A Joke No More, the Clippers Aim to Be Something That Other L.A. Team Is Not

Howard Beck@@HowardBeckNBA Senior WriterNovember 8, 2018

FILE - In this April 20, 2016, file photo, Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer cheers during Game 2 of the team's first-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Portland Trail Blazers in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Clippers are donating $10 million to renovate hundreds of public basketball courts across the city. Ballmer and his wife, Connie, announced the gift to the Los Angeles Parks Foundation on Monday, April 2, 2018. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)

LOS ANGELES  Steve Ballmer is yelling at me.

No, that isn't quite right. Steve Ballmer is yelling toward me. Though, really, he isn't so much yelling as he is boisterously beseeching, imploring, urging, persuading. His volume rises in proportion to his enthusiasm. And his enthusiasm is boundless.

Perhaps you've seen it before: Ballmer wildly hyping up fans of the Los Angeles Clippers, the team he's owned since 2014. Boogying to Fergie at a home game. Skipping and whooping and chanting like a motivational speaker in his former gig as CEO of Microsoft: "Developers! Developers! Developers!

The man is excitable, especially when discussing his greatest passions. Right now that passion is the Clippers. And he's just been asked an important question—perhaps the most critical questionabout his team's fortunes.

Next summer, the Clippers will have the means to sign not one but two superstars. Kevin Durant will be available. So will Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler, and perhaps Kyrie Irving. A half-dozen other stars will join them in one of the glitziest free-agent markets of all time.

No superstar free agent has ever chosen the Clippers. But few stars ever had that chance. For decades, the Clippers didn't even ask. But that was thenanother time, another owner, another reality. Everything has changed.

This edition of the Clippers just completed the best five-year run in franchise history, dazzling fans with a vibrant, high-flying brand of basketball. Only the Warriors and Spurs won more games from 2012-13 through 2016-17. The Clippers of today compete. They thrive. They spend. They demand your attention and respect.

But the All-Stars who fueled that run are goneChris Paul to Houston, Blake Griffin to Detroit, DeAndre Jordan to Dallasleaving the Clippers with a blank canvas, a clear payroll and a chance to perhaps build something even greater when free agency opens next July. Thus, I asked Ballmer on a recent October evening: What's your pitch?

His answer starts before the question ends, and it's shot squarely at me. Suddenly, I am Kevin Durant. I am Kawhi Leonard.

"You wanna have a legacy?" Ballmer asks pointedly. "You wanna really say you were involved in doing something super special? You come here," he says, his volume and intensity quickly rising. "You be in L.A., the greatest market in the world, and you show people: 'I'm the guy! I went to a franchise who'd never been there! I'm the guy! I made it happen! I get a legacy!'" 

Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan formed the core of the Clippers' Lob City era, which saw the team win a lot of games but fall short in the playoffs year after year.
Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan formed the core of the Clippers' Lob City era, which saw the team win a lot of games but fall short in the playoffs year after year.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Every "I" is more emphatic than the one before it, each vocalized with a slight growl, the exclamation points multiplying as he goes, his words delivered with an evangelical fervor.

This modest bunker suite, where we've met before a preseason game at Staples Center, can hardly contain Ballmer's energy and optimism. During the course of the conversation, Ballmer will at various points clap his hands, pump his fist, pump both fists, pound the table and exclaim so excitedly that you don't know whether to present the quotes in bold, italics, all caps or all of the above.

By the time Ballmer's sermon is over, the listener is practically looking for a contract to sign. Who wouldn't want to live here, play here, win here?

You wanna have a legacy? You wanna really say you were involved in doing something super-special? You come here. You be in L.A., the greatest market in the world, and you show people: 'I'm the guy! I went to a franchise who'd never been there! I'm the guy! I made it happen! I get a legacy!
— Clippers owner Steve Ballmer

That's a question with more than one answer. There's another team down the hall, one with 16 championships and a glorious past. One that just signed LeBron James, the greatest player of his generation. That team will have salary-cap room next summer, too.

The Lakers? Yes, the Clippers are aware of them. But they are damned determined to carve out their own niche in this sprawling city of 13 million, which for three-plus decades has mostly regarded the Clippers as an afterthought.

