Optimism Surrounds The Clippers

It can’t be easy supporting the Los Angeles Clippers.

For over three decades, Clippers fans have endured mediocrity on and off the court. Bad draft picks, bad trades, stingy ownership, and deflating injuries (think Bill Walton and his terrible feet), have been the general themes.

At the same time, those big brother Lakers have been a model franchise—winning 17 championships (11 of those in L.A.), possessing some of the greatest players the game has ever known, and generally becoming one of the most iconic sports franchises in the world. Being known for Clipper Darrell hardly compares.

To say that the Clippers have lived in the shadow of its’ cross-town rivals, would be an understatement.

On Sunday afternoon, however, the Clippers went a small way to moving out of the shadow cast by the Lakers, and into the realm of respectability. It wasn’t easy, but in defeating the Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles won their most important game in franchise history — a game that will give the team and its fans immense confidence moving ahead.

Granted, the Clippers had won a playoff series against Denver in 2006, with Sam Cassell and Elton Brand at the helm, but this is a new era for the Clippers—one of exciting young talent and high expectations. A first-round loss wasn’t going to be acceptable.

In-fact, expectation levels were probably set a little too high for this team at the beginning of the year. Yes, the team had signed the best pure point guard in the league, and yes, they possessed an immensely talented young power forward, but the Clippers were a work in progress. This was never a championship caliber team.

Reflecting the sudden expectation levels were the calls for Vinny Del Negro’s head, during the predictable mid-season blip. The front office, whether because they had faith in Del Negro, or just didn’t see an alternative option, stuck with the status quo. To a large degree that continuity has paid off, and the Clippers have given a great account of themselves during the last month of the regular season, and in the playoffs thus far.

Of course, closing out the series on Sunday wasn’t going to be simple—especially not for this franchise with all its historical baggage. The Clippers were up against a tough, rugged Grizzlies team that had seemingly turned the series around—coming back from 3-1 down to force a Game 7. The odds were stacked against Los Angeles as they headed to Memphis for the decider. Home teams have been victorious in roughly 80% of Game 7’s, and the Grizzlies had all the momentum going in. To make matters worse, the Clippers were banged up. Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and Caron Butler were all carrying nagging injuries that would affect their mobility.

The second unit, however, more than made up for the injuries to the Clippers’ starters. Kenyon Martin and Reggie Evans, like they’ve done all series, pounded the glass and out-hustled the Grizzlies frontcourt, while Eric Bledsoe and Nick Young hit big shots down the stretch.

In-fact, you could say that overall it was an extremely un-Clippers like playoff victory. Grittiness, resilience and mental toughness, are not terms you would associate with past Clippers teams. The Clippers of yesteryear would’ve folded under such pressure (or likely not have gotten to a Game 7 in the first place). It was testament to the new winning culture that Chris Paul, in particular, has helped install in the franchise—a winning culture that meant that the Clippers were able to overcome adversity and win such a massive game.

Against the Spurs, the odds will be further stacked against this Los Angeles team. San Antonio has won 14 straight, and are 25-2 over their last 27 games—impressive to say the least. Furthermore, the weaknesses that hampered Memphis in their series with the Clippers: bad 3-point shooting, stagnant offense, and an inability to put games away, are not issues that ever seem to affect the Spurs.

Chris Paul is still not 100% healthy and Gregg Popovich will throw athletic young defenders, like Kawhi Leonard at Danny Green, at him constantly. At the same time, the Spurs are more than a match for the Clippers down low. Boris Diaw and Tim Duncan are playing solid at both ends, already having dealt comfortably with a much more threatening inside team in the Utah Jazz. Compounding things further, Del Negro will have to worry about stopping the Spurs’ dynamic scorers/play makers, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli.

In other words, this will be an extremely tough series for the Clippers to win. The Spurs are rolling and it will take a performance of epic proportions for the Clippers to stop that train.

Whatever happens against the Spurs, however, the Clippers have taken a big step forward in their development this season. The likes of Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Bledsoe will continue to get better, while Chris Paul should have plenty to encourage him after his first year in Los Angeles. Hopefully, for the Clippers sake, he will decide that his long-term future lies with his current employers.

It’s been a long, hard road for Clippers fans, but there are brighter days ahead. This season’s journey may end against San Antonio, but for such a historically beleaguered franchise, it’s a good start on the path to sporting redemption.

New York’s Wild Season Comes To A Close

Almost as soon as LeBron James and company finished off the New York Knicks season on Tuesday, putting to bed any silly notion that the Knicks were capable of taking the Miami Heat into deep water, the questions about next season at MSG began to quickly accumulate.

Even for a team that seems to have existed in a dysfunctional world for years, this season has been remarkable for it’s soap opera-like quality. It’s been a year of extremes. Hope, despair, expectation and back to despair again. With the Knicks there’s very little middle ground—very little normalcy. The San Antonio Spurs they’re not.

