Only twice before had the franchise that has been known since 1984 as the Los Angeles Clippers been as close to reaching the conference finals as it found itself in May 2015.
Back-to-back blowouts at the Staples Center of the injury-riddled Houston Rockets left the Clippers with a commanding 3-1 lead in their Western Conference semifinal series and the optimism was palpable that the franchise–just a year removed from a damaging scandal that led to the lifetime ban of its longtime owner and the subsequent record-setting sale–would be part of the NBA’s last four teams standing for the very first time.
“That’s not what we want to achieve,” center DeAndre Jordan told The Associated Press after thwarting Houston’s strategy of fouling him early and often by making 14-of-34 at the line. “We want to win nine more games.”
As it turns out, the Clippers came up nine wins short of Jordan’s lofty goal.
Houston rebounded for a 124-103 win in Game 5 back on their home court and escaped Game 6 in Los Angeles with a 119-107 win, coming back from a 19-point deficit in the third period, to send the series back to South Texas for Game 7.
The Rockets won 113-100, giving the Clippers the dubious honor of being just the NBA’s ninth team to lose a seven-game series after being up 3-1.
For the franchise, it was a third Game 7 loss in a conference semifinal, but it was by far the most painful. There had been a 127-107 loss to the favored Phoenix Suns in 2006 and, while the franchise was still the Buffalo Braves, a 115-96 loss to the Washington Bullets in 1975.
It was another sign that the karma from 42 seasons of almost non-stop failure was not going to go down without a fight.
For the Los Angeles Clippers, These Are The Good Old Days
The Los Angeles Clippers are enjoying their best stretch of regular-season play in the history of the franchise, which dates back to the 1970 NBA expansion that added the Buffalo Braves, Cleveland Cavaliers and Portland Trail Blazers to the league map.
Now 26-13 and with 10 straight wins after a 104-90 victory over the Miami Heat on Wednesday, the Clips are on pace for a franchise-high fifth consecutive winning season.
The only other time the club has won more than it lost for more than one year in a row–three straight seasons from 1973-74 through 1975-76 in Buffalo.
The franchise came into the 2015-16 season with a record of 1,416-2,226–810 games below the break-even point.
Yes, that means the team would have to go undefeated for almost 10 straight seasons to get its all-time record to .500.
Their current winning streak marks just the fifth time in franchise history the team has won at least 10 games in a row. The Braves had an 11-game rum in November 1974, while the Clippers won 11 straight in February-March 2014 and by finishing 2014-15 with seven straight wins before opening this season with four Ws in a row.
The team record is a 17-game run from Nov. 28-Dec. 30, 2012.On the other hand, the franchise has a whopping 24 losing streaks that have reached double-digits, topped by a 20-game string of futility bridging the end of 1993-94 (four straight losses) and the beginning of 1994-95 (an 0-16 start).
So the salad days of the franchise are right here, right now. Coach Doc Rivers is 139-64 since coming from the Boston Celtics after the 2012-13 season and had navigated the club to back-to-back second-round postseason exits.
For this franchise? That’s Red Auerbach-level success.
But what are the Clippers up against when they confront their history? One has to go all the way back to tbe beginning to get a true grasp of it.
The NBA Returns To Western New York
A group of investors headed by Philip Ryan and Peter Crotty dropped $3.7 million to get the rights to an NBA expansion franchise for Buffalo that would begin play in the 1970-71 season, according to “National Basketball Association Strategies: Business Expansions, Relocations, and Mergers” by Frank P. Jozsa Jr.
But they didn’t have the team long, selling it to frozen-food magnate Paul Snyder, who ran the team as a business and helped pave the way for some early success after the usual expansion hiccups.
It was a region that had been home to two successful NBA franchises in the 1940s and 1950s, the Rochester Royals, a little more than 70 miles east of Buffalo; and the Syracuse Nationals, roughly 170 miles to the east.
Schayes guided the expansion entry to a 22-60 record in 1970-71, but after a 123-90 loss to the Seattle SuperSonics at home to open their Braves’ second season, Snyder abruptly fired Schayes, replacing him with Buffalo scout and former NBA player Johnny McCarthy.
Buffalo finished with an identical 22-60 record and McCarthy was kicked to the curb at season’s end.
Enter Jack Ramsay.
Ramsay had been the general manager for the championship 76ers squad in 1966-67 and later coached Philadelphia for four seasons before resigning on March 26, 1972.
Just 11 days later, Ramsay was introduced as the new coach of the Braves. His first team, despite the arrival of Rookie of the Year Bob McAdoo from the University of North Carolina in the NBA Draft, was just as bad as the first two seasons, in fact falling to 21-61.
Another high-profile rookie was about to arrive and before the season began, a major trade would change the mix considerably.