They have a vision: a gritty, blue-collar team that appeals to the region's vast working class, in contrast to the Lakers' glitz-and-glamour image.

They have the resources: With a net worth of $42 billion, Ballmer is the wealthiest owner in North American professional sports. Lately, he's been using that wealth to bulk up the Clippers' front office and medical staff.

They have a plan: use their potential $70 million in salary-cap room to lure two max players next summer and create an instant contender.

And they have Ballmer himself: a rally-leading, frank-talking, marketing-savvy basketball nerd whose own rise to prominence from modest beginnings easily resonates with pro athletes.

Players notice these things. Including the four-time MVP who now resides down the hall.

"I think an owner who cares about his players and will do anything for his players to succeed, players gravitate towards that," James says. Though he doesn't know Ballmer personally, James says, "Guys relate to people who care about their franchise, want to see their players be great and are excited to be at the game just as much as the players."

It takes more than passion to build a winner in the NBA, but it's a good place to start. It attracts more of the same.

Last year, the Clippers hired Jerry West, the most respected team executive in modern history, as a consultant. They snared two rising young team execsTrent Redden (a top assistant to David Griffin in Cleveland) and Michael Winger (who worked with Sam Presti in Oklahoma City)to bolster the front office, along with the highly regarded Mark Hughes (New York).

This is, without hyperbole, an unprecedented moment in franchise historywith an engaged, fiercely competitive owner at the helm, a whip-smart front office, a championship-winning coach (Doc Rivers), an image buoyed by their recent success and, oh yes, all of that cap room.

There are no guarantees, of course. And the competition for marquee stars will be intense, with both New York franchises and both L.A. teams hoarding cap room for next summer. Some stars may stay put. Some teams will be left empty-handed. And yet Ballmer's crew is supremely confident.

No, the Clippers have never been a superstar destination. But this version of the Clippers didn't exist until now.

"You're gonna love this team," Rivers says into a microphone, his gravelly voice booming through USC's Galen Center. "Like, you're gonna love these guys."

His audience is a group of season-ticket holders who are attending an open practice in early October. Clippers fans may need a little more coaxing now, and possibly a handy photo guide to the roster, amid this transitional stage.

For five years, they were treated to 50-win seasons, automatic playoff appearances and an endless string of electrifying alley-oopsPaul to Griffin, Griffin to Jordan, Jordan to Griffin. Lob City, they called it. The Clips never did make it to the Western Conference Finals, but few teams were more thrilling to watch.

The era effectively ended when the Clippers traded Paul to the Rockets in June 2017. They promptly re-signed Griffin to a five-year, $171 million deal, but they changed course six months later, trading Griffin to the Pistons in a deal that netted them Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovic and two draft picks. Jordan was the last to exit, joining the Mavericks this past offseason as a free agent.

What remains is a collection of sturdy veterans ranging from good (Bradley, Pat Beverley) to very good (Harris, Lou Williams, Danilo Gallinari), but without a foundational star. The hope is that promising rookie point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexanderindirectly acquired with one of the Detroit picksgrows into a leading role.

For now, the plan is to rely on depth, hustle and defense, spawning a hopeful (if not quite catchy) new nickname: Clamp City.

"I think we're a grittier team," Beverley says. "We're a hungry team. We're a thirsty team. We're a team."

Their goal is a playoff berth, as unlikely as it may be. There's a touch of defiance in the air.

The Clippers backed up the bold talk in the opening days of the season, beating the Thunder by 16 points and taking down the Rockets twice. They lost their rematch with Oklahoma City, but they hammered home their feisty new demeanor when Beverley undercut Russell Westbrook and touched off a jawing match.

Winning 50-plus games a year was fun, sure, but having the chance to reshape the style and image of this team is, in Ballmer's words, "double fun."

Every hard-fought victory now brings an added benefit, a subtle sales pitch to next year's free-agent class.

"If you want to come here, we'd love to have you," Beverley says. "If not, then we beat the s--t out of you."

The underdog sensibility suits the Clippers, playing as they have in the Lakers' shadow for all these years. It's even embedded in their marketing slogan, "L.A. Our Way," which puts a little space between them and that other NBA team.

