A few weeks before every NBA season, each team holds their annual media day — A day filled with interviews and photoshoots that are meant to get the teams and their fans hyped up for the upcoming regular season.
But on this year’s media day for the Los Angeles Clippers, only a handful of reporters showed up.
It’s easy to pinpoint the fact that there was actually little to be excited about in the LA Clippers entering this season. Head Coach Doc Rivers was pretty much all that was left of the Lob City era, and even he was perceived as having one of the hottest seats amongst NBA coaches before this year.
However, the lack of excitement surrounding the Clippers was only a secondary reason for the poor attendance. The main reason happened to be that the Clippers’ more marketable roommate, the Lakers, had schedule their media day on the same exact day. Reporters obviously flocked to the Lakers’ media day, because in case you had forgotten, a really good player moved to Lakers last offseason.
Fast forward to the present day, and the Lakers are 9 ½ games behind the 8th-seeded Clippers, who are just 2 ½ games back from securing home court advantage in the first round. No one outside of the Clippers locker room saw that one coming, just ask Patrick Beverley:
Clippers’ Patrick Beverley chides big media crowd after win over Lakers: “There was 7 people here for media day. I told Shai, ‘Wait until the end of the year.‘ Just like I said we were the best team in LA. A lot of people don’t believe me, it’s fine.” pic.twitter.com/Er3FmqaeXX
— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) March 5, 2019
The Clippers will be playing with house money in the Playoffs, will enter the offseason with several options, and have the leverage to go into any of them with supreme optimism. On the other hand, the Lakers are surrounded by a cloud of chaotic uncertainty.
The major difference? The Lakers are being fueled by high-profile moves, while the Clippers have compounded several calculated moves to give themselves the right amount of competency and flexibility.
The Clippers’ first big move was actually similar to a Lakers’ move: Bring in a Former Lakers Point Guard and Legend into the front office. For Steve Ballmer and the Clippers, that happened to be Jerry West, who would come as a front office advisor from the pretty good Golden State Warriors.
From there, the Clippers tore apart Lob City, with each move piecing together to form what is now a beautiful, yet unfinished picture.
They first traded Chris Paul to Houston in June 2017, acquiring three gritty, no nonsense veterans in Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell and Beverley. The acquisition of these talented players may have not fit a rebuilding team at the time, but they carried with them the culture and leadership needed by a team in flux.
In the same month, the Clippers signed Blake Griffin to a massive 5-year, $173M contract. But behind urging from Jerry West, the Clippers made the business decision to flip Blake just half a year later in a deal that brought in Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, Avery Bradley, and the pick that was eventually traded up one spot to draft Shai Gilgeous-Alexander last summer.
It was at this time when they let DeAndre Jordan walk, then flipped coach’s son Austin Rivers for Marcin Gortat’s expiring deal so they could allocate some minutes to their rookie guards.
Harris ended up blossoming in LA, and looked like a potential All-Star this season for a low-end playoff team. But Harris is on an expiring deal, and the Clippers did not want to commit long term money to him, so they shipped him to Philadelphia to acquire another promising rookie guard in Landry Shamet, Wilson Chandler’s expiring deal, two future first-rounders and Mike Muscala (who was then traded to the Lakers for Ivica Zubac in a deal where the Clippers just absolutely FLEECED the Lakers).
If you’re keeping score, the Clippers checked three important boxes needed in building a contender:
1. Winning Culture (Doc Rivers, Williams, Beverley)
2. Young Assets (Gilgeou-Alexander, Shamet, Jerome Robinson)
3. Cap Space (enough for two max deals this summer)
There was no real rebuilding phase, much like the Boston Celtics during the Isaiah Thomas era. They just so happened to overachieve, and also made smart moves to supplement their growth without having to tank. It took just two off-seasons for the Clippers to turn a failed dynasty into one of the most enviable situations in the entire league.
Moving forward, their number one goal seems to be to sign Kawhi Leonard in the summer. The San Diego native has been linked to the Clippers for two seasons now, and Clippers have not been shy about their interest in the two-way star.
However, after their masterful handling of contracts (Lou Williams is being paid just $8M/year through 2020!), they could even entice another star to come to LA. They may have the best elevator pitch in the league: live in the LA market, enjoy the spotlight and alphadog spot on the team ahead of Leonard, be under championship coach, and play with an already established supporting cast.
Those reasons should be enough to have Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and even Kemba Walker or Khris Middleton look the Clippers’ way in the offseason. Any pairing with Leonard would automatically form a formidable duo that could challenge for a championship in what will definitely be a wide open 2019-2020 season.
Another move to potentially watch for from the Clippers is their position in the Anthony Davis sweepstakes. They may not have the young talent that the Celtics have, but Gilgeous-Alexander, Shamet and a few picks could move the needle if the Celtics refuse to put Tatum on the table.
The interesting part about what the Clippers front office has done is that striking out on a superstar this offseason is still an option.
SGA has looks like he’s going to be a very, very good starting point guard in this league for years to come, while Shamet may very well be the perfect sharpshooting running mate. They have enough flexibility to sign or develop other younger projects, or turnaround and have a headstart at a full-on rebuild.
The fact of the matter is that this season is still just a stopgap for the Clippers. It’s a transition to acquiring a star, or to building on the team they’ve already built today.
It was never going to be a year to make a sexy deal, or to attract attention and fan fare. They have enough of that in Hollywood.
They are taking the logical approach; showing the Lakers the right way to rebuild. And with a less chaotic LA market on their side, the rest of the league should honestly beware of a new powerhouse in Los Angeles.
Photos from Getty Images