Before we dive into why the 2019/20 Clippers are not your father's Clippers, I thought it is a good idea to take a trip down Clipper memory lane, which as you might imagine is not that memorable. LA Clipper Memory Lane The second class NBA citizens of Los Angeles have always been the Clippers and for good reason. It all started back in 1984 when the Clippers moved to LA to bring their unique blend of bad basketball to the masses. During their first 20 years, they had one winning season in LA, which did very little to inspire brand loyalty amongst fans in the city of angels. In fact, year after year losing actually helped solidify the Lakers brand as the only true NBA franchise in town.
Rumors, of not being able to get 5,000 people to games in a metropolitan area of over 10 million people were actually not rumors, they were facts. Things got so bad for the franchise that they would actually give tickets away to people walking around the old broken down Sports Arena in Los Angeles. It all started in San Diego when the team was purchased by Donald Sterling in 1981 for just $12.5 million. In 1984 Sterling made the surprising move to move the team to Los Angeles. This move came during the middle of the Los Angeles Lakers Showtime era and right after the city had been turned upside down by the Summer Olympics. Seriously making a business decision to move a team to LA to compete with Magic, Kareem, Worthy, Cooper, Scott, and the ghosts of Lakers' past was a tall order. The odd's were never in the Clippers favor from day one. It would be like deciding it was a good idea to move an NBA franchise to Boston during the Bill Russell years. It would have never worked. The team would have been run out of town in 24 months.
We all know LA is different than Boston, and in LA you could string together 50 straight losing years, but if in your 51st season you went to the NBA Finals, you would indeed have a huge following. LA supports winners, not losers which is why in 2014 everyone was shocked that Steve Ballmer spent over $2 billion dollars on a franchise that has never won anything.
At the time Ballmer purchased the franchise the Clippers had put together 3 straight winning seasons and was on their way to a fourth. Games at staples center were sold out and despite all of Donald Sterling's personal wreckage, the NBA become so mainstream in LA that the Clippers actually had a developed a loyal fan base despite all the losing during their first 30 years in LA.
Balmer knowing that LA is all about winning, quickly realized that if he could continue to string together winning seasons, hire good coaches, get a GM who actually knows what a basketball is, hire consultants with logo's built-in their likeness, he knew he would have a chance to win over enough fans to at least be competitive with the Lakers loyalist. The reality is the LA market is so big, that a Clippers organization was actually able to survive its first 25 years before it was finally able to piece together two consecutive winning seasons.
Back in the 90's you could walk into an LA sporting good store and you would only see Lakers gear, but in the early 2000s things started to change. The Clippers made the first wise decision that they had made since moving to LA by turning down a move to Anaheim and agreeing to share Staple Center with the Lakers. Location matters and this move changed the perception of the Clippers overnight. Sure the team still sucked, but at least it sucked in a brand new arena in the heart of a major LA downtown renovation. The key to their success in Staples Center was and still is cheap ticket prices and affordable merchandise which is why you now see a ton of people proudly rolling around town in Red and Blue Clipper gear. On average Clipper ticket prices were and still are 50% to 75% less than Lakers tickets. In effect the lower ticket prices opened up a whole new market for the Clippers, giving people who couldn't afford Lakers tickets a shot at seeing an NBA game at affordable prices in a fantastic arena. Remember, back in the early 2000s losing was the Clippers brand. Heck, even some celebrities made conscious decisions to become Clippers fans. Take Billy Crystal who simply embraced the losing and loved the underdog story of the Clippers.
Being the underdog basically became the cry of the entire Clipper fan base, and while the Lakers still dominate the market, there is no doubt that the Clippers have miraculously been able to survive and thrive to the point that one of the most successful businessmen of all-time, saw real value in buying the Clippers for billions of dollars.
The Ballmer Years Have Been Good
Success in the boardroom doesn't always mean success in the NBA. The truth is there are so many heads in LA, that LA could easily absorb a third NBA team, a team that if it actually existed would eventually be able to build a loyal fan base because there is so much demand for basketball in LA.
In Steve Ballmer's world, buying the Clips for such a high price was a sound investment and based on what we've seen in the past couple years with other franchise purchases, he was right. Beyond the wise investment, Ballmer quickly realized he had a solid team, games that somehow always sell out, and one of the best coaches in basketball and that was before he went shopping for talent on and off the court.
Take Jerry West, a special consultant Ballmer was able to steal away from the Golden State Warriors. Jerry West who beyond being the logo, is the perfect mix of player evaluation and putting winning puzzle pieces together. Money can't buy you love in the NBA, you have to earn it by bringing the right pieces together. Sure you need to spend money on top players, but its the rest of the cast characters that actually help you win a championship.
In the old days, there was not a chance in hell that the Clippers could even consider luring a top 20 player to their team. But the times have certainly changed for the franchise that for a quarter of a century embraced losing. Today's Clipper organization is widely regarded as one of the best-run franchises in the NBA which is why Ballmer was able to bring Jerry West in, keep Doc Rivers coaching, and get the best two-way basketball player in the world to want to play for the Clippers. Look there really is no debate, Kawhi Leonard, when healthy is the best basketball player in the world today. Sprinkle in Paul George who could have easily been the MVP last year, then retain the services of clutch players like Lou Williams and the beyond intense Patrick Beverly and you've got a core group that is as good as anyone in the NBA. To be clear this is not your dad's Clippers team, the underdogs of LA are no longer underdogs, they are now legit contenders for NBA supremacy.
A Few Other Clippers Observations
1. Ballmer has significantly more money and access to capital than the Lakers.
2. The Clippers have a better roster on paper then the Lakers. 3. LA is still a Lakers town and most people agree it will always be that way, but there is nothing wrong with owning the second team in one of the largest markets in the world. 4. The Clippers coaching staff is way better - Doc Rivers vs Frank Vogel, I rest my case.
5. The Clippers have better consultants - Jerry West vs Kirk Rambus, enough said. The Clippers lease at Staples Center is up in 2024, thus they are now planning on building their own state-of-the-art arena in Inglewood which when completed will officially solidify the team as an integral part of the highly competitive sporting landscape in LA. The only question is how many titles will they be able to hang from the rafters when they move in.