For many years, being a Clippers fan meant that you lived a life devoid of expectations. The Clippers never tempted you with promises of achievement and all the accoutrements that went with it — fun rivalries, meaningful games that were televised nationally, a guarantee that if you showed up at the arena the place would be berserk. Being a Clippers fan offered a simple, almost acetic comfort, even if you knew nothing of consequence would ever happen while you were watching.
When word got out in mid-July 2003 that the Clippers put six years and $78 million on the table for Elton Brand, it was stunning. The largest contract in Clippers history hitherto was Erik Piatkowski’s five year/$15 million deal. Ten days after signing Brand, the organization doubled down and matched Utah’s offer sheet for Maggette. The Clippers were actually building something.
It’s hard to construct anything out in the open without generating expectations. After that summer, the DNA of the Clipper fan morphed irreversibly. The immunity to failure that had long been a feature of that wiring was gone, and new senses developed.
These unfamiliar conditions are fraught with the risk of disappointment — but you also get turned on to all kinds of new phenomena, like the state of being in love with your team’s play for, like, three or four weeks in a row! Over the past six years, mood swings — previously unknown to Clippers fans — became a part of life. The Naçion was overcome by euphoria in the spring of 2006, only to have their giddiness doused by the banal mediocrity of 2006-07, followed Brand’s injury the following summer.
The 2008-09 season sent Clippers fans into a slow burn, and much of that was born out of the heightened expectations formed in 2003. Expectations come with a cost — and that’s the possibility that reality won’t honor them. Would you rather pay the penalty of those expectations — a wretched 19-63 season from a band of entitled babies — or return to a life without them?
Something’s gone wrong. It happens. Plans go awry. Assigning blame isn’t all that useful. But what I do think is useful is acknowledging the failure, appraising it, then taking the necessary steps to reverse it. What concerns me about the Clippers are the self-imposed constraints they’ve created — acquisitions and contracts that have been discussed ad nauseum — that could prevent them from drawing up a blueprint to start over.
Rebuilding is difficult. It requires discipline, and a restraint from the impatient desire to win quickly. Sacramento is currently crappy — they owned the worst record in the NBA this season — but they have designs to improve. The organization has identified the talent it wants to build around, and appreciates that they still have holes to fill. That’s part of the life cycle of most NBA franchises. If the Kings make a smart hire at head coach, they’ll be on their way.
Will the Clippers ask themselves the difficult questions a franchise in their position must? Questions like, “Can an NBA team build anything real with Zach Randolph?” And, “Is it possible that a head coach, even one who is renowned for his preparation, might be in an unwinnable situation, fair or not?” Or, “Since we’re stuck with a mercurial star who still has redeemable qualities as a point guard somewhere in his game, what are the three best ways to maximize those qualities?” Some of these questions will prove unanswerable, and some of the answers unsatisfactory.
At the beginning of the decade the Clippers were an organization that tinkered, sometimes curiously, with possibility — and that was before they reconstitued what it meant to be a Clippers fan. Inquiry is a useful conduit for possibility, so long as the right questions are asked.