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For the Clippers to Take the Next Step, They May Need to Say Goodbye to the Most Beloved Team in Franchise History

The Clippers smashed expectations and showed up the Lakers in almost every way. But realizing their superteam goals may cost them all the goodwill they built this season. Is it worth it?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When people find out that I’m a Clippers fan, they often ask some variation of the same question: “How did that happen?” I have a canned answer for it: My family moved to Los Angeles in July 2005, when the Clippers superseded the Lakers as the city’s best team. The 2005-06 Clippers — featuring a dominant Elton Brand; Sam Cassell’s large, aging testicles; an older Cuttino Mobley; a younger Chris Kaman; and a prime Corey Maggette shaking off a nagging foot injury—won a respectable 47 games, the most since the franchise was known as the Buffalo Braves. That team not only won me over, it was by far the most beloved team in franchise history … until this season.

The 2018-19 Clippers were not supposed to go 48-34. They traded away franchise savior Blake Griffin before the 2018 deadline and lost longtime defensive anchor DeAndre Jordan in free agency, marking the end of the Lob City era. With zero remaining players from the most successful stretch in franchise history, the season was forecasted to be a step backward, as reflected in the preseason win total betting line of 35.5. To make matters worse, the next-door-neighbor Lakers landed LeBron James in free agency and looked to restore their rich tradition. The Clips, on the other hand, seemed well on their way to reassuming their position as the forgotten little brother of Los Angeles basketball.

Instead, the Clippers defied expectations at every turn, playing with a resiliency that shocked opponents and fans alike. They held first place in the formidable Western Conference for a week or so in November and continued to bulldoze over conventional suppositions after trading leading scorer and rebounder Tobias Harris, going 18-9 the rest of the way and rolling to an improbable playoff berth.

As predictions shattered left and right, these Clippers supplanted the 2005-06 team as the most beloved team in franchise history. The grit of this team resonates with the Clippers fan base—a fan base that is, at least in my experience, mostly blue-collar locals who took to the team either because they feel at odds with the glitz and glamor of the Lakers or because they could actually afford a seat at a Clippers game. The fact that they won 11 more games than LeBron James’s Lakers made it even sweeter.

Lakers schadenfreude may fuel Clippers fandom almost as much as a fondness for the Clippers themselves, probably because choosing to become a Clippers fan is as much a rejection of the easy choice. The Lakers, despite their six-year dry spell, are one of the most successful and popular teams in all of sports. So it cannot be overstated how satisfying it is for Clippers fans that their team bested the Lakers in what was supposed to be their return to greatness. The 2005-06 Lakers also languished, relative to their prosperous history, but they had Kobe Bryant at the peak of his post-Shaq, cold-blooded era; Bryant averaged 35.4 points that season, the most since Michael Jordan nearly two decades before. This season’s Lakers had LeBron, the closest player to Kobe’s celebrity in recent history, yet the team not only failed to even make the playoffs, large swaths of Lakers fans outright rejected James as one of their own.

The Clippers, meanwhile, were not only good, they were good because of a series of prudent decisions rather than a misguided hope in exceptionalism, which has been the guiding force for the Lakers even in their golden years. While the Lakers tried to bully the Pelicans into giving them their best player, the Clippers executed a series of trades that landed them two 22-year-old starters—one from the Lakers in a deadline heist—two quality rotation players, and more draft picks, all without sacrificing future financial flexibility. It was as if the Clippers were showing the Lakers what they should be doing in real time.

The Clippers’ meticulous approach was also a contrast with how the best teams in franchise history were built. The Lob City era lived off the star power of Griffin, Jordan, and Chris Paul, and to a lesser extent JJ Redick, yet the front office, run for the most part by coach Doc Rivers, could never find a capable fifth starter, let alone a competent bench. So much about the Clippers had changed—Donald Sterling, their longtime repugnant owner, was banned from the NBA amid the team’s first-round victory over the Warriors—yet they were still undone by mismanagement. There were also the grating on-court antics, the constant injuries, and a string of playoff letdowns. In 2017, FiveThirtyEight’s Neil Paine found that the Lob City Clippers were statistically the most disappointing team in NBA history. More than the franchise-best win totals, that is their legacy—what could have been.

