Saturday, December 22, 2012

Winning Ways

The Los Angeles Clippers are in the midst of a twelve-game win streak!
  Needless to say, this is a franchise record for the club once labeled as "the worst franchise in sports" by Sports Illustrated magazine.  The twelfth consecutive victory last night over the Sacramento Kings breaks a 38-year-old mark, set while the team was playing in Buffalo as the Braves.  That Braves team also went on to achieve a franchise-best overall record of 49 wins, which the current roster is on pace to better with ease.
  The Clippers are currently atop the Pacific Division, and hold the second-best record in the entire NBA at 20-6, only a game behind last year's Western Conference Champions and NBA finalists, the Oklahoma City Thunder.  If they continue to win at this rate, they stand to finish with greater than 60 wins by season's end; a feat truly unimaginable a few short years ago.
  Much like the aforementioned Thunder, the Clippers' change in fortunes can be marked by a single draft pick.
  In the 2007 NBA draft, the once-great, but quickly deteriorating, Seattle SuperSonics used the second overall pick to select 18-year-old phenom, and consensus National College Player of the Year, Kevin Durant from the University of Texas.  Durant had an immediate impact on the SuperSonics, leading them in scoring as a rookie.  Not surprisingly, he led all NBA rookies in scoring and took home the NBA Rookie of the Year Award.  Before Seattle's fans could enjoy what the future would hold, the franchise was moved to Oklahoma City and renamed the Thunder.  The move did not slow Durant in the slightest.  He became the youngest player to lead the league in scoring in the 2009-10 season, averaging 30.1 points per game at the age of 21.  He has gone on to win the scoring title for three straight seasons, being named to the All-NBA First-Team all three years, as well.  Add to that Gold medals for Team USA in both the 2010 World Championships and the 2012 Olympic Games, plus a trip to the NBA Finals last year, and it becomes easy to see how the SuperSonics/Thunder's top draft pick from 2007 has redirected the franchise's trajectory.
  To be fair, the Thunder also went on to draft Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka in 2008, and James Harden in 2009, all of whom have impressed early in their careers, played prominent roles in this past summer's Olympic Games, and are perennial NBA All-Stars going forward.  The 2009-10 team boasting a ton of potential made a 27-game improvement from the previous season (sixth most in NBA history) and reached the playoffs well ahead of schedule.  It took a couple of season, but the team's scale of fortune was unquestionably tipped with the acquisition of Kevin Durant, and the now incredibly young and talented franchise may never have to look back.
  Similarly, the long-lowly Clippers found themselves with a top draft pick in 2009 after finishing with only 19 wins the previous season.  Clippers management had historically botched such great opportunities in the past, selecting busts such as Benoit Benjamin, Danny Ferry (who refused to play for the Clippers after they'd selected him second overall, opting instead to sign a contract in Italy), Bo Kimble, Terry Dehere, Michael Olowakandi, Darius Miles, Shaun Livingston, and Yaroslav Korolev when rewarded lottery picks.  By 2009 the Clippers' 20 lottery picks were more than any other team since the NBA implemented the lottery system in 1985.  Sadly, only one of those selections (Danny Manning) ever became an All-Star with the team.  The other nineteen were either traded immediately for a song, or faded into obscurity.
  Amazingly, the Clippers did the smart thing with the first overall selection of the 2009 draft; they took Blake Griffin from the University of Oklahoma.  Griffin seemed like the logical selection after a sensational sophomore season, in which he recorded 30 double-doubles and swept the NCAA individual awards, being named as college basketball's top player by the Associated Pres and The Sporting News, while also awarded both the Naismith College Player of the Year and John Wooden awards.  Recognizing that defying logic had been the Clippers' modus operandi up to this point, I was holding my breath until they made that historic pick.
  Blake Griffin's impact on the team and the league at-large would not be as immediate as that of Kevin Durant.  After being named MVP of the NBA's Summer League, he suffered a fractured kneecap following a dunk in the final Summer League game, which would cost him the entire season.
  The following season, though, he would take the league by storm as much with his highlight-reel dunks as his great scoring and rebounding production.  He was the first rookie to be voted into the All-Star game by the coaches since Tim Duncan in 1997.  By the end of that 2010-11 season, Griffin would lead all NBA rookies in scoring, rebounding, and double-doubles, earning him the first unanimous NBA Rookie of the Year award since David Robinson in 1990.  The team only won 32 games, though, so it was clear that Griffin and the Clippers, like Durant and the Thunder before them, still needed help.
  That off-season, the Clippers would pull the trigger on deals bringing in talented veteran leadership in the form of Chris Paul, Chauncey Billups, Caron Butler.  All of whom were named All-Stars at least once in their careers, and were prepared to contribute instantly (for more on this development, see my original post "Hell Freezes Over").  In a lockout-shortened NBA season, the Clippers would post a record of 40-26 and reach the playoffs for only the fifth time since 1976.
  This year, they boosted the talent level of their bench with the additions of Jamal Crawford, Lamar Odom, Matt Barnes, Grant Hill, and Rony Turiaf.  They are considered by most to be the deepest team in the league, often relying on their reserves to stimulate runs while the starters get their rest.  Crawford even led the team in scoring through October and November, despite playing a backup role.  Barnes is playing the best basketball of his career, while providing hard-nosed defense and much needed toughness.  Even third-year point guard Eric Bledsoe is starting to fulfil his potential as he begins to show signs of the electrifying player he can be when his number is called.

  Consider the Clippers impressive early record of 20-6.  Consider also the aforementioned 19 win season of 2008-09.  Consider how it must feel for a player like Blake Griffin to take a team unable to win 20 games in an entire season, to one that reaches that goal before Christmas.  But also consider the bigger goals; staying healthy, winning the division, making the playoffs, winning the title.
  For both Blake Griffin in L.A. and Kevin Durant in O.K.C., the rise has been meteoric, but not without support.  Neither will settle for their respective current success, nor will they take the credit therefor.  Changes such as those made for the top two teams in the NBA today require time and teamwork.  It's not only about winning games, but about developing a "culture of winning," whereby statistics and personal accolades take a backseat to team success and a potential handful of rings.
  As Blake Griffin said after last night's historic victory:
"I remember the year I got drafted. The season before that they had only 19 wins. So what we've accomplished so far is great. But the best thing about it for me is being a part of something that's much bigger than Chris (Paul) or I. It takes everybody from top to bottom - the GM, the coaching staff, the players, everybody. And from Day 1 since I've been here, everybody's been serious about changing."
  And serious about the record shows.

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