Clippers Need 'A Generation of Change' to Overtake Lakers in LA Turf War

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterDecember 25, 2019

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 22: Kawhi Leonard #2 of the LA Clippers and LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers walks on the court on October 22, 2019 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — For as long as they've shared the city, the Los Angeles Clippers have lived in the shadow of the Los Angeles Lakers.

Even when Blake Griffin and Chris Paul were competing in the playoffs while the Lakers missed the postseason for a half-decade, the Clippers were a distant second in the city.

"I don't want to say I've never met a Clipper fan, because you're at games and you see fans there," USA Today's Mark Medina said. "But when I've been around L.A., I've never run into a Clipper fan."

Medina covered the Lakers from 2008 to 2017 before moving to the Bay Area to report on the Golden State Warriors. He's since returned to Los Angeles, where the Lakers and Clippers are the top teams in the Western Conference.

"Say the Clippers win the title,” Medina said. “I don't think it will change the identity of the town. It certainly helps, but it's going to take a generation to change...if it does [at all]."

And the Lakers' fanbase far exceeds the city limit of Los Angeles.

Per a study run by Emory University's Michael Lewis that measured home revenue, road draw and social media reach via Twitter, the Lakers have the strongest brand in the NBA.

The Clippers, meanwhile, are 24th overall. They're strong at home (15th), but they're near the bottom as a draw on the road (28th) and on social media (29th).

Back during the Donald Sterling era, the Clippers didn't seem to care about their second-class status among L.A. teams. The franchise was profitable, especially upon its move to Staples Center in 1999.

It has since shifted with Steve Ballmer purchasing the team in 2014. 

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 22:  Friends and fans of Kawhi Leonard #2 of the LA Clippers and LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers wait in line for the LA Clippers season opening game against the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on October
Harry How/Getty Images

Ballmer has invested heavily in one of the largest front offices in the league. Led by president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank and general manager Michael Winger (along with consultant Jerry West), the Clippers stunned the NBA world on July 6 when they simultaneously landed Leonard in free agency and George via trade.

The goal is more than just overtaking the Lakers. The Clippers want to win for winning's sake. That's the purpose of every NBA franchise, and they have a viable chance to get it done this postseason.

"I don't want to say it will never change, but I feel like it will have to be a generation because of all the equity the Lakers built over the years and the equity the Clippers didn't build," Medina said. "Even when the Lakers were at their worst, they still had that brand.”

If anything, the Lob City-era Clippers missed an opportunity. Young fans went from loving Kobe Bryant, but many then jumped to Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors. Some may wear a Kawhi Leonard No. 2 jersey or a Paul George No. 13, but far more are wearing LeBron James' No. 23.

Griffin and Paul never got past the second round of the playoffs. When injuries didn't derail them, they lost games they should have won. The Clippers ultimately shipped Paul to the Houston Rockets in 2017 and moved Griffin to the Detroit Pistons seven months later. 

The opportunity to overtake the Lakers in L.A. may have passed the Clippers by, but their haul this past summer shows the organization's resolve.

Adam @AdamDavis

This Lakers fan being radicalized by his kid getting a free Clippers backpack is my new favorite post https://t.co/z91djuTrR0

Ballmer has invested millions into the city, focusing heavily on schools, parks and recreation leagues. The court at Cheviot Hills Recreation Center, where scout Ryan West once played as a youth, has a brand new floor on its court emblazoned with the Clippers logo. The outside courts were also redone with the team's branding on the backboards.

Leonard and George were introduced in July at the Green Meadows Recreation Center in South Los Angeles. Throughout the city, children play tournaments wearing Clippers jerseys on Clippers courts.

This level of exposure didn't exist even five years ago. Ballmer's efforts have no real measure as of yet, but at a minimum, he's giving generously and improving a community in need. There's nothing selfish about that, even as it serves additional motives.

LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 24: A fan has her picture taken in front of the mural after it was unveiled following the introductory news conference of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George at Green Meadows Recreation Center on July 24, 2019 in Los Angeles, California.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

For now, the Clippers will continue to service their fanbase as they strive to build their own arena in Inglewood, provided they can cut through the political red tape presented by New York Knicks owner James Dolan, the Madison Square Garden Company and the recently refurbished Forum.

"I always thought we had the blacktop crowd, the guys who are used to playing outside, not inside at the rec centers," Clippers head coach Doc Rivers said. "A blue-collar crowd in a lot of ways."

Expanding that has been a challenge.

"Transplants," Rivers continued. "You cannot grow up on the East Coast and be a Laker fan. That's just the way it is. [When they] move here, they become Clipper fans. ... The movement keeps growing, and it's nice. There's no closeted Clipper fans anymore."

Leonard's free-agent decision, coupled with the George acquisition, was a bombshell that stunned both the Lakers and the rest of the league. But the Lakers quickly pivoted to their Plan B, which included Danny Green, DeMarcus Cousins (since injured), Avery Bradley and a sizable list of quality veterans that have helped Anthony Davis and James get off to a 24-6 start.

The Clippers are close behind at 22-10, in part because of games lost to injury and load management. The two teams meet on Christmas in a Lakers home game, a rematch of the Clippers' opening-night home victory.

The game's outcome will be significant, to a degree. The season is still young, and both teams will look to improve at the trade deadline in February or on the buyout market.

If the standings hold and both can push through the first two rounds of the playoffs, they'll meet for the first time in the postseason in the Western Conference Finals, guaranteeing an NBA Finals appearance for the city.

A title for the Clippers would be a foundational success, but we can only guess what impact it would have on the franchise's brand outside of its insular fanbase.

“How significant?” is a mystery we may or may not get an answer to in June.

The Clippers need this to work. Both Leonard and George can opt out of their respective contracts after the 2020-21 season. 

The Clippers' window is open, but it might not be for long.

Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.