I believe the timing of Chauncey Billups' freak achilles tear, only two weeks after I praised him as the Clips most reliable player, was too much to bear. The notorious Clipper Curse had reared it's menacing head once again.
To summarize last season, the Clippers still managed to finish with the best record in franchise history, earning them the fifth seed in the Western Conference come playoff time. They won an epic and exhausting seven-game series over the fourth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, only to be swept by the aging but experienced San Antonio Spurs in the second round. It was a bitter end to a thrilling 2011-2012 season, but it wasn't for naught. The Clippers adding quality wins and a playoff appearance to their popular highlight-reel act put the league on notice. Suddenly, they were about more than just futility and Blake Griffin posters. They had become winners. They had become contenders. They had become, at long last, a competitive NBA team.
For a second straight off-season, the Clippers management worked to strengthen the roster for 2012-13. Where previously the Clippers had seemed annually intent on spurning talent in favour of lesser contracts and greater salary cap space, they have recently ante'd up and made the necessary trades and free agent signings to put a legit product on the Staples Center hardwood.
Last off-season, they signed veteran All-Stars Caron Butler and Chauncey Billups to add depth, character, toughness, and much-needed experience. They also re-signed their young, uber-athletic centre, Deandre Jordan (who got his foot in the mesh last night, see vid below), matching a huge offer from the Houston Rockets. Then, days before the lockout-shortened season began, they traded for Dream Teamer and team saviour, Chris Paul. The positive results were immediately obvious.
Perhaps Clippers owner Donald Sterling learned from this experiment, for he opened up his wallet once again this year, signing more quality vets in the ageless Grant Hill, the creative Jamal Crawford, and journeymen Matt Barnes, Ryan Hollins, and Ronny Turiaf. They also traded for the versatile Lamar Odom, whom they had originally drafted with the fourth overall pick in the 1999 draft, and the dependable Willie Green. Before playing a single game, this had already become the best team in franchise history. On paper, at least.
Now, only two games into the 2012-2013 NBA season, they look as good in action as they do in the team program. They are easily the best team to don the Clippers red and blue, are arguably the deepest team in the NBA, and are seemingly the best team in Los Angeles after walking all over the star-studded Lakers last night.
I have previously written about the challenges faced when the Clippers meet their Laker roommates (see "The Good, The Bad, The Upset"). After finishing only one game apart in last year's standings, it looked as though the gap between the two historically-polarized NBA franchises coexisting in L.A. was shrinking quickly. Then the Clippers went and made the aforementioned roster moves, and I thought they'd finally have the pieces in place to usurp the Lakers' throne. However, the Lakers made moves of their own and my expectations were beyond tempered.
In typical Laker fashion, the gold and purple brass pulled the strings on deals bringing super-duperstars Steve Nash and Dwight Howard on board to produce the most daunting foursome seen in years, perhaps ever. With a starting lineup boasting two-time NBA MVP and eight-time NBA All-Star Steve Nash at point guard, 2008 MVP and five-time NBA Champion Kobe Bryant at shooting guard, 2004 NBA Defensive Player of the Year and former NBA Champion Metta World Peace (the Artest formerly known as Ron) at small forward, four-time NBA All-Star and two-time NBA Champion Pau Gasol at power forward, and three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year and six-time NBA All-Star Dwight Howard at center, the Lakers suddenly had all fans and haters in a frenzy. The Lakers roster now features a total of 35 NBA All-Star appearances in their six-man rotation. This is a very disheartening development for us wishful Clipper fans.
Basketball, though, is a team game. While the Lakers had gone and built a fantasy starting five, the Clippers had assembled a quality cast that can easily go twelve men deep. And this was the difference when the two teams met last night.
The game, played on the Lakers home floor, was close in the first half before the Clippers pulled away in the third quarter. The difference, as I said, was the depth. Lakers coach Mike Brown went with a nine-man rotation, with no reserve playing as much as twenty minutes. On the other hand, Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro got everyone in uniform into the game, playing all 11 active players, with both Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes seeing about thirty minutes of floor time off the bench. In total, the Clippers starters played 128 minutes, versus 189 for the Lakers. This allowed the separation in the second half, where the Clippers were simply fresher then their opponents, and bodes well for the rest of the foreseeably long season ahead. When you consider that neither Chauncey Billups nor Grant Hill, both of whom are expected to play major minutes once healthy, were dressed for the game, it stands to reason that the Clippers will be fresh come playoff time due to Del Negro's play-everyone approach. Even a season-ending injury to a key player not named Chris Paul or Blake Griffin won't be able to thwart the Clippers playoff, and dare I say Championship (?), aspirations.
Hubie Brown, the retired Hall of Fame coach calling last night's game on ESPN, repeatedly referred to the Clippers as contenders for at least the Western Conference crown throughout the night. Had he made such statements two years ago, he'd have been institutionalized. People would have accused the old-timer of finally losing touch with reality or perhaps showing signs of dementia at his advanced age. Last night, though, no one questioned his old man logic. Not even me, the most realistically skeptical of Clipper supporters.
Here's hoping Hubie still knows what he's talking about. Go Clips! We believe!