The 2018-19 Clippers had no expectations to speak of. There were no “if only Chris and Blake could stay healthy at the same time” or “if only Elton Brand could make the leap” concerns. And when there’s nowhere to go but up, even the smallest victories are more satisfying. Danilo Gallinari and Pat Beverley, two veterans with extensive injury histories, stayed healthy for most of the season. Presumptive Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams somehow managed to elevate, not decline, at age 32. Montrezl Harrell, who I once called a human torpedo, became more of a human ballistic missile. Draft enigma Shai Gilgeous-Alexander surprised everyone but Jerry West with solid all-around production and earned himself the starting point guard spot.

The season ended Friday in a first-round exit against the reigning champion Golden State Warriors, though not without a memorable, and historic, 31-point comeback victory at Oracle Arena in Game 2, and another win on the champs’ home floor in Game 5. But unlike several of the teams getting tossed from the playoffs this week, things only figure to get better from here for the Clippers. While the front office has made good on owner Steve Ballmer’s pledge to remain competitive, it’s hardly a secret that all of the moves the Clippers have made of late were done with an eye toward this summer, when Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and a few other franchise-changing players could be available. Landing any player of that caliber would be a dramatic leap forward for the franchise; while the Lob City team featured two of the biggest names in the sport at the time, neither Griffin nor Paul picked the team as a free agent (though both did re-sign). The catch is that signing any one (or two) star would mean losing at least some of the cogs of this season’s team.

Only six players on this Clippers roster have guaranteed contracts for next year (Gallo, Lou, Trez, SGA, Landry Shamet, and Jerome Robinson). Beverley, the heart of the team, will be an unrestricted free agent and presumably looking to cash in for what could be his final non-minimum deal in the NBA (he’ll turn 31 in July). And if they somehow swing a deal for Anthony Davis or need to open up cap space for a second max contract, it would most likely require them to find a new home for Gallinari’s contract. Even the most ardent Gallo supporters among Clippers fans—myself included—would happily sign off on a deal that meant adding a player of Davis’s caliber, but the calculus, at least among fans, goes beyond cap sheets with a team this beloved.

If you polled Clippers fans right now, most might say “just re-sign everybody and have another go at it.” And on the surface, that’s logical; many of the core players other than Beverley are under contract, and the young players will presumably improve. But trying to re-create the magic of this season may be even more dangerous than trying to cash in some of the pieces for a star. The Clippers’ extraordinary injury luck cannot possibly last for another season, especially as players age another year. Plus, it would be foolish to bank on all the young players developing as predicted; just ask the Celtics.

Remember that beloved 2005-06 team? Well, its direct successor may be a warning sign for this upcoming offseason. In the summer of 2006, the Clips re-signed Cassell and Kaman, replaced Vladimir Radmanovic with Tim Thomas, and banked on Shaun Livingston’s development. But Cassell, at age 37, predictably declined and sat out much of the season with injuries. Then Livingston went down with a horrific leg injury that derailed his career. The Clippers went 40-42 and were edged out of the playoff field by the “We Believe” Warriors. In the following years, the Clippers slipped back into the doldrums until they won the Blake Griffin lottery in 2009—and even then, they had to wait an extra year because of a left knee injury in Griffin’s preseason debut.

If that sounds overly cynical, then you must be new to the Clippers. The franchise’s history of futility runs deep, and even though they’ve been more successful of late—the Clippers have as many playoff berths over the past eight years (seven) as they did in the previous 40—it has hardly been a pax romana. Still, if the rumors are true, the Clips will at least add Leonard to their strong young core and continue their steady ascent in the Western Conference. We’ll see. My only hope is that this Clippers team is a prelude of bigger things to come, rather than just another faint glimmer of hope before everything falls apart.

This season was special. I hope it stays that way.