Los Angeles is home to two NBA teams, but it would be sacrilegious to suggest that they share the city. This ain’t Mets-Yankees. It’s not even Knicks Nets.
Growing up in Los Angeles, my first memory of the Clippers is as a punch line. For much of my youth, they remained a punch line, not just locally or in NBA circles, but across professional sports. Over the years, a funny thing happened to the relationship between Laker fans and the Clippers. We’ve begun to root for the Clippers. Not because we necessarily hope for or expect any success from them, but because there’s no pleasure in rooting against the hopeless.
At some point, the mockery waned, morphing into apathy before ultimately transforming into pity.
Over the past 34 years, the Clippers/Braves have posted a winning percentage of just .353 (973- 1,783), produced four .500-or-better seasons, appeared in the playoffs four times, advanced past the first round once, lost 50+ games 23 times, 60+ eight times (including a record of 12-70 in 1986-87), and managed just nine wins out of 50 games (.180 winning percentage) in the lockout-shortened 1999 season.
The last 34 years have seen the Clippers finish last in their division 15 times, while failing to capture a single division title.
Since 1976, a grand total of eight All-Star appearances have been made by a member of the Clippers/Braves- two each by Danny Manning and Elton Brand, and one apiece by Randy Smith, Norm Nixon, Marques Johnson and World B. Free
Since 1976, the franchise has drafted in the top-10 24 times, 12 times in the top four, and three times at No. 1 overall. Despite this, only once have the Clippers drafted a player who made an All-Star appearance as a Clipper: Danny Manning in 1993 and 1994.
It defies belief that the franchise born in 1970 as the Buffalo Braves managed three consecutive winning seasons, reaching the postseason on each occasion, after just three years in the NBA. They even acquitted themselves well in each of those early postseason appearances, falling in 1974 and 1976 to the eventual champion Celtics, and to the eventual Eastern Conference champion Bullets in 1975.
The Braves looked to be set up for a long run of prosperity. They’d selected MVP and scoring champ Bob McAdoo second overall in the 1972 draft, a year after stealing local collegian and future All-Star Randy Smith in the 7th round (102nd overall).
From expansion team to contender in three years. A franchise big man. Everything was going to well.
And then the sky began to fall. Meteorologists in L.A. expect it to stop any year now.
In 1976, a deal was struck between owner John Y. Brown and Celtics’ owner Irv Levin to swap franchises after the 1977-78 season. Upon the deal’s consummation in the summer of 1978, Levin immediately moved the Braves from Buffalo to San Diego and renamed them the Clippers.
The announcement of the aforementioned deal marked the beginning of an era of incompetence and misfortune that continues to this day. For over three decades, this franchise has misfired spectacularly on so many trades, draft picks and signings, if the NBA didn’t keep records of such things, it would be hard to believe.
Since 1976, the Braves/Clippers have traded away a former MVP and three-time scoring champion (McAdoo), a defending Rookie of the Year and future Hall-of-Famer (Adrian Dantley), the draft pick that would become Marques Johnson (only to overpay to acquire him in a trade seven years later), a young Terry Cummings, a young Tom Chambers and an All-Star and former #1 overall pick (Danny Manning) in exchange for half a season of Dominique Wilkins, rather than a young Glen Rice.
That’s not a comprehensive list- those are just the bad ones! For a more detailed look at the Clippers’ legacy of misfortune, check out Bill Simmons’ open letter to 2009’s first overall pick, Blake Griffin.
Okay, so this whole “trading” thing hasn’t worked out well, but the draft must have treated the Clippers better, right?
Not so much.
In 1978, as part of the franchise swap with Boston, the Braves sent Billy Knight, Nate Archibald, Marvin Barnes and a pair of draft picks to Boston. In exchange, they received Kevin Kunnert, Sidney Wicks, Kermit Washington and the eighth pick in the 1978 draft (Freeman Williams). Boston kept the sixth pick in that draft, which wound up being Larry Bird.
