Are these Clippers Kenough?
6 mins read

Are these Clippers Kenough?

It’s Oscars Week, which feels like as good a time as any to draw up the NBA storylines and characters which could double as Oscar nominees. Next up are the L.A. Clippers and the 2024 season possibly being the culmination of their decade of prosperity.

A week ago Wednesday, the Clippers were 33-12 since Nov. 17, leading the Lakers by 21 after the third frame of a primetime matchup, and in position for the top seed in the West. Then, LeBron James stuffed the Los Angeles Clippers back into reality. They became bystanders in the largest 4th quarter Lakers comeback in 20 years, fell to 1-3 against their Crypto flatmates, and fourth in a packed Western Conference. Two days later, former Laker Russell Westbrook fractured his hand swiping Jordan Poole’s dribble away from behind. The loss and Westbrook’s injuries are a reminder that even with the marquee trio of Paul George, James Harden, and Kawhi Leonard, they’re just stock characters in the Lake Show

Greta Van Gerwig’s representation of Ken dolls as mere accessories in a Barbie world with more plasticized faces than Los Angeles is a precise analog of the Clippers. Clipper Ken has been an undesirable player in the L.A. pro sports industrial complex for 40 years. Billy Crystal is their Jack Nicholson. In the shadows of the Lakers dynasties they have no banners to raise, even their longtime GM was a Laker legend, and they’re one of only two franchises with no retired jerseys in the rafters. To make matters worse, between 1984 and 2014, the Clippers held the worst winning percentage in the NBA. The Lakers earned the league’s best. Their most consequential players in franchise history pre-Lob City were the fictional Zeke McCall and a few seasons of Baron Davis.

That Clipper Kenergy played a part in their inability to establish an identity of their own until Steve Ballmer bought the team. Donald Sterling’s racism and bigotry were already washed into the fabric of the Clippers, but their franchise reset wouldn’t have even been possible if the longtime Clippers Governor hadn’t disparaged Lakers legend Magic Johnson and ostensibly been forced to sell the organization. The world probably wouldn’t have batted an eye if he’d told his sugar baby V. Stiviano to stay away from black people and especially Terry Cummings.

Lob City was their first attempt to stage a coup, but that ended with a whimper. Every Ken has their day though, right? This fall, as part of a rebrand the Clippers will finally complete construction on their $2 billion Intuit Dome.

In the decade since Sterling’s banishment, the Clipper Kens have hit their stride as respectable members of L.A.’s vast sports community. Fifteen years after Kobe Bryant ended his drawn-out free agency by spurning the Clippers to re-sign with a revamped Lakers squad, Kawhi Leonard rejected the opportunity to launch a superteam in purple and gold alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis to play for the “other team” as the only consequential free agency signing in Clippers history.

Since 2014, the Clippers .614 winning percentage is the second-best among 30 teams during the regular season. The Lakers have the fifth-worst record in that span, but have a ring to show for their troubles.

Ballmer’s current Clipper core is an audacious collection of individual homegrown, L.A.-bred superstars vying for their first franchise title. They may be small and a little too dependent on wings at the expense of size or length, but these aren’t the washed-up trio of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Jason Terry.

Brooklyn’s infamous attempt to expedite owner Mikhail Prokhorov’s “title in five years” promise as part of the Nets’ operation to eat into the Knicks’ grip on New York City blew up in their faces almost immediately. Six years after that disaster class, Prokhorov sold the team to Joseph Tsai as the Celtics haul of picks began their run as a perennial contender. These Clippers are a legitimate threat to win the West. But ringz culture has sullied what’s been the most prosperous era in Clippers’ history. It isn’t Ken-ough for the Clips to be great though.

George and Leonard have advanced to a Conference Finals before, may have won it in 2021 if Leonard hadn’t suffered an injury, and are still playing at an All-NBA level. Harden’s descent from his peak as the heliocentric guard of this nuclear offensive age has been softened by his reassignment to maitre d’ and tertiary scorer supporting George and Leonard in Tyronn Lue’s offense. But we’ll look back at this decade as one of the worst for any team in terms of drafting talent. They possess no first-round picks until 2030 and haven’t hit on a pick since they shipped out Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in the Paul George swap.

But as their core four advance into their mid-30s though, the clock is running out the Old Kens in a young man’s league. Ahead of the Clippers in the Western Conference pecking order is an Oklahoma team that’s on the verge of becoming the Boston of the West. Five years after getting exiled to Oklahoma City SGA and a bevy of Thunder picks acquired from the Clippers in 2019 have propelled the Thunder to the top of the West well ahead of schedule. Harden is gearing up for one last contract skirmish this summer and George is getting old fast.

It doesn’t seem to matter what they do though, they’ll always be number two in L.A. The Intuit Dome locks them into L.A. for the long haul when they could have skipped town to become the darlings of Seattle. In 2013, Ballmer nearly purchased the Kings, but backed out when he was told he had to keep them in Sacramento. L.A. wouldn’t have noticed if the Clippers were gone. L.A.’s titles allow them to run the City of Champions. The only way for the Clippers to make inroads is by the No. 2 team in L.A. finishing the year as No. 1.

Find DJ Dunson on X: @cerebralsportex

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