Get ready for a magnitude 7 quake, the Big One that many Angelenos have long said will never happen – that could never happen – and a few hardy souls few have long hoped for. It would crack the L.A. sports scene wide open and the ripple effect will be both exhilarating and devastating.
It would be the Clippers first championship in any incarnation (and that's counting their early years as the Buffalo Braves and their time in San Diego before finally settling in L.A. in 1984). Long-time Clippers fans like Billy Crystal, veteran announcer Ralph “Bingo” Lawler and owner Donald Sterling would finally be rewarded for decades of patience and loyalty.
]Equally important, it would complete the recent trading-places dynamic with the former top-dog Lakers and set the stage for Clippers fans to look forward to a decade of championship contention and Staples Center bragging rights. Frustrated Lakers fans can only gnash their teeth and look forward to a long and humiliating re-building process complicated by Kobe Bryant's budget-busting two-year $48 million farewell tour. Within a year, Lakers boss Jim “My Daddy said I'm in charge!” Buss will become the hoops equivalent of Frank McCord: the most hated man in town.
And what of bungling, bumbling Clippers owner Sterling? For more than three decades Sterling was the living embodiment of the Clippers curse that ensured that everything, no matter how promising, would eventually turn to shit. Sterling was widely scorned as the worst owner in professional sports because he constantly interfered with his coaches and general managers, made terrible draft picks, ordered terrible trades and was too cheap to pay the cost of being great. His incompetence was only magnified by the cross-town triumphs of the Lakers and their now-legendary owner, Jerry Buss.
Fortunately Sterling hasn't been heard from since Coach Doc Rivers left Boston for L.A. last summer and took over complete control of the Clippers organization. Sterling finally got out of the way to let his basketball people run the show, and the result has been the best season in Clippers history.
It's true that the Clips are only one of five legit title contenders. But you can forget all the championship talk about the two-time defending champion Miami Heat, the back-for-more-heartbreak San Antonio Spurs, the Kevin Durant-led OKC Thunder or the imploding, finger-pointing Indiana Pacers. Dwayne Wade is a part-time player at best, the Spurs Tim Duncan-era dynasty blew its last chance last year when they let Ray Allen nail a last-second three-pointer to steal game 6 of the Finals, the Thunder will never fully recover from trading James Harden (now a top 10 player) to Houston two years ago and Indiana has become so fragile that when All-star center Roy Hibbert recently said the locker room was “full of selfish dudes,” no one even challenged him to name names. Everyone knew he was right.
No, based on the regular season and especially on the last two months, it's clear that the Clippers could be victorious. That's not just home-town pride talking. That's cold, hard hoops logic.
Here are five reasons why the Clippers could stage their own championship parade down Figueroa this year, one that will dwarf the Lakers parades of 2009 and 2010. After all, the first one is always the best one – especially when you've been waiting 44 years.
5. Blake Griffin
Griffin is now the third best player in the NBA, behind only LeBron James and Durant. Teamed with point guard Chris Paul, the Clips now have two top-five NBA players.
Of course they had those same two players last year, when they lost a street fight of a first-round series to grit-and-grind Memphis. The difference a year later is that now the offense runs through Griffin, and Paul's first priority has transformed from dominating the ball until he can create a shot for himself or a teammate to making sure that Griffin handles the ball on almost every possession. No player has ever won the MVP and Most Improved Player awards in the same season, yet Griffin is a viable candidate in both races. It's not just that he's consistently hitting that 15-18 foot jumper that everyone said was the missing ingredient in his Dunk-a-Rama game. Equally critical to his improvement are his tremendous ball-handling and passing skills and an increased commitment to playing hard-nosed defense. Instead of setting up shop underneath the basket and hoping that Paul will find him for his little spin-and-hook shot, Griffin is just as likely to inhale a rebound and dribble coast-to-coast, forcing the defense to converge on him so he can find someone else cutting to the basket. And if they don't gang-tackle him he'll just power in for one of his Godzilla, get-out-of-my way dunks.
