Paul.
"It just seems like we have guys that annoy people," said Clippers guard J.J. Redick.
It's a strange thing, this Clipper hate. Coach Doc Rivers is universally liked and respected. Paul and Griffin are absurdly popular with fans and star in endearing ad campaigns. Reserves Jamal Crawford and Wesley Johnson are two of the nicest players you could meet. DeAndre Jordan created some free-agency drama in July, but no one outside of Dallas thinks he's a bad guy.
Even their harshest critics say they generally like the Clippers off the court. But on the court? Pure enmity.
The next day, SB Nation compiled a roundup titled, "A history of everyone in the NBA hating the Clippers." It had 30 entries.
"You talk too much, you never shut up." — Run-D.M.C.
If there were an advanced stat for complaining, the Clippers would lead the league. Paul would be No. 1 in True Complaining Percentage, and Griffin's Complaint Efficiency Rating would be off the charts.
Indeed, those who know best will tell you that, among players, Paul and Griffin are the two biggest complainers in the league. Rivers easily tops all coaches, which makes for a rather potent collaboration.
"When I took the job here, I remember literally hearing from a couple refs: 'Oh my God,'" Rivers told B/R. "'You're going to the team that clearly complains more than any team in the NBA by far.'"
Rivers doesn't just lobby the referees. According to a person with an up-close view, Rivers essentially "refs the game, from start to finish." This is not to say that Rivers is vicious or obnoxious or overly aggressive—just unfailingly, relentlessly vocal with his viewpoint.
"I don't bitch," Rivers insisted. "I just talk all game to the refs. Some look at it as bitching, but that's just my personality."
To be sure, every team lobbies for calls. Every team reacts with disdain at times. But in this area, the Clippers reign supreme—the archdukes of arched eyebrows, the sultans of sulk. It can wear on officials. It drives opponents crazy.
In interviews for this story, the most common complaint about the Clippers was their complaining.
"You are who you are," Dudley said. "You can try to tone it down, but they've done a poor job that way. It's kind of bitten them in the butt."
The whining can backfire. The Clippers have been hit with 146 technical fouls since Rivers' arrival in 2013-14, by far the highest total in the league, according to figures compiled by Nylon Calculus. Phoenix is a distant second, with 130. (Totals are through Dec. 16 and include only disciplinary techs, not other violations.)
Griffin has collected 32 technical fouls in that span. DeAndre Jordan, the Clippers' star center, has 19. Paul has 18.
You know you've gone too far if Reggie Miller is calling you out. Miller, a Hall of Fame guard and a notorious yapper in his own time, let loose on the Clippers last month on TNT.
"Understand the source this is coming from, which is me—the Clippers complain on just about every call in a 48-minute game," Miller said during the broadcast of the Clippers' 118-104 loss to Phoenix. "There's not a call that [goes by]...that the Clippers do not complain on."
At the time, the Clippers were protesting a call against Pablo Prigioni. Moments later, Griffin was ejected for his second technical foul. On Dec. 16, the scene repeated, with center DeAndre Jordan getting ejected for two techs in a victory over Milwaukee.
"They don't think they ever foul, and they think they always are fouled," said former referee Steve Javie, who retired in 2011 but remains close to the game.
From a referee's perspective, the Clippers are a team "you don't want to see at the end of a road trip," Javie said. "You're tired, and 'Oh, I don't want to listen to them.'"
Although Rivers complains (and cajoles and chastises) more than any other coach, his tech count—18 since 2013—ranks just fourth, behind Gregg Popovich (21), Tom Thibodeau (20) and Frank Vogel (20).
But make no mistake—Rivers gripes on a Hall of Fame level. More than one person interviewed for this story said he's surpassed Larry Brown as the biggest kvetcher of the modern era.
There's a method to this rhetorical madness, said Brian Scalabrine, who played for Rivers in Boston.
"I think it helps them get calls," said Scalabrine, now a Celtics broadcaster (side note: Javie disagrees). "But the other thing—I think it motivates them, it gets them fired up. I think they have the me-against-the-world mentality, and it includes the officials."
Here's the really devious part: It also sucks in the opponent.
Since 2013, Clipper opponents have been whistled for 110 techs (per Nylon Calculus), the most in the league.
It's all part of the Rivers playbook, Scalabrine explained: "If the other team hates his team, he doesn't have to motivate his team."
On this point, Rivers demurs. With a smile.
"I'm not going to claim that, because I'm just not going to," he said. "But it doesn't hurt us, I'll put it that way. Being hated is not all bad, at all. Let me just say, it's not a bad place to be."
"Acting is happy agony." — Jean-Paul Sartre
Blake Griffin is 6'10" and 251 pounds of taut muscle and kinetic energy. He had made a career of leaping over other tall men, turning them into props in an ongoing dunk contest against the world.
Griffin is also frightfully strong, and he puts that muscle to good use—banging, slamming and barreling through opponents to become a scoring machine. In the NBA, this is called "being physical," and it's expected of the great big men.
The problem comes at the other end, when Griffin is on defense. There, the slightest bump might send him flailing, his head snapping back as if he'd just been punched by a ghost.
Or, as Dudley, the former Clipper, said, "It looks like he's been shot."
This is what aggravates rivals—the preposterous contrast between Griffin the scorer, who steamrolls defenders, and Griffin the flopper, who looks like he has rubber in his joints.
"It's tough, because then when you go back at him, and he's flopping he's going to get a lot of calls," said the veteran player, who nevertheless notes, "I think Blake's a great guy off the court."
The Clippers offer a counterpoint: that Griffin, despite appearances, is actually the victim more often than the aggressor. Team officials insist his immense strength actually works against him, because he can absorb the hard blows, making it tougher for officials to see the foul.