Quick tangent: If fans thought Clippers’ ownership sucked in the late 1970s, their socks were about to be knocked off. Following the 1980-81 season, the Clippers were sold for $12.5 million to Donald Sterling- a man who over the next three decades (and counting) would come to define both “crappy sports owner” and “racist slumlord.”
Salt of the Earth, that guy!
In 1984, with two of the top 15 picks (#’s 8 & 14 overall) in one of the deepest and most talent-laden drafts ever, the Clippers… misfired. They drafted Lancaster Gordon eighth and grabbed solid rebounder Michael Cage at #14- two picks ahead of John Stockton.
The next year, after being awarded the third overall pick in the first-ever draft lottery, the Clippers select Benoit Benjamin- who gave them a solid 13.3- 8.7 and 2.8 bpg over five seasons- over Xavier McDaniel, Chris Mullin and Detlef Schrempf.
In the summer of 1987, the Clippers acquired an extra pair of first-rounders. Good times, right? Yeah… until you select Reggie Williams one spot ahead of Scottie Pippen and grab Joe Wolf and Ken Norman at #’s 13 and 19.
In 1998, a decade after their first draft lottery win, the Clippers win the draft lottery again. However, in a talent-rich draft they pass on the likes of Mike Bibby and Vince Carter (as well as Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce and Antawn Jamison, though not really in play for the top pick) in favor of Michael Olowakandi, a robotic, big man with low basketball IQ from the University of Pacific.
And the hits just kept comin! In 2002, it was Melvin Ely over Caron Butler and Amar’e Stoudemire. In 2005, Russian teenager Yaroslav Korolev over Danny Granger.
And then there are the injuries. Oh, the injuries!
Just 10 games into the 1986-87 season, Marques Johnson- for whom the Clippers traded budding star Terry Cummings and others- ruptured a disk in his neck and never played for the franchise again.
After sending quality big man Swen Nater and the fourth pick in the 1983 draft (Byron Scott) to the Lakers in exchange for star PG Norm Nixon, the Clippers thought they’d found a quality floor general. For a while, it looked as though they might be right. However, after three solid seasons, Nixon blew out his knee and ruptured his Achilles tendon in a ~15-month span, was lost for both the 1986-87 and 1987-88 seasons and was never an effective NBA player again.
After winning the 1988 draft lottery, the Clippers selected Final Four hero Danny Manning first overall. Just 26 games into his rookie season, Manning blew out his left ACL.
In 1989, with second overall pick Danny Ferry- who openly didn’t want to play for the Clippers- threatening to play in Italy, the Clippers dealt him to Cleveland for Ron Harper and a pair of first-rounders. 28 games into the following season, Harper, and his 23 ppg, were lost to a torn ACL.
Even the franchise’s RARE upswings do not come without a hefty price. After trading for veteran PG Sam Cassell and teaming him with Elton Brand, the Clippers notched 47 wins in 2005-06, won their first playoff series in 31 years and came within a single victory of their first conference finals appearance.
In 2006-07, promising third-year PG Shaun Livingston suffered a gruesome injury that destroyed his right knee- on a breakaway dunk attempt!
The following year, the team’s star and leader, Elton Brand, blew out his Achilles and suited up in just eight games before leading the team to believe that he’d re-sign in L.A. and team up with free agent PG Baron Davis, only to bolt for Philly after Baron inked his deal with the Clippers.
Finally, there’s Blake Griffin, the Clippers’ prize for winning the 2009 draft lottery. The top in 2009, he was named Summer League MVP and excelled in the preseason. However, just days before the start of the season, it was revealed that a stress fracture in his left knee would cost Griffin his entire rookie season.
Quite the track record, huh?
With all of that said, there is actually a really strong pool of talent from which to assemble an all-time starting five. It does, however, take some work to find guys that were good enough, healthy enough and not shipped out of town prematurely.