Sound familiar? Well, the player he is most starting to resemble is King James himself, although Griffin is actually a bit bigger and stronger than the 6-foot-8 James. If Griffin – who just turned 25 last month – continues on his current upward trajectory, he could pass James – who turns 30 in December – as the NBA's best player as soon as next season. Much like James, Griffin will never be the drop-dead shooter that Durant is, but his overall impact on the game is greater because of his greater physical presence.
4. Doc Rivers
Rivers is a much better coach than former Clippers coach Vinnie Del Negro. And it's not just superior tactics and strategy, or the insistence that either you play tough defense or you don't play at all. It's personal dynamics and understanding player psyches.
Del Negro was a nice guy whose offense consisted of letting Chris Paul dominate the ball while the other players went to their assigned spots and hoped the ball would eventually come to them. Rivers is a nice guy with an edge – he even had Big Baby Davis escorted off the court by security a few weeks ago when he didn't like his body language. Rivers has mandated continual ball movement, has made Griffin the focus of the offense, and has motivated a newly confident center DeAndre Jordan into becoming such a good defender and rebounder that the Clips would not trade him straight-up for Dwight Howard. Rivers explained to Jordan exactly what he wanted from him, told him how great he could be, and then kept up his end of the bargain by playing him in fourth quarters despite his make-one-miss-one foul shooting. Last year it was painful to see a disconsolate Jordan pinned to the bench during fourth quarters because Del Negro had decided he couldn't afford to have him missing foul shots during crunch time. Now he's playing in all four quarters with a verve and joy that is hard to miss.
3. The total package
Not only is the roster deeper this year, but the pieces fit together better. Matt Barnes gives the Clippers a competitive edge when he's not sending out inappropriate tweets with the N word, Jamal Crawford is scoring more than 18 points a game coming off the bench and should win the Sixth Man of the Year award again, Darren Collison is a backup point guard who could be starting for a lot of teams in a point-guard dominated league, and J.J. Redick gives them the deadeye outside shooter so vital to taking pressure off Griffin's post-up game and Paul's slashing drives to the hoop.
Finally, late season pickup Big Baby Davis shores up what had been their most glaring weakness – the lack of a third big man to give Griffin and Jordan some relief from the constant banging and trench warfare under the basket.
2. Weak competition
Only the Heat and the Pacers have a legit shot at coming out of the Eastern Conference and making it to the Finals, and both are struggling big-time right now. The Heat look exhausted from two straight championship runs (the mental and emotional strain is just as great as the physical), LeBron has been carrying a bigger and bigger load as Wade misses more and more games due to balky knees, Chris Bosh looks like he's fed up with his third-banana role, and Ray Allen is finally starting to show signs of basketball mortality. The Greg Oden rehab project hasn't worked out the way Heat Godfather Pat Riley had hoped, and now the Heat simply don't have the interior depth to cope with Griffin, Jordan and Davis should they meet the Clippers in the Finals. And the Pacers resident “superstar,” Paul George, has regressed so much over the last two months that the Pacers look leaderless and lost. The task of beating the Thunder, the Spurs and then either the Heat or the Pacers in the Finals is not looking nearly as daunting as it was a few months ago.
1. Fortune smiles on this team
Any NBA champion needs a little luck along the way, something that breaks their way at just the right time. For the 1988 Lakers it was Detroit's Isiah Thomas badly spraining his ankle. For the 2000 Lakers it was Portland absolutely choking away a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter of game 7 of the Western Finals. For the 2010 Lakers it was Boston Celtics center Kendrick Perkins blowing out his knee in Game 6 of the Finals and leaving the Celtics short-handed in Game 7.
Well, last Tuesday the Clippers got a similar break when the Golden State Warriors – the Clips' first round opponent – announced that their version of Jordan, Center Andrew Bogut, had a broken rib and would likely miss six weeks. Suddenly the series that had been shaping up as great competition and wonderful entertainment (Paul versus Stephen Curry in the backcourt, Bogut and David Lee battling Jordan and Griffin down low) had shifted from one that the Clips figured to win in six or seven games to one they should win in four or five hard-fought games.
We predict the Clippers in five, followed by a nice long layoff before they face the Thunder, who will be coming off a brutal, drawn-out series against the Memphis Grizzlies. And that's good news for the Finals as a whole. They could go all the way.
So start spreading the news: There could soon be a new NBA champion in town.
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