Minus an unquestioned superstar, the Clippers have tried to evolve into a gritty, defensive-minded club that can easily fit around an elite free agent or two.
Minus an unquestioned superstar, the Clippers have tried to evolve into a gritty, defensive-minded club that can easily fit around an elite free agent or two.Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

"If we're gonna get the kind of guys we want in free agency, people have to know what we stand for," Ballmer says. He adds, "I want us to be playing defense. I want us to be resilient."

Here, Ballmer plays up the Clippers' underdog image, believing it's what draws a certain brand of Angelenos to his team.

If you want to come here, we'd love to have you. If not, then we beat the s--t out of you.
—Clippers guard Patrick Beverley

"Our fans will say, 'We're with you. We've been with you through much worse,'" Ballmer says, and suddenly his mouth tenses, his face contorts and his fists start to pump again. His voice becomes a growl as he channels the ethos of a Clippers fan: "We're diehards! We're loyalists! We're passionate!'"

The room seems to vibrate a bit.

The Steve Ballmer story is that of a self-made manthe son of European immigrants who built his own wealth. But as an NBA owner, he says, "I was born on third base."

The joke underscores his modesty, but it's also essentially true. The team Ballmer purchased in 2014 already had three established stars, an accomplished coach and little room or reason to tinker.

"You don't want to screw with it too much, even if you think you know what you're doing," Ballmer says.

So he managed with caution and relished the victories. He also cringed at his team's frailties: the playoff flameouts, the untimely gaffes, the constant complaining to referees.

"It was a problem for us," Ballmer says. "We were whiny. Right? I think that was known for the Clippers. I don't want to be that way. That's not who we want to be."

The winning and whining were intertwined, so Ballmer let it ride. Given a chance to reimagine the roster after trading Paul, the Clippers instead tried to revive Lob City.

They gave Griffin a max deal. They vowed he would be a Clipper for life. They clung to sentimentality. 

"Blake is a franchise player," Ballmer says. "He was drafted by us. It made every bit of sense for us to want to make it work with him."

But the Clippers stumbled early last season, Griffin got hurt again and team officials were suddenly indulging visions of a thorough makeover. They shipped Griffin to Detroit. Fans were stunned. Griffin was furious.

A jarring reversal? Yes, but circumstances had changed, Ballmer says, and the Clippers needed to be "agile."

As for Griffin? The five-year max deal he got from the Clippers was longer and richer than what any other team could have offered.

"I do know one thing for sure: We made Blake a bunch of extra money," Ballmer says. "So at least financially, I think we did well by Blake."

The trade was almost universally praised by rival execs and commentatorsa small point of pride for Ballmer and his new front office. Having West involved, Ballmer says, "gave people confidence that we know what we're doing."

"Out of that trade, we came out smelling like a rose, to be honest with you," West says. "I think this is about Steve's desire to build a team that will have a shelf life, instead of one or two years. We got a bunch of really good players right now."

There's a learning curve for every new owner, no matter how successful they have been in other fields. Running an NBA franchise is different than anything else. Some owners never get it. Overconfidence, ego and the impulse to micromanage have tripped up countless owners.

That seems unlikely with Ballmer, who is consistently described as modest, approachable and a keen listener by just about everyone in his orbit.

"His total lack of an ego is remarkable," says West, who has worked for four teams over nearly 40 years. "He's a pleasure to be around. He's fun, he's focused, he knows what he wants to do and what he hopes to do."

Around the team offices in Playa Vista (basketball operations) and downtown (business), everyone refers to the owner as simply "Steve." And when Steve comes to the office or attends a game, he's invariably wearing a Clippers polo shirt. He's cheerful and chatty. He remembers everyone's names.

And he knows what he doesn't know. A devout basketball fanhe was raised on the Detroit Pistons and still adores the "Bad Boys" eraBallmer understood the limits of his knowledge in this new arena. He compared it to running Microsoft, another business that relied on specialized knowledge he didn't have.

"In a software company, you've got these people called engineers," Ballmer says. "And if you're not an engineer yourself, just like if you're not a basketball guy yourself, you have to understand what your appropriate involvement is."

