There comes a moment in the life of every younger brother when enough is enough. Years of hallway headlocks and hand-me-down clothes two sizes too big have finally gotten to him. It's chipped away at his psyche until he realizes that he can't take it anymore. He's grown. And this is his house as well. The time has come to stand up for himself. The time has come to make a move.
Don't look now, but the Clippers are just about ready to make their move.
Los Angeles is a Lakers town. Sixteen NBA championship banners and eleven numbers hang in the rafters - all of them produced by the Lakers. It's no wonder why the Purple and Gold faithful walk around with an ego and see the Clippers as little bro.
"We're clearly aware of it," Clippers forward Tobias Harris told NBA.com when asked about L.A.'s affinity for the Lakers. "But let's handle our business. Real recognize real. And winning changes everything."
It's hard to argue that the Clippers have given fans much reason to even fathom switching sides. The Clippers have never been to a Western Conference Finals let alone an NBA Finals. For decades they made a home at the bottom of the standings. And even when they gained some form of relevance with the arrival of "Lob City", they disappointed - in classic Clippers fashion no less.
But last season's trade of franchise great Blake Griffin triggered a thought. Maybe the Clippers finally have a plan.
The decision to move on from the "Lob City" era was not an easy one to make. The best stretch in the history of the franchise-six consecutive playoff appearances gave the Clippers hope for the first time. But the highlight reel dunks were overshadowed by playoff failures and a team label of "whiny". Griffin may have been the most accomplished player in team history, but the team was middling. And there's no worse place to be in sports than the middle of the pack.
The trade was intended to wipe the slate clean from the "Lob City" era and open up two max slots this offseason. In order to shed the "little brother" label, the Clippers must make a splash in free agency. This much is clear. But it also had another less obvious effect on the franchise. The attitude had to change.
"The attitude comes from the head guy. It comes from Doc (Rivers)," Montrezl Harrell told NBA.com. "He told us we were going to be one of those hardnosed teams. People weren't going to respect us or give us any credit, so we come in every night to compete and get after it."
The Clippers are starless by NBA standards, and in a league where super teams are all the rave, this should cause them to be jostling for lottery position. But the collection of savvy veterans and young up-and-comers has led the Clippers to a top-eight spot in the West. And they've done it not with a star, but by having one of the deepest rosters in the league.
Tobias Harris, the centrepiece of the franchise-altering Griffin trade, is in the midst of a career year. His points per game (21.2), field goal percentage (50.2%) and three-point percentage (43.3%), are all career highs. And he's quietly emerged as the leader of a team that lacks a superstar.
"It's something as a player that I work hard to take responsibility for," Tobias answered when asked about his evolving role as leader. "I know every night that my team needs me to be at my best. And I do embrace that challenge."
Lou Williams is once again providing his usual scoring off the bench. He's in the conversation for a back to back Sixth Man of the Year award. Veteran guards Patrick Beverley and Avery Bradley provide tenacious defence in the backcourt.
Danilo Gallinari is in the midst of an incredible resurgence and is reminding everyone of how well he can play when healthy. Harrell might be the NBA's most improved player and rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has the look of a future star in the league
But it's the attitude that most sticks out when you're around the Clippers. An underdog mentality that is prevalent due to the collection and personalities of players on the roster. Players that are aware of the stigma that surrounds the Clippers. A stigma they're determined to shed.
"Going into the season, we heard all the talk from the reporters and analysts about how we weren't a playoff team," Harrell responded when asked about playing the role of underdog. "But we built this mindset and attitude of grit and grind and being a team that no one wants to play."
"We're a collection of guys. And we have a lot of guys having some really great years. Career years," said Harris when asked about playing the underdog role. "But there's still that underdog mentality that helps us focus on being the best we can be and be a playoff team".
It's an attitude that is necessary when trying to gain relevance in a city dominated by one of the most storied franchises in the NBA. The Clippers will never be the Lakers. The Lakers are flashy. They've always drawn stars (see LeBron James) and they've always loved the Hollywood vibe that comes with their name. The crowd is normally chockful with Hollywood elites. The Clippers have none of that. It's the working man's team. There is a certain sense of pride and resilience surrounding them. It's something the Clippers acknowledge and embrace.
"The Clippers fan base is grittier," former Laker Lou Williams told NBA.com when asked on the difference between Clippers and Lakers fans. "The Lakers fanbase likes more of a show. They love star power."
And it's something they hope will be attractive to free agents this summer. The Lakers are determined to add another superstar to pair with James. But the Clippers have set themselves up to be players this summer as well.
The hiring of Jerry West last year may be the most important move Steve Balmer has made in his short time as owner of the Clippers. "The Logo" changes organizations. Don't forget that West was part of the management team that made the Golden State Warriors what they are today. Having West along with potentially $70 million in cap space this summer has given the Clippers, for the first time, a legitimate shot at acquiring a star via free agency.
Kawhi Leonard will be a free agent and there is belief that if he leaves Toronto, he would prefer to play in Clipper blue rather than Laker purple and gold. Kevin Durant will also be available and after some recent comments, it's hard to see him wanting to play alongside James.
And why not the Clippers? The L.A. sun shines outside of Staples Center regardless of who's playing a home game on a Sunday afternoon. A free agent would have the opportunity to be the guy that moves the Clippers forward as opposed to playing second fiddle to James on the Lakers. Rivers is generally beloved by NBA players. It's all there for the Clippers.
So yes. The Lakers still own L.A. And it's not going to be easy for the Clippers to make headway in their attempt to rid themselves of the "second team" label.
But they're getting closer.
The older brother should keep his head on a swivel. Because the younger brother is getting ready to make his move.
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