Tonight, the Los Angeles Clippers, the most losingest franchise in NBA history, will take to their (nominal) home court of Staples Center against the Lakers as the team with the best odds of winning the 2019-20 NBA championship; 46 percent of the league’s GMs think they’ll win the title, too. We’ve had more than three months to digest the ramifications of a historic offseason, but thinking about the Clippers’ franchise-changing about-face still makes me dizzy.
Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers are championship favorites at a strange inflection point in the league. In perhaps any other season succeeding the death of a dynasty like the Warriors’, saying the NBA is at a crossroads might have sufficed. The NBA is at a crossroads in its 74th season, but moreover, it has bifurcated, seemingly existing as two unrelated realities. It is a league with an unprecedented level of parity relative to the amount of talent dispersed throughout the 30 teams: There are roughly eight championship contenders this season, many of which have new-fangled star alignments that suggest a complete shift in how the game is played from here on out. It is also a league subsumed in various degrees of crisis, both domestically and abroad. National and local ratings have reportedly seen a “significant” decline. With the NBA ensnared in globalism’s money trap, a tweet from Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey espousing the blanketest of statements in support of the protests in Hong Kong has given China the leverage to flip the ping-pong diplomacy of the NBA’s global outreach into a sort of basketball capitulation. (L.A. and Toronto will host the league’s first two games of the season tonight, and activist groups in both cities will mobilize to hand out T-shirts in support of Hong Kong protesters outside their arenas.)
The NBA’s on-court product as a whole might be the best it’s ever been, but off the floor, the league’s strange game of rhetorical telephone with China has become a microcosm of a much, much larger issue of trade relations between the two most influential nations in the world. The NBA, which has seen incremental revenue growth for more than a decade, could see its first downturn in basketball-related income depending on how strongly China’s massive ($4 billion) economic threat looms. The league has always been a business, as any player will tell you. The China situation has laid bare the full breadth of its globalist dealings—and the trappings that come with that. From this new top-down vantage, players appear more like chess pieces than the world-eating titans they seemed to be over the summer (unless you’re actually a world-eating titan). A chess piece: minimized, stoic, with a defined objective, unconcerned with its greater symbolic reflection. Sounds a lot like Kawhi’s ideal state of being. The Clippers, now under Leonard’s dominion, in some ways paint the picture of the NBA’s uncertain future.
Spun positively, L.A.’s other team could serve as a salve for anyone getting nosebleeds from how far-flung the China debacle has gotten from the court, because the on-court product is the only truly compelling thing about the Clippers from a generalist perspective. To watch Kawhi is to see basketball reduced to tautology: The game is the game. Kawhi is unbelievably good at basketball without offering any tells or quirks to latch on to. He just is, and thus excellence finds him. He simplifies the court, but nothing he does looks particularly easy; most of his scoring drives are now handicapped by a noticeable loss of high-end explosiveness. He is no longer everywhere on the floor at once the way he was in San Antonio, but his presence on the floor feels omnipresent all the same, as though he is signaling to the opponent that, at any moment, he can reach that athletic extra gear of old Kawhi if he really wants to.
The Clippers have, for years, deployed players whose excellence felt like time bombs detonating at the worst possible moment. New additions arrive almost ensconced in the comfortable familiarity of the team’s failures. Kawhi alone offers a course corrective; I’ve reasoned that the root of Toronto’s success last season was Kawhi’s ability to keep the team (and its fans) focused on the game in front of them and not consequences of the Raptors’ past or future. The game is the game, and Kawhi might be its best player. And he’s on the Clippers. It still doesn’t fully track. We can call it a historic franchise reinvention, but if we’re being honest with ourselves, it’s still not totally clear how Kawhi’s particular gravity will affect the way we see the team.
The Clippers are all-time bottom-feeders who have come to represent the underbelly of Los Angeles, with a decentralized fan base that often identifies more as antagonists to the Lakers’ projection of a gilded, aspirational Hollywood dream than the protagonists of their own journey. As a public entity, the Clippers resemble their best player—they’re a narrative black hole. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s an insulating effect, not unlike what LeBron accomplished with his almost-universally disapproved comments about China, which served as a lightning rod and protected the interests of the rest of the NBA’s players. LeBron’s force of charisma creates waves in and out of the sport, no matter what he’s saying; no one is asking Kawhi about China, because his reputation as anticharismatic serves as a sort of deterring automated voicemail greeting: You won’t get anything from the exchange, and you know it. If Adam Silver is betting on excellence being a diversion from everything happening with China beyond his purview, the Clippers might just be considered a model franchise.
But the Clippers are also a product of unintended consequences stemming from the league’s dealings. The team’s assemblage of top-tier talent was both a groundbreaking master class in future-building from the front office perspective and a show of unprecedented agency on the part of the star player. The Clippers and Nets, both little brothers in the shadow of far more influential franchises, were among the biggest winners in free agency, landing some of the most coveted players in the league despite their marginal status.
It’s been said that the shape of NBA fandom has contorted, shifting away from local team alignment to following specific players. Or maybe Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Kevin Durant, and Kyrie Irving just wanted to tap into the biggest markets in the NBA without having to suffer the headaches of Lakers or Knicks ownership. Whatever the case, the viability of the Clippers as must-watch TV will be tested and will hold a great deal of weight if the talk about declining ratings is as dire as it’s been presented. They might not even need to carry the torch as far as ratings are concerned; the Los Angeles Lakers, their opening-night opponent, will be taking up much of the slack. The Clippers have 26 national television broadcast appearances to the Lakers’ 31, and it’d be next to impossible to contrive a story line with Leonard and George in the marquees that would come close to whatever is bound to happen with LeBron and Anthony Davis, who were at the center of the biggest regular-season drama last season and are now actually teammates. The thing about Kawhi’s brand of excellence is it’s almost antithetical to the very notions of storytelling: It’s about the destination more than it is the journey; it’s about winning, point blank, not #StrivingForGreatness. In other words, with the exception of George’s absence, the Lakers-Clippers opening-night matchup could not be a more perfect embodiment of the NBA at this very moment in time and history.
There is allegedly nothing new under the sun, but riddle me this: All around the world, there are people uttering a wholly original prediction, never before heard across all ages of civilization—The Clippers are going to win it all. The Clippers! The latest NBA campaign is just now beginning, but history, in that respect, has already been made. In a season that will shape the future of the league (in more ways than one), the Clippers have already won. They’re the most dramatic non-drama in the league, a plainly excellent team compiled in the most extravagant way. The Clippers are the most compelling thing currently under the NBA’s auspices. Maybe that should frighten you.