LOS ANGELES — That first part, the fumigation, was executed swiftly and virtuously.
For Donald Sterling and all of his droppings to have been swept up by Adam Silver, Steve Ballmer and Co., in time for the Los Angeles Clippers to dive into the 2014-15 NBA season was exceptional cleanup work.
“I didn’t think there was any way, at least midsummer, that we would be done with all the stuff,” said Doc Rivers, Clippers coach and president of basketball operations, in the hours before his team played its first game.
In the moments after his team had sluggishly won that first game (93-90 against the Oklahoma City Thunder) on Oct. 30, it was still sunny. Even the ending for Shelly Sterling looked as happy as anyone’s, her rising from the midcourt courtside seat that is better than Ballmer’s and lingering for waves and hugs from longtime Clippers fans offering air kisses for how she helped leave her husband behind.
The transfer of the franchise has been a grand success, no doubt.
To be determined is how to define this grand success:
Is it a means or an end?
It’s good, it’s better and it’s right…but it’s also one of the greatest opportunities any group of people in sports has ever had to capitalize. Dethroning a despot is momentous, but it is just a battle within a war. The Clippers have momentum now to change all their fortunes, not just their face.
And that’s why it has been jarring how little the Clippers have seized the day.
They’re 4-2, certainly no disaster, but it has come against a light schedule, and even the victories have been bland after a preseason that was completely blah. The next challenge comes Monday night against the defending NBA champion San Antonio Spurs.
That old Lob City energy has been lacking, with the Clippers’ offense dragging through time-killing, go-nowhere passes before devolving into individual moves. The defensive rotations that are supposed to graduate to advanced execution in Rivers’ second season have been disjointed and downright bad.
Rivers has prodded Chris Paul to run the ball up the court, as rudimentary as that sounds, in order to boost the Clippers’ lagging energy.
There is surprisingly little joy in Clippers basketball, and if that doesn’t change, it will mean these guys ultimately are OK with surviving what they’ve survived…and not grabbing hold of so much more.
“I want us to be able to inspire,” Ballmer said Saturday upon introducing Gillian Zucker, his new president of business operations and the only top female executive in American pro sports besides Los Angeles Lakers part-owner and president Jeanie Buss.
Ballmer has put in new 3-D on-court imaging to jazz up the Clippers’ player introductions at Staples Center, melded fan interaction and analytics into the in-arena experience and even chased noted Clippers fan Billy Crystal halfway around Staples to welcome him to this new era, personally.
Ballmer isn’t about to go apply pressure on or offer ultimatums to these players he just met, but he knows there’s only so much he can do. He is bringing an influx of both dollars and sense to this organization, yes, and that simply isn’t enough.
“Sports is a funny and fickle thing,” Ballmer said. “It starts with doing a great job on the court.”
Paul’s numbers, including an insane 63-to-5 assist-to-turnover ratio, are again very good. But he has been unable to convey Rivers’ primary message—to embrace the long journey and small steps of this season—quite possibly because he would like to fast-forward to the final act. It has become common knowledge that Paul wears down over the course of that long journey and has proved nothing about getting teammates to follow him in winning playoff games.
The absence of a dependable wing player already looks like a backbreaker long before Western Conference playoff challenges come again from the likes of Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson and James Harden. Rivers’ former Boston Celtics champion Paul Pierce was a logical fit at small forward, but Rivers prioritized signing Spencer Hawes as a floor-spreading big-man complement to Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.
Hawes has been lackluster with so little team action in the offense. Small forwards Matt Barnes and Chris Douglas-Roberts have been busts so far. Rivers resorted to starting last season’s NBA Sixth Man of the Year, Jamal Crawford, with Paul and J.J. Redick in the Clippers’ most recent game, a 106-102 Saturday win over the Portland Trail Blazers. (Crawford and his mild defense were promptly burned time after time by the Blazers' weak-side pull-in plays in the first half.)
Maybe something or someone unexpected can emerge—true defensive dependability from Griffin or youngster Reggie Bullock blossoming into an answer at small forward. So far, though, for all that is different atop the Clippers’ hierarchy and as often as Griffin is now sinking jumpers, too much feels the same. It’s ironic, but with the vibrant Ballmer around, the Clippers really need to find some fresh juice.
On Saturday, Glen “Big Baby” Davis was the one to provide it, doing the dirty work and creating quite a scene after drawing a fourth-quarter charge from Damian Lillard. Griffin, fighting through a stomach virus, inadvertently fell on top of the already fallen and heavyset Davis, who promptly involved Griffin in the celebration with a series of manic bearhugs.
Rivers’ reaction: “I’m glad Blake was on top.”
It was the sort of extra energy and unapologetic fun that stands out when so many guys are going through the motions and the only laughs are coming from prerecorded Jordan Brand commercials by Griffin and Paul.
And therein lies the concern: This Clippers season won’t be nearly as good as the stuff that was accomplished before it.
Ballmer has done his part. He stepped into the void and stepped up in a big way.
Perhaps he cleaned up too well, begetting a sense of complacency.
They are still the Clippers, who’ve never won a title or even been out of the second round, and there is still someplace greater to take this story.
Yet after moral outrage over unacceptable work conditions, human nature isn’t to stay all worked up about a clean kitchen.
Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.