To their point: Griffin has been awarded the second-fewest free throws per game this season, among players averaging at least 30 minutes and 23 points. And that point is hard to miss, because the Clippers put it in their nightly game notes packet.
"Blake gets fouled more than any player in the league," Rivers said. "So, anyone wants to show me the flop, I'll show you 10 fouls that he didn't get calls on."
Chris Paul is 6'0", 175 pounds, with vertigo-inducing quickness, Tom Brady-esque passing skills and a soaring IQ. He has been the league's best point guard for most of his career. And he is a master in basketball's dark arts.
Paul grabs and clutches, pokes and jostles, duping opponents into fouls, retaliatory strikes and generalized rage. YouTube offers multiple clips of Paul striking opponents in the groin. He's also been known to slap opponents during a jump ball, when everyone is focused on the ball.
"He gets shots in when refs' heads are turned," said a Western Conference scout. "He's not the worst guy in the league, but he's not the choir boy that the media loves him to be."
Redick understands. As an opponent, he saw some of the same things: the "incessant yapping," the veteran tricks.
"Before I played with CP, I didn't like CP. He didn't like me," Redick said. "But then you become teammates with a guy and you end up loving him."
This is the essential Clipper conundrum—the divide between image and actions. Paul is an All-Star and a statesman, the president of the players union and State Farm's most famous pitchman. Griffin is a showman and a charmer, with a wicked-wry sense of humor that he puts to brilliant use in those ubiquitous Kia commercials.
The Clippers' stars seem so nice…when they aren't smacking you in the head.
"He kind of does the Boy Scout thing," the veteran player said of Paul, "and then will be the one to trip you as you're going by. And then, like, flop."
Rivers considers all of this and declares, "CP's just smart, he ain't dirty. If CP's dirty, so is John Stockton."
Of course, Stockton was also branded dirty in his time.
"Exactly," Rivers said. "Because he was smart. CP is a clever, smart player. Dirty to me means you're trying to hurt someone. And CP would never try to hurt anyone. Is he clever? Yes. And if people have a problem with that, then they've got to get over it."
The list of alleged offenses is relayed to Paul after a recent game. He meets the indictment with a steely stare that somehow conveys both indifference and contempt.
"I don't play for anybody to like me," Paul told B/R. "I'm telling you, I got enough friends, you know what I mean?"
"Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering." — Yoda
Clipper hate is a new phenomenon. For decades, they were too inept to elicit anything other than pity.
A controversial trade delivered Paul in 2011, Paul started flinging alley-oops, and the Clippers were reborn as a perpetual highlight machine with a cute nickname: Lob City.
Rims rattled. Fans swooned. "Finally, it's hip to be a Clip," Sports Illustrated declared in January 2012. They were the darlings of the league.
Two years later, in the midst of the playoffs, the Clippers were rattled by owner Donald Sterling's racist ramblings. The players stood united, spoke their minds and earned widespread respect and praise for their resilience.
They pushed through the controversy, beat the Golden State Warriors in a tough seven-game series and earned a new nickname: "America's Team." The Clippers were downright beloved.
"We were poised to be kind of a fan favorite, post-Donald Sterling," Redick said.
Their popularity, like their playoff success, proved fleeting. The Clippers collapsed in the next round, a six-game loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder that turned on a handful of late-game errors.
Last spring, the Clippers gagged again, taking a 3-1 lead over the Houston Rockets and then losing three straight games.
"Epic collapses," Redick said. "And people just pile onto it."
In truth, people were waiting for it. The schadenfreude was already cued up.
For two years, the league watched Griffin dunk and glower, watched Jordan dunk and bellow, watched Paul scowl, watched the Clippers preen and strut, one alley-oop after another. It grew tiresome.
"I respect the (heck) out of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin," the veteran player said. "It's just the manner in which they go about it. If you're that good, you shouldn't have to do all the antics."
"Antics" is a word that comes up often in these Clipper discussions. "Front-runners" is another. No one likes a team celebrating dunks in a blowout.
"They're fun to watch," said Houston's Corey Brewer. "But it can rub you the wrong way."
"The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference." — Elie Wiesel
Sometimes, you wonder if even the Clippers like the Clippers.
There have always been rumors of unease in the Paul-Griffin relationship and, more recently, of a rift between Paul and Jordan.
Paul is notorious for chastising teammates on the court. Often, it's Jordan.
The Clippers are frequently seen barking at each other on the court, and sometimes in the locker room. Last month, forward Josh Smith screamed at a Clippers assistant coach.
Even the Clippers' transactions rankle people.
Last season, Rivers invited charges of nepotism when he went to great lengths to acquire his son, Austin, a lightly regarded end-of-bench player at the time.
Last summer, the Clippers parted with one polarizing character (Matt Barnes) and replaced him with another (Lance Stephenson). They also signed Paul Pierce, a respected champion who is also an all-time king of trash talk.
Then there is Redick. Redick played for Duke, and of course, no one likes Duke. (Also, Terry said Redick is a stealth trash-talker, though Redick vehemently denies it.)
Also, the Clippers play in Los Angeles, and it's easy to resent the Hollywood glow.
It's as if this team was designed to provoke ill feelings.
"I think it's worked in our favor, because they're talking about us," Jordan said with a gentle laugh.
Yet Jordan looks around and sees a locker room of great players and solid citizens. Flawed? Perhaps. Irritating at times? Sure. But despised?
"I don't know why we're the villains," Jordan said. "We haven't won s--t, so I don't know why."
No, the Clippers have never been champions. But their reign as the NBA's Most Hated Team endures—the one title they won't surrender.
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.