Eric Gordon has mixed feelings about thinking long-term when it comes to the Los Angeles Clippers and who can blame him? The Clippers is an organization famous for its frugality, fringe performances and massive player turnover, all clues leading to a losing culture on the hardwood. All three are a direct assault on the usual business of winning games, something that the Clippers haven’t done with any regularity… ever. Players and coaches who might think that they can be the one to change the culture are quickly thwarted by owner Donald Sterling’s insistence on keeping things just meaty enough to not be classified as “bare bones” but bare bones enough not to matter to any great degree. Others fall in love with the “challenge”. In a world where one must win and one must lose, Sterling has crowned himself winner at his own team’s expense.
“Next year I guess is going to be a change,” says Gordon, referring to next autumn’s training camp that will not have fired general manager and head coach Mike Dunleavy Sr. at the helm for the first time in seven seasons. “I can see myself here for a long time but at the same time I could probably see myself elsewhere.”
Elton Brand was the last big name to leave, bolting outright to the Philadelphia 76ers the minute he was an unrestricted free agent in 2008 and, perhaps to Sterling’s delight and design, left the Clippers with nothing (no commitments) in return. Brand had been part of the Clippers team that two years prior had brought the club to the playoffs for the first time in nine years and just the fourth time since the franchise moved from Buffalo to San Diego to L.A. in 1978. It was as predicted – fleeting. Lightening in a bottle. The exception to the stale Clippers rule of business before pleasure. What fans the Clips have do not revolt. The Lakers share the building but own the city so second fiddle has become a low-cost disguise to their high-grade brand of losing.
Years before and during the Brand era players like Lamar Odom, Darius Miles, Quinton Richardson, Kris Kaman and Shaun Livingston – all drafted by the team – were billed as the future. Acquired hands from Corey Maggette to Andre Miller to Sam Cassell were brought in over the years to help usher in rebuild after rebuild and unveiling after unveiling. They were the Portland Trailblazers and Oklahoma City Thunder of the early 2000’s only they could never get past the budget. Nobody believed Sterling would pay to keep them together and he didn’t. The trickling exodus is real in Clipperland. Kaman is the only player left from the 2005-06 playoff team. Sooner or later everybody leaves. They get hip, get shipped or go bust.
“We’ve been having players in and out of here,” says Gordon. “I’ve been here two years and I’ve had a lot of teammates. It’s hard to ever build a future when you have a lot of lottery picks and a lot of young guys and other guys you’re trying to move in and out just to try to make them fit. It’s just been tough trying to keep the same guys to build chemistry.”
The Clippers are an organization where young players are born and old players go to die. It’s like Fargo in December; very little grey area between the young and old. Nobody is there unless they have to be. Gordon wants to be able to say he stuck it out. He wants to one day say he was there when everything changed, when it all turned around. Making himself believe that day will come is harder with each move the franchise makes, with each new face in the locker room and with the rough luck that seems to visit the Clippers and its players with regularity. The end of Dunleavy – under whose thumb this Clippers squad has again spiraled – automatically kick-starts yet another retooling process. It is the reason why Gordon and many before him feel little loyalty to the organization.
It is a splintering environment.
“It’s tough because we have a lot of guys not under contract,” says Gordon, the Clippers’ second leading scorer with 17 points a game. “So they’re going to try to play as much as they can. All we can do is try to play good as a team so everybody gets their share of whatever they need to do to help themselves out with their future.”
Blake Griffin, last draft’s first overall pick, is supposed to be the change, a talent so solid that the Clippers will have no choice but to roll the dice and build around the predicted superstar. When he suffered a leg injury that caused him to miss his entire 2009-10 rookie season the big change – if there is one – was put on hold. A few years ago it was Livingston that was supposed to offer new hope at the point guard position only to be discarded by the club after a serious of knee injury of his own.
In 2010 Gordon is indeed part of the young excitement in L.A. while veterans Baron Davis, Brian Skinner, Drew Gooden and Rasual Butler represent the old guard. None would be considered the “future” but even the freshest can’t be given that tag in Sterling’s world. In Clipper country the future is the past. Everything stays the same. Static. It’s not hard to imagine it keeping Gordon up at nights.
“When you’re not making the playoffs you’re doing a lot of things wrong,” Gordon“ dispenses. “When you’re trying to find the right mix of players to get together to play well and expect, well… it’s kind of hard to do if you’re trying to do the right things to win games.”
In some circles there was genuine sadness that Griffin had landed with the Clippers as the top draft choice. Just the latest in a long line of potential superstars that fall terribly into that abyss of anonymity? Check the history. Its scathing swath – cut from both the franchise’s own wheel as well as those of the basketball gods – is the truest thing the Clippers have ever known.
There is nothing to suggest to Gordon that things will be different and if he is to avoid the fate of many an ex-Clipper his best bet may be to make some enemies in L.A. and bounce. Better that than a five or six-year stay that takes more out of you than it puts in. The culture of losing has stained the walls of the Clippers franchise deeply and not even Blake Griffin will be able to remove it. If Gordon can set any example for the rookie when he finally enters the league next season it might just be how to angle his way out of town. There’s no shame in wanting out of this L.A. horror-show.
Eventually everybody does.
“I like it here,” says Gordon. His eyes stray, cold hard facts distracting them. “I would like to make things work out here but things are going to have to change.”
Nearing the end of a lost season Gordon seems worn; too warn for a second year player. Concern? Maybe that’s the look that comes from witnessing the carnage in Clipperland and trying to fight through it. Maybe it is the dawning of the realization that there is nothing to be done. Or maybe the read is all wrong. Perhaps his eyes are more betraying of a wary determination that, along with Griffin and the next big draft pick, Gordon can somehow, someway use to be a part of what changes everything.