In-fact, there’s been four distinct incarnations of the Knicks this season:

Knicks 1.0: The team that sputtered out the gate, going 8-14 over the first third of the year, and putting D’Antoni’s job in jeopardy (a constant theme). This was when everyone was frantically inquiring about the state of Baron Davis’ back—as if he was the answer to their point guard woes. Well, in fairness, they were starting Mike Bibby and Toney Douglas.

Knicks 2.0: The loveable underdog incarnation of the Knicks. An undrafted, Harvard educated, Asian-American point guard named Jeremy Lin, who was a week away from being cut, bursts onto the scene and instantly makes the Knicks relevant again. With Carmelo Anthony injured and out of the line-up, D’Antoni finally gets to run his desired up-tempo pick-n-roll offense. Decent things happen.

Knicks 3.0: Melo and Amar’e return, everyone stops playing defense, while the once fluid offense grinds to a halt. Anthony doesn’t feel loved, the Knicks stop winning, and rumors about D’Antoni losing the locker-room (a.k.a Carmelo’s respect) are rampant.

Knicks 4.0: The classic ‘change the coach and everyone starts playing harder’ scenario in full effect. Mike Woodson takes over, Anthony insists that he be held accountable and plays great, and Lin gets injured. Fans and analysts alike are awoken from the delusion that somehow Anthony wasn’t the most important player on the team.

Of course, not even this incarnation of the Knicks was going to beat the Heat in a seven game series. Not unless James Dolan somehow managed to ship James to Antarctica for two months.

Now that the Knicks have been eliminated and the on-court drama has ceased, the front office is left with some interesting decisions to make.

First, there’s the question of Mike Woodson’s future. Woodson did a great job in difficult circumstances—dealing with a team that was low on confidence and badly faltering. He did indeed hold his stars accountable. Anthony played at both ends of the floor and the Knicks went on a nice run to end the season. Furthermore, the players appear to have bought into Woodson’s system.

A Phil Jackson or a John Calipari would be sexier choices—big names that Knicks’ nation craves—but Woodson finally brought some much-needed stability to the team, and sticking with him might be the wisest option.

At point guard there’s plenty to ponder. Baron Davis and Mike Bibby won’t be in Knicks’ colors next year (or anyone’s colors). Jeremy Lin is a restricted free agent, but will only be able to receive the mid-level exception from other teams, as he’s yet to play three seasons. Re-signing Lin makes sense, both from a slightly cynical marketing perspective, and also a basketball one, too.

He’s proven, albeit over a brief stretch of time, that he can play in the NBA. He’s young, has a great basketball I.Q., and will no doubt improve on the weaker facets of his game. Going through an actual training camp will help with that immensely.

So re-signing Lin is a no-brainer, right?

Well, maybe not if a future Hall-of-Famer named Steve Nash shows an interest in coming to MSG. Nash, as we all know, spends his off-seasons in the Big Apple and his name’s been linked with the Knicks for what feels like an eternity now.

One thing’s for sure, Amar’e Stoudemire is clamoring hard for Nash to come to New York. Stoudemire recently stated that “I love Steve, it would be great to have him here next year”.

Whether Nash obliges his former teammate will come down to money and whether he feels like the Knicks can make a serious run at the championship. If he’s interested, the Knicks will have to decide whether they would prefer to have two very good years from Nash, or potentially seven or eight decent ones from Lin.

For Stoudemire, being paired with Nash again would be ideal—a chance to re-kindle one of the best pick-n-rolls of all time. How Carmelo would fit into that scenario leads us to the biggest dilemma for this team going forward—the offensive cohesion.

In Game 5 on Tuesday, Carmelo took 31 shots, while Stoudemire took just 7. Whatever Stoudemire says in public, there’s no way that he can be satisfied with such a meager share of the offense. Unfortunately for him, the Knicks have looked much better offensively when he’s not on the floor.

Stoudemire may be an elite power forward in the NBA, but he’s not actually the best power forward on his own team. Carmelo excelled in April playing at the 4 spot. He didn’t have to worry about chasing quick small forwards around the court (which he struggles with), and could focus on guarding the opponent’s 4 in the paint. Offensively, Anthony can destroy most power forwards he comes up against. He has the strength to post-up and is too quick for most defenders at that position.

Ideally, of course, the Knicks would love to trade Stoudemire. There isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell, however, that another team would take on that contract. The Knicks will therefore have to hope that Stoudemire and Anthony can somehow function together on the floor. Again, being able to have a training camp might help with that.

Like it or not, Anthony, Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler will form the core of the Knicks’ team for the years to come. Iman Shumpert should continue to grow at the 2-guard position, but the pieces they pick up to complement their starters will be crucial in deciding whether the Knicks can mount a challenge next year.

In true Knicks fashion, it should be unpredictable, chaotic and lots of fun to watch.