Sam Schneider | March 1st, 2020
Eventually, your little brother grows up. Sometimes, he turns out to be bigger than you’d expected.
The old adage “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” doesn’t hold nearly as much water in sports as “If you can’t join ‘em, beat ‘em.”. The Los Angeles Clippers seem to be bent on the latter as they’ve begun a pattern of trying to best their Staples’ Center counterparts, and in doing so, make themselves into a perennial contender.
Sterling Out, Ballmer In
After spending years as a complete afterthought in the NBA, the Clippers found success assembling a team around the core of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan. They finally reached the playoffs in 2011 before also adding division titles in 2012-13 and 2013-14. This, of course, was all under Donald Sterling before he was forced from the NBA amidst a sea of racist transgressions. In 2014, Shelly Sterling sold the Clippers to Steve Ballmer for a whopping two billion dollars, the second-highest blind-bid sale in sports history.
Ballmer had spent years trying to get into the NBA game, so you knew he meant business. He was part of the group that went to bat over and over to try to keep the SuperSonics in Seattle, eventually losing that battle and seeing them relocate to Oklahoma City. His next stop was as part of the investment group that got to close to purchasing the Sacramento Kings that their fans had all but assumed they would lose their team to the Pacific Northwest. Suffice it to say that in plunking down $2B for the Clippers, he wasn’t going to lose again.
Ballmer Brings in West
Not only did he purchase the team, but he also purchased a successful one in recent years. The core was still intact and they went back to the playoffs during his first three seasons at the helm. However, the team was aging (particularly the role players) and it was only a matter of time before a roster shuffle would be a necessity. This is where the beginning of a long-troll of the Los Angeles Lakers began: In 2017, Ballmer brought in Jerry West to oversee the rebuild of the Clippers and the first major moves made under Ballmer’s tenure as owner. Although West had been part of the development of the Warriors and Grizzlies, Laker Nation always viewed him as “their guy” and seeing him end up with the kid-brother Clippers surely stung.
West shipped off Chris Paul for a bounty of players and a pick. Midseason, Blake Griffin was traded to Detroit. What looked like the beginning of a complete teardown netted enough talent that the Clippers finished 42-40, barely missing the playoffs.
In 2018, they drafted and traded Miles Bridges. DeAndre Jordan opted out. Still, the Clippers went back to the postseason and the Laker fans grumbled. At this point, since Ballmer bought the team, the Clippers were 250-160. The Lakers during the same period were 136-274.
Ballmer knew the Lakers were poised to add a player to LeBron James and Anthony Davis in free agency and the Clippers had more money and more picks to compete during the offseason. Instead of taking their current roster to Kawhi Leonard and trying to outsell the Lakers, Ballmer and West keyed in on Paul George. Only a year earlier, George had ruffled the Lakers’ feathers by turning down a visit in free agency and re-signing with Oklahoma City when it seemed to everyone in the NBA that he was going to join Lebron. Now the Lakers fans boo him mercilessly. Ballmer and West engineered a trade with Oklahoma City to bring in PG13 and used that leverage to convince Kawhi (who is good friends with George) to join the party. It was an immaculate 3-for-1. Get the guy who snubbed the Lakers, get the #1 free agent, watch Lakers fans lose their minds.
In the midst of free agency, the Lakers were also searching for their new head coach for the 2019 season. They seemed on the verge of signing Tyronn Lue and had agreed in principle to do so before the two sides reached an impasse during contract negotiations. The Lakers eventually would sign Frank Vogel, and (you guessed it), the Clippers signed arguably the number one coach on the market as an assistant, twisting the knife on the Lake Show’s front office.
Since that time, the Clippers went out at the trade deadline to acquire Marcus Morris, who they arguably didn’t need. They got a pretty good deal for the big man, primarily to keep him away from the Lakers, who had no secrets about being interested. Following that, when the Lakers attempted to lure Darren Collison from retirement, the Clippers front office got on the phone to make sure they also got a visit. Collison stayed retired. Reggie Jackson was bought out by the Memphis Grizzlies, and once again the Clippers were there with an open wallet for a player that they didn’t need, just to ensure he wasn’t wearing gold.
At this point, you’ve got to think that if someone burst into Steve Ballmer’s office and said “The Lakers are interested in Daffy Duck!”, he’d calmly take a briefcase from under the desk filled with bills in denominations you and I can’t even fathom and hand it to the guy and send him out to negotiate. As the man gallops down the hall he can probably hear Steve yelling “Get Donald Duck too, just in case!”.
As it stands now, Vegas has the Lakers with better odds than the Clippers to bring home the NBA hardware; it’s hard to believe that either fanbase is buying those odds. The Clippers are in the Lakers’ heads. It’s as though they are daring the Lakers to settle for J.R. Smith as the answer.
And of course, in one matchup this season the “upstarts” got the best of the more storied franchise. Kawhi had 25, PG13 had 17, and seven dimes were dished out by (wait for it) former Laker Lou Williams.
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