Enter Ernie D. And The Other Mac
The Braves used the third pick in the 1973 NBA Draft to take Providence All-American Ernie DiGregorio, who burst onto the scene by leading the Association in assists and free-throw shooting en route to Rookie of the Year honors.
But it was the arrival of Jim McMillian that changed the franchise.
Acquired from the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for big man Elmore Smith, McMillian brought a championship pedigree to Buffalo, having been the guy who replaced Elgin Baylor prior to the Lakers going on a record 33-game winning streak and winning the title in 1972.
McAdoo’s career erupted with the first of three straight scoring titles and the Braves doubled their victory total to 42 before losing to the eventual champion Boston Celtics in the conference semifinals, then also known as the first round.
The Buffalo Braves reached their zenith in 1974-75. Despite a season-ending knee injury to DiGregorio just 31 games into the campaign, McAdoo stormed to NBA MVP honors as Buffalo won 49 games and pushed the top-seeded Washington Bullets to seven games before losing a hard-fought series.
No one realized it at the time, but it was the beginning of the end for the NBA in Buffalo.
The Braves went 46-36 in 1975-76, beating the 76ers in a first-round mini-series before being beaten in six games by Boston in the conference semis.
More from Hoops Habit
- Boston Celtics: Landing Jerami Grant would be a ridiculously good move
- 2021 NBA Trade Deadline: 10 trades we need to see
- Indiana Pacers: T.J. McConnell produces unexpected history
- Pistons: How Jerami Grant can make next year’s All-Star Game
- Boston Celtics: Efficient 3-point shooting night clinches big win over Clippers
Things began to unravel quickly in Buffalo.
DiGregorio was never the same after his injury. Snyder made a deal to sell the Braves to Florida businessman Irving Cowan, who was going to move the team to Miami, but a federal judge blocked the move.
Instead, Snyder sold half of the franchise to John Y. Brown, who had gotten a significant chunk of change in exchange for folding the Kentucky Colonels to help pave the way for the NBA to merge with the rival American Basketball Association.
Brown in turn sold a portion of the franchise to another investor, with the caveat that any proceeds from the sale of players would go to Snyder, thus reducing the purchase price.
McMillian was the first to go, sold to the New York Knicks in September 1976, and he would be joined in Manhattan by McAdoo in December.
Not even the arrival of the Braves’ third Rookie of the Year, Adrian Dantley, and the continued steady play of Buffalo State alum Randy Smith could prevent the Braves from plummeting to 30-52 and out of the playoffs.
The last hurrah for the Braves came at the 1978 All-Star Game in Atlanta, when Smith earned MVP honors after scoring 27 points with seven rebounds and six assists to lead the East to a 133-125 win.
In June 1978, the Braves came to an abrupt end.
Boston Celtics owner Irving Levin–the film producer–wanted to move his team closer to his Brentwood, Calif., home.
But the NBA was not about to allow its most storied franchise to be yanked out of Boston and shipped to California. So instead, Levin traded the Celtics–lock, stock and barrel–to Brown for the Braves … who were then trundled off to San Diego.
The Buffalo Braves lasted just eight seasons, posting a record of 259-397 in the regular season and a mark of 9-13 in the playoffs.
The Birth Of The Clippers
San Diego had already failed as a pro basketball market twice before the rechristened Braves arrived in the summer of 1978.
The NBA had awarded an expansion franchise to the city in 1967, but the Rockets lasted just four seasons before low attendance led to the team being sold to a group of Houston businessmen in 1971.
The ABA then gave it a shot with the San Diego Conquistadors, an expansion club, in 1972. But the Q’s (as they were called by exasperated headline writers) never gained a following and folded early in the ABA’s final season of 1975-76 after trying to rebrand the club the Sails.
The team made a splashy addition on the eve of its inaugural campaign in California, acquiring guard World B. Free from the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for a first-round pick in 1984.
With Free and Buffalo transplant Randy Smith scoring the points, the Clippers won 43 games in 1978-79, but finished two games behind Jack Ramsay’s Portland Trail Blazers for the last playoff spot in the West.
The Clippers swung for the fences in the summer of 1979, signing San Diego native Bill Walton as a free agent.
Walton, who had missed the entire 1978-79 season with a foot injury, was never healthy as a Clipper and mustered just 14 games in his first season with the club. Along with losing power forward Kermit Washington and center Kevin Kunnert as part of the compensation for signing the former MVP, the Clippers slid back to 35 wins the following season–three short of Portland for the final playoff berth.
San Diego missed the postseason by four games in 1980-81 before another ownership change set the stage for an unprecedented run of complete failure.
Enter The Donald (No, Not That One)
Donald Sterling purchased the Clippers from Irv Levin for $12.5 million in June 1981 and the groans began almost immediately.
