LA LA Land
Thanks to an off-season of good fortune, the Los Angeles Clippers — in town for a couple of preseason games next week — are now California dreamin’ their way to an NBA championship.
The city located some 2,560 miles northeast of Honolulu has long been the epicenter of many earth-rattling, landscape-altering moments. But that temblor felt earlier this summer in LA was unlike any shockwave in recent memory, reverberating well beyond its municipal limits.
Ground zero turned out to be the corporate office headquarters for the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers, who, in a seismic move back in July, acquired two of the league’s premier talents and promptly shook-up the association’s power structure. When the rumblings stopped, the team was in a California-cool mood because of its unexpected bonanza: All-star forward Paul George,
formerly of the Oklahoma City Thunder, and all-world forward Kawhi Leonard, the most coveted free agent on the market and last season’s Finals MVP for the Toronto Raptors, were finally in the team’s fold.
Few expected the Clippers to land the biggest fish in the sea and instantly create a title-contending juggernaut — but that they did. It was a thrilling moment for the nearly 50-year-old franchise that has never before reached the NBA Finals, and a fortuitous move that essentially puts the rest of the league on notice.
So, who’s playing for second place?
OK, that’s cold-blooded. Still, it’s best to pump the brakes here, take a 20-second timeout and tamp down expectations. Despite what many prognosticators are doing (jumping on the bandwagon) and fans are saying (“Clippers gonna win the title, baby!”), none of this is a slam dunk. It never is. After all, the road to securing a Larry O’Brien trophy is fraught with potholes and dead ends — which include player injuries and chemistry issues.
Plus, the competition will be stiff. Among the squads attempting to bump the Clippers from the pathway to the throne are their crosstown rival Los Angeles Lakers, who made their own off-season splash by trading for all-star forward Anthony Davis. And at last check, the Lakers are still the only LA team with a king in LeBron James.
But you can’t help but feel the earth move when imagining a Clipper lineup of Leonard and George on the wings, and fellow hoop savants Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley and Montrezl Harrell beside them. For hardwood fans, that’s a heavenly ensemble capable of making life a living hell for opponents.
“It is an exciting time,” admits coach Glenn “Doc” Rivers, who’s entering his sixth season at the helm and who led the squad to a 48-34 record last year, a second-place finish in the highly competitive Pacific Division, and yet another playoff berth. “We have done a lot of winning in my time with the Clippers. Over the last five or six years, we have won a lot.
“But,” he adds, “we want to be the winner.”
Rivers knows a little something about being the last man standing, having coached the Boston Celtics to the 2008 NBA crown. So when he asserts that he has the feels for this year’s team and its championship potential, you believe him.
“This group is new. This is our creation,” he says, noting that his superstars will be surrounded by a group of veterans that includes recently acquired forward Maurice “Moe” Harkless, as well as promising young studs in guards Landry Shamet and Jerome Robinson, and center Ivica Zubac.
“Everyone will play a key role for us this season,” says Rivers. “We have a very deep team, and we’re very happy to bring back the guys we did. … Adding Moe, an experienced playoff player in the NBA, will help us for sure.
“I feel like that college coach, when you first get the job and you take all the recruits that are there and try to win with them — and then you get your recruits,” he continues.
“That’s how I feel. This is our team. And we feel really good about it.”
Two thousand, five hundred and sixty miles southwest of the City of Angels is the centermost point of paradise, where rumbling sounds are emanating from Stan Sheriff Center on the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa campus. But those aren’t aftershocks. They’re the thunderous applause generated by the thousands of professional basketball fans expected to be in attendance when the Clippers host the Houston Rockets Oct. 3 in the teams’ preseason opener.
Three days later, on Oct. 6, thousands more are anticipated when the Clippers play an exhibition game against the Shanghai Sharks of the Chinese Basketball Association.
This will be the third consecutive preseason in which the Clippers are holding training camp in the islands. Perfect weather is the perfect setting to launch what team officials hope will culminate in a perfect ending. And Hawai‘i, it seems, is the ideal place to begin the journey.
“We love coming to Hawai‘i,” says Rivers, a tough, defensive-minded point guard who played for a number of NBA teams in the late ’80s and early ’90s, including the LA Clippers during the 1991-92 campaign. “It’s a great opportunity to be in paradise playing basketball. Gives our guys a great opportunity to get to know each other, bond and experience the beautiful culture of Hawai‘i. We love the fans and look forward to their support.”
While its fan base continues to grow, the organization’s recent success can be largely attributed to the financial backing and leadership skills of its chairman and majority team owner, Steve Ballmer. The former CEO of Microsoft, Ballmer first entered the NBA picture five years ago when he rescued the Clippers from the scandal-filled era of Donald Sterling, the team’s disgraced former owner. His bid of $2 billion (Ballmer was worth an estimated $37 billion in 2017) to purchase the franchise was ultimately accepted by the NBA.
Since taking the reins of the franchise, Ballmer has helped foster a fresh outlook within the organization. No longer is this your father’s or grandfather’s brand of Clippers’ basketball; rather, it’s a well-coached, well-run operation shooting to be a model franchise in the league.
Among the exciting possibilities on the horizon is a proposed multi-billion dollar, state-of-the-art sports complex, tentatively named Inglewood Basketball and Entertainment Center. Currently, the team plays home games at Staples Center, a multi-purpose arena it has shared with the Lakers since 1999. But if all goes well with the privately funded sports complex, which includes an arena capable of seating 18,500 people, the Clippers will have one of the best-looking digs come 2024.
And that, according to Rivers, is a credit to Ballmer, who appears committed to creating a winner at all cost. His willingness to part with six draft picks, for example, was the key in completing the trade for George and ensuring the signing of Leonard.
“We have the best owner in sports,” the coach notes. “(Steve) is very passionate about this team and our success on and off the court.”
Suffice to say, the Clippers are loaded heading into the 2019-20 season. Vegas already has them as one of the odds-on-favorites to win the title, and Rivers intends to do everything within his power to ensure that what began as a rumble in LA ends with a bang in June.
“I view this as another opportunity to win it,” Rivers says. “And let’s be honest: You don’t have a lot of opportunities to actually win it. When you have that, you take advantage of it.”
Clippers To Play Rockets, Sharks
For the third straight year, the Los Angeles Clippers will tip-off their preseason schedule with a couple of games in Honolulu.
On Thursday, Oct. 3 at 7 p.m., the team will battle Russell Westbrook, James Harden and the Houston Rockets. Then on Sunday, Oct. 3 at 1 p.m., the team plays the Shanghai Sharks of the Chinese Basketball Association. The Sharks are owned and run by former NBA big man and star Yao Ming.
Both games will be played at Stan Sheriff Center, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa and are part of the Clippers annual training camp exhibition series held in the islands.