Griffin signed a five-year, $171 million contract with the Clippers in the summer of 2017 only to be traded to the Pistons six months later.
Griffin signed a five-year, $171 million contract with the Clippers in the summer of 2017 only to be traded to the Pistons six months later.Paul Sancya/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

So, Ballmer says he asks a lot of questions. He sets parameters and expectations, offers suggestions and occasionally casts a tiebreaking vote on big decisions. But he says he can't recall a single time that he's vetoed his basketball staff.

It took some time before he made any bold moves.

When Ballmer arrived, Rivers was already in place as both head coach and head of basketball operationsa problematic arrangement that lasted until August 2017, when Ballmer stripped Rivers of his executive duties and promoted Lawrence Frank to team president.

There is a hint of regret as Ballmer discusses the decisiona realization he should have acted sooner.

In four years, Rivers traded away three first-round picksincluding one to dump Jared Dudley's salary and one to acquire Rivers favorite Jeff Green, who ended up playing just 27 games for the Clippers. (The franchise also sent a first-round pick to Boston in 2013 as compensation for releasing Rivers from his Celtics contract.)

"We want a team where we get maximum value out of the guys that we have, that we're not dummies," Ballmer says. "I think if you look over the last five, six years, there's some moves with hindsight I say, 'God, now that I've been around longer, I wouldn't make a move to give up a first-round pick to get Jeff Green.' Because we weren't as close to being a championship contender as we thought we were. So we gave up a pick we shouldn't have."

But splitting Rivers' duties, Ballmer says, was more about recognizing that the team president job is "all-consuming" and needs a full-time occupant. Frank had been working under Rivers in the front office before Ballmer elevated him.

"There were too many things where I really wanted to talk to Lawrence, not Doc," Ballmer says, referring to basketball operations matters. "Doc was, as I would have said at Microsoft, an unnecessary middle layer."

When the Clippers stumbled last season, it seemed Rivers would lose his coaching title, too. But Ballmer stood by him, and Rivers responded with what was widely considered one of his best years, guiding a rag-tag lineup to a 17-16 record following the Griffin trade.

And there it was: toughness, resilience, grit. All the ideals Ballmer has been rhapsodizing about.

At the corner of Venice Boulevard and Normandie Avenue, you'll find a recreation center. There, you'll find three gleaming new basketball courts. On each of those courts is a logo: a large, blue "C" wrapped around a red "L.A."

Ballmer said he tried to be patient and ask lots of questions of people such as Doc Rivers before adjusting the structure of the Clippers front office and overall roster composition.
Ballmer said he tried to be patient and ask lots of questions of people such as Doc Rivers before adjusting the structure of the Clippers front office and overall roster composition.David Dow/Getty Images

Eventually, there will be 350 of these renovated public courts around Los Angeles, an investment of more than $10 million, courtesy of Steve and Connie Ballmer.

Philanthropy has been a defining mission of Ballmer's public life. It's one of the first things West mentions when asked what sets Ballmer apart"He has a soul about things," West says.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti had envisioned a broad, coordinated effort involving multiple donors, each sponsoring a few courts. Ballmer responded with his own question: "Why don't we do all of them?"

"I was floored, but I was not surprised," Garcetti says. "I was floored, because it is unprecedented. But I'm not surprised, because I've gotten to known the Ballmers. And I think they do things big."

The commitment to refurbish every city-run basketball court by the end of 2021 speaks to that point. The presence of the Clippers logo suggests a secondary motive: a subtle drive to win the hearts and minds of L.A. basketball fans. Or at least those who aren't already rooting for that other team.

The Clippers believe there's an untapped following out there—the grinders, outsiders, artists and counter-culture types who might be put off by the Lakers' preening Hollywood image. The team commissioned a six-month brand study that suggested as much.

"In some ways," says Gillian Zucker, the Clippers' president of business operations, "it's the anti-bandwagon. But they are all-in, and there's something magic about that."

Step by step, the Clippers are carving out their own space.

When Rivers arrived in 2013, he ordered that the Lakers' banners at Staples Center be covered for Clippers home games. Ballmer is going a step further, with plans for a new, privately financed arena in Inglewoodjust blocks away from the Forum, the Lakers' old home.

It faces a likely legal challenge from the Forum's current proprietorKnicks owner James Dolanbut Ballmer is confident he will prevail. The goal is to move in 2024, when the Clippers' lease is up at Staples. 