The 1981-82 season marked the first of 10 consecutive years during which the Clippers–who moved to Los Angeles in 1984–would lose at least 50 games, punctuated by a 12-70 mark in 1986-87.
The franchise went 15 seasons between the Braves’ final playoff appearance in 1976 and the Clippers finally getting there in 1992.
They were a joke, a punch line, an abomination.
And they also made Sterling a hell of a lot of money. By operating the team on a shoestring, the Clippers’ failures on the court never stopped Sterling from achieving large profits, particularly after the team moved into the new Staples Center to share it with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1999.
Bad basketball never paid so good.
There was stability of sorts, in the person of long-suffering general manager Elgin Baylor, who oversaw the operations of the team for 22½ years before he was fired in October 2008.
The Clippers were in the draft lottery so often during Baylor’s tenure that there was a long-standing joke he owned a second home in Secaucus, N.J.–the site of the annual drawing.
Combinations of bad choices and bad luck doomed the Clippers for decades.
Despite all of those lottery chances, the Clips only landed the top pick twice with Baylor at the helm–in 1988, when they selected Kansas’ Danny Manning, and in 1998, when they took Michael Olowokandi from the University of the Pacific.
Manning demolished his knee 26 games into his rookie season and, despite making two All-Star appearances, was never the superstar he was projected to be.
Olowokandi was a disaster from the start, a small-school kid who never was able to stand up to the scrutiny or expectations associated with being the top-overall pick.
And the coaches … oh, good God, the coaches.
It only seems as if the Clippers were changing coaches every 25 minutes or so, but the actual rate wasn’t much longer.
Since launching the franchise in 1971, there have been 25 coaches–including interim appointees–in 46 seasons.
By comparison, the Boston Celtics have been around since 1946 … and have used 17 coaches.
The list includes Hall of Famers (Ramsay, Larry Brown), championship winners (Bill Fitch, Doc Rivers) and just about everyone else under the NBA sun.
Of course, one can’t forget the trades, either. This is a franchise that traded a young Terry Cummings for Marques Johnson and spare parts, a team that swapped a young Tom Chambers for James Donaldson, Greg Kelser and a guy named Mark Radford.
Baylor could do some amazing things in trades–such as turning a serviceable NBA center in Olden Polynice into William Bedford and a broken-down Don MacLean, who he then flipped to get John Williams (the one nicknamed “Hot Plate” after being suspended by the Washington Bullets for a year for being overweight).
But Baylor also turned the remaining prime of Manning into less than a half-season of an aging Dominique Wilkins, though … so there’s that.
The trade for Chris Paul in 2011 signaled a seismic shift for the franchise, though. After dodging the draft luck bullet with 2009 No. 1 pick Blake Griffin, who missed all of what would have been his rookie year with a broken kneecap before coming back to win Rookie of the Year honors in 2010-11, the trade for Paul has brought an unprecedented era of success to the franchise.
Despite Sterling’s best efforts to tear it all apart.
Tarnished Sterling And The Future
Donald Sterling’s tenure as owner of the Clippers coincided with Sterling being named as a defendant in a number of civil rights suits related to his other business enterprise, residential real estate.
He was sued by Elgin Baylor for racial discrimination in 2009, a suit he eventually won. But he paid almost $3 million to settle a housing discrimination suit brought by the U.S. Department of Justice, one of many instances where Sterling was accused of racist behavior.
The team staged its own protest, warming up for a playoff game with the logo on their warmup shirts covered by turning them inside out.
Sterling got paid well for his transgressions, eventually selling the team for a record $2 billion to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer before the 2014-15 season.
The Clippers are clearly one of the NBA’s elite teams and, at least at first glance, it appears the road through the Western Conference playoffs might not be as daunting.
Only seven teams in the West have winning records, but that only obscures the fact that the fourth-place Clippers might have the biggest mountain they’ve ever faced to climb this spring.
Ahead of them in the Western hierarchy at this point:
- An Oklahoma City Thunder squad headlined by Hall of Fame tandem Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
- A San Antonio Spurs team on pace to post the highest margin of victory total in NBA history, as well setting a new standard in Basketball-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System, ahead of the 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks.
- And, if that wasn’t enough … oh, by the way, the defending champion Golden State Warriors are on pace to smash the all-time record for victories in a season.
The Clippers are flirting with a franchise record of their own, just off the pace they set in 2013-14, when they won 57 games (L.A. is on course to win 55 games this season).
But when one combines an epic meltdown in the playoffs last year with the almost-unbroken string of futility put together by this franchise, the worst enemy of the Clippers this spring may not be the Thunder, Spurs, Warriors or anyone else.
It might be the 800-pound gorilla of the Clippers’ past failures.