I remember it well.
Before I was 15 years old, I couldn’t recall a season in which the Clippers won more than 39 games. The 2001-02 NBA season, when I was 11 going on 12, was the most glorious basketball year of my life. That 39-win season was both the best (most wins) and the worst (worst draft pick) I had seen. And you know you’ve had a downtrodden NBA lifetime when you’re consistently evaluating your team based on its lottery pick.
But when I was 15, I was actually excited. There was no thrilling win, no buzzer beater, no incredible dunk, and definitely no Lob City. It wasn’t even during the regular season. That was the life of a Clipper fan in 2005: Become exhilarated about hope so that you can justify the intangible. And that hot August day was no different. Hope was streaming through my veins once I saw that the Clippers had traded Marko Jaric and Lionel Chalmers to the Timberwolves for Sam Cassell and a future first-round pick.
It was a classic move. Trade for an undervalued player coming off a poor shooting season and help him turn it around the next year. And what do you know? The 2005-06 season was magical. Elton Brand had the best year of his underrated career, Cuttino Mobley and Vlad Rad knocked down threes, Mike Dunleavy’s head only popped four blood vessels, and most importantly, Cassell had a bounce back season. By the end of it, the Clippers had 47 victories and their first ever playoff series win. It was easily the best year of my NBA-watching life, but I took it for granted, which is something we can’t be doing right now.
I nostalgically reflect on ’05-’06 mainly because I wasn’t appreciative enough when the season was actually going on, a trait most Clippers fans share today. For all the problems with the rotations – whether they’re ones on defense or substitutions – or the uncreative offense or the speculative issues with chemistry, this is still a division-winning, 51-26 team. Obviously, there are issues that could be – and should be – mended. That’s the analytical side. But for now, the analytical side might be the pessimistic one.
.662. That’s where the Clippers’ winning percentage stands today: .662. And this year is unlike 2005-06 in that today’s team is built to last. The group seven years ago wasn’t going to sustain more than a couple years of competitiveness at most. Because there wasn’t any sustainability, the Clippers’ win total took a dive for three straight seasons: from 47 in ’05-‘06 to 40 in ’06-’07 to 23 in ’07-’08 to a dreadful 19 in ’08-’09. After one blissful year, I went back to being – for lack of a better term – a Clipper fan.
The Clippers won’t be back at 19 wins in three years. For the first time ever, that’s not a bold statement. And that’s exactly the point. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin give the Clippers that sustainability.
The Clips used to be at a standstill, tied up by their own poor decisions and unable to move because of them. Today’s Clippers aren’t just moving, they’re accelerating. From 32 wins two years ago to a 50-win pace in the lockout season to 51-plus wins and a division title this year. Yet, we continue to point out that the acceleration just isn’t fast enough. I’ve fallen victim to pessimism, too. Sometimes, it’s hard not to when the defense fails to protect the rim because it thought DeAndre Jordan playing 25 feet away from the hoop was a good idea. It’s tough when Eric Bledsoe rots away on the bench while quick, opposing point guards continue to beat down on the Clippers’ guards. But there’s a way to be analytical, realistic, and appreciative all at once. I know about the Clippers’ flaws. I’ve written about them, spoken about them, and agonized over them. But no matter what, it was always going to be a great day when “Clipper fan” became no longer synonymous with “depressed basketball watcher that only has Ralph Lawler to cheer for”.
Don’t we remember fans showing up to the Staples Center with bags over their heads? How about that there used to be almost no national TV games? Isn’t it nice that January was once the point when we started to think about the lottery and now it’s the mile marker for when the Clips can set the car to cruise control until the playoffs? I always imagined how cheerful Clippers fans would be once the team became consistently good. It didn’t turn out like that. It’s the Patrick James Corollary: The team garnered expectations before achievement. That’s a good way to end up disappointed. I regret the way I watched the ’05-’06 season. I thought the Clips finally had something. They did, but it was only for a year. So for now, enjoy this. We’re Clippers fans. We should know how fleeting basketball happiness can be.