"We want our own house," Ballmer says. "I think that's an important thing for us."

It's 90 minutes before tipoff at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, and the pregame crowd is larger than usual, owing to the opponent: the Golden State Warriors. Standing next to the visiting bench is a familiar face: Lawrence Frank.

The Clippers have tried to create a larger presence in Los Angeles by doing things like refurbishing community basketball courts throughout the city.
The Clippers have tried to create a larger presence in Los Angeles by doing things like refurbishing community basketball courts throughout the city.Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Clippers

It's a curious sight. A team president rarely attends games that don't involve his own squad. But there's Frank, noticeably courtside while the Warriors warm up. He was also spotted at their home opener against Oklahoma City.

In a league ruled by paranoia and cynicism, these things get noticedand gossiped about.

"Recruiting KD and Klay," a rival scout quips upon seeing Frank across the court.

No team exec can openly recruit another team's player during the season; that would be tampering. But being present and visible—even if just to say hellocan't hurt, and it isn't illegal. Rival executives say they've heard that Frank or one of his lieutenants intend to be a fixture at games involving the Warriors (to see Durant and Klay Thompson) and Raptors (Leonard) all season.

Asked about it later, Frank smiles and says he's simply doing his job: to be everywhere, scout everyone and gather as much intel as possible. In this case, his travels happened to bring him through town at the same time the Warriors were here. Frank's family is in New Jersey.

All of these things can be simultaneously true. And no one could blame the Clippers for being hyper-aggressive at this unique moment in time. They have a real shot next summer of doing what they've never done: land a superstar free agent.

Kobe Bryant considered defecting in 2004 before he ultimately re-signed with the Lakers. James met with Clippers officials in 2010, but no one believes he seriously considered them.

While deciding his own future this past summer, James says he "never had visions of playing for the Clippers," but he notes, "I mean, quite frankly, I didn't have visions until the last couple, probably the last few months, of coming here [to the Lakers]."

James adds, "I can say that it's a more positive atmosphere around there since Ballmer's taken over."

It's possible no one comes. Leonard could stay in Toronto. Butler, who is trying to force his way out of Minnesota by the February trade deadline, could re-sign with whichever team acquires him. Durant could choose New York or Brooklyn.

And yet one rival executive calls the Clippers "the most attractive free-agent situation of all of them, because none of the available free agents want to be LeBron's caddy. And they can become the greatest player in the history of a franchise in an unbelievable market with the wealthiest owner in the league. Why would that not thrill you?"

There was a time when no one would have used "thrill" and the Clippers together. In an April 2000 cover story, Sports Illustrated tagged them as "The Worst Franchise in Sports History" thanks to decades of losing, neglect and former owner Donald Sterling's miserly management.

The stigma was still there as recently as 2011, when Paul arrived via trade from New Orleans. Worth noting: He was trying to get traded to the Lakers at the time.

By the time Paul departed last year, it was seen as a routine transaction, a team and a player with diverging paths. It wasn't a sign of Clippers stigma or Clippers dysfunction. Just business. No one chortled.

"They've definitely changed," says one top agent, who adds he's eager to steer his clients there. "I know Ballmer wants to win, is competitive, he doesn't mind paying the [luxury] tax and he's into it."

Rivers said he had two goals when he came to the team: win a championship and make the Clippers a destination. The first item remains elusive, but the second is in reach.

"We've done a lot of winning," Rivers says. "I think when you hear 'Clippers,' you no longer think, Clippers."

Two summers ago, Durant took a free-agent meeting with the Clippers out of respect, even though they lacked the cap room to sign him.

The next time an MVP candidate shakes hands with Ballmer, Frank and Rivers, they believe it will be right after he signs his name on a deal that transforms the franchise.

"For the first time since I've been here," Ballmer says, "we're really deciding who we get to be, who we want to be."

And if that moment arrives, bystanders would be advised to stand backto make room for the greatest burst of fist-pumping, whooping and boogying in Clippers history.


Howard Beck, a senior writer for Bleacher Report, has been covering the NBA full time since 1997, including seven years on the Laker beat for the Los Angeles Daily News and nine years as a staff writer for the New York Times. His work has been honored by APSE each of the last two years.

Beck also hosts the Full 48 podcast, available on iTunes.

Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.


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