I was wrong.
Not that it matters at all, but I was in the minority of people that declared the Clippers would win the first round series in five games. I imagined every match a taut, closely contested duel. But when one team has two top-15 players, unarguably the best point guard in the league and one of the very best closers, it felt like those would be enough to slingshot the Clippers to victory; especially against a team that’s generally struggled offensively.
I felt so comfortable with this logic that I made impassioned arguments, convincing others to abandon “Clippers in 7″ or “Grizzlies in 7″ predictions for the “Clippers in 5″ wagon. “Of course, it will be five games with Los Angeles closing out in Staples. It’s no disrespect to Memphis – they have a great team. But if every game is going to be close, then wouldn’t you trust Chris Paul more than any other factor in the series?” So much did I believe in this rhetoric that I made my first (and likely last) sports bet.
But that’s already near the end.
This is something that I’ve been struggling to write for the better part of two months. It started with flipping through the television guide in March, Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop* was half over.
*Exit Through the Gift Shop is a 2010 documentary about the rise of street art in the late ’90s and early 2000′s. It takes a peculiar turn when Banksy transitions from the object to the subject because of an unexpected new “artist” developing during the filming of the documentary. It’s very confusing as to whether the joke is on the viewer, on the art world, on the artists or simply inclusive of everyone. I’d highly recommend watching it.
This was in the midst of the Clippers’ turbulent March when they appeared more like a struggling .500 team than the contender that claimed a perfect December. Was the team like artists featured early in the doc? Did the Clippers rise from the back alleys and streets like Banksy, Space Invader, Shepard Fairey to make something on the periphery mainstream? Those graffiti artists operated on their own terms and forced the art world and pop culture to conform around them. And whether anyone liked it or not, the Clippers have largely functioned however they deemed fit. Now, after many seasons on the margins, they enjoyed the first spotlight of contendership.
Or were the Clippers more the quixotic documentary personality Thierry Guetta? He had the good fortune of being in the same social circle as the newly minted artists. And when these same artists told Guetta to “make art” as a distraction so they could make sense of all the footage shot, he unabashedly copied their style and method, pulled all his assets together and created a Banksy-esque art show. He transformed himself to Mr. Brainwash. What was so hard about street art? Imitate a style, mash it up, that’s what it looked like these newly famous street artists did. And so Guetta did the same. And he debuted to incredible success. This sounds vaguely familiar, doesn’t it?
Maybe the Clippers were Mr. Brainwash; having the good fortune of drafting Blake Griffin, being one of the few suitable partners to acquire Chris Paul. Explosion. They are now bonafide. Forget about the lack of positive history in the franchise. The past does not matter. Before, they were the Clippers; a team more interested in putting two nickels together than basketball. Now, they were Lob City; an instant success, their glitz demanded it.
Which is it? It’s something I’ve been struggling with since All-Star weekend. And it’s only been compounded by their early playoff exit. This cognitive dissonance is what’s caused so much discombobulation in writing, thinking, even appreciating the team this season. Are they a sustainable power now? Is it a situation of perception? Graffiti isn’t art until it sells at Sotheby’s for a million dollars. A franchise as infamous as the Clippers isn’t reformed until they are the main attraction. And that’s already happened.
Progress in the NBA is not a linear arc. We can project the upward trajectory of a team or franchise, marveling at the savvy maneuvers as an organization tries to inch closer to a championship. Oklahoma City has spoiled us in this regard. Slowly but surely they made steady, deliberate steps towards elite status; winning very few games with a young Durant and Westbrook. A first round six-game surprise battle with the eventual champion Lakers, a conference finals appearance the next year, an NBA Finals date the year after that. The Thunder painted such a clean narrative of their promise and realization of stated potential.
And by that standard, every team that does not push forward is flailing backwards.
But you only have to look across at the Clippers’ ouster from this year’s playoffs to see that isn’t true. Memphis made the stunning upset over San Antonio two years ago before pushing Oklahoma City to seven games. The next season, the Grizzlies are the victims themselves of another team with promise, the Clippers. Now, Memphis has marched to their first conference finals appearance with a reasonable opportunity for more.
Progress only looks like a straight line in hindsight.
In April 1917, Marcel Duchamp submitted Fountain to the Society of Independent Artists. It was a “Bedfordshire” model urinal that he turned on its back and declared art. Duchamp’s Fountain was equal parts high and low; the elevation of ready-made art, that anything could be art. And it was also a wry prank, the joke that art is literally a porcelain waste receptacle.
When Exit Through the Gift Shop first came out in 2010, I couldn’t tell if it was an elaborate hoax. Truthfully, I can’t completely be sure it still isn’t. I thought, “People couldn’t have really believed that Guetta was some grand artist, could they?” I looked up information on the events that transpired over the course of the documentary to sate my curiosity. And I wondered if it mattered what Guetta’s background or motivations were. If he decided he was an artist, is that all it took? What exactly makes an artist? What makes a contender? Dysfunctional franchises have won championships before. Stingy owners have fielded elite rosters.
Kevin Arnovitz likes to comment that a culture change is a four-game winning streak. Maybe the change of a franchise is as simple as winning games. How much has changed within the Clippers? No one really knows, but we all assume things might be different because the team is winning. It could be business as usual, but if the Clippers were to win a title? Everyone would laud the organization for changing their ways and making a commitment to excellence. Because organizations are largely a black box; declare yourself a contender, win games, can anyone tell if you’re art or a urinal? Is there a difference?