They’re definitely new with five starters who were on four different teams last season.
They’re guaranteed to excite, too, with Blake Griffin, the game’s most spectacular player since Julius Erving, or ever, Chris Paul trying to see how high he can throw a lob Blake can jam, and everyone putting on a nightly highlight reel.
Unfortunately for them, they’re still the Clippers, yet to distinguish themselves from The Band You’ve Known For All These Years, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart NBA Team.
As for all that stuff they wrote about them taking over Los Angeles, that’s a joke.
Of course, I wrote it, too, or first–OK, it was both–but I was joking, or at least, having beaucoup fun projecting what might happen.
In any case, things are pretty much the way they were, eve if the Clips didn’t start 0-2 or 0-10 before winning one this time.
The Lakers, home for five of seven, are only 4-3, instead of their usual 7-0 or 6-1.
Of course, we all go bananas before seasons start, but if no one can tell you how this will turn out, I’m pretty sure I can figure out how it’s going to go in the long term.
For all this Battle of L.A. stuff, the real prize isn’t turf. It’s 6-8, weighs 250 pounds, has red hair and jumps over Kias, not to mention Timofey Mozgov or anyone else who wanders into the picture frame at the wrong time.
Yes, it’s Griffin, who’s more than a dunker, or scorer, or new face of the NBA, or new commercial phenomenon.
Lost in the wonder of his feats, manners, the NBA’s need for a new baby icon to replace its old one, LeBron James, and the sponsors’ need for a fresh face, is Griffin’s game.
He doesn’t just soar, slam and smile becomingly. He can handle the ball and shoot it, if he has yet to get that down (55 percent on free throws, up from last season’s 50 percent, 15 percent below where it has to go.)
This is no mere phenom. Given the good health that every hoop fan should pray for, since he represents the game at its most exciting, he’ll be a player for the ages… but whose?
Barring massive disappointments, spurned extension offers, trade demands–and the team’s acknowledgement the situation is hopeless, which this team never does, no matter how hopeless things are–Griffin will be a Clipper through the summer of 2014.
At that point, he’d be free with suitors lining up to the East Coast… starting a few steps down the hall from the Clipper dressing room in Staples Center, in the Lakers’ more spacious one with the adjoining training room, lounge, leather furniture, big-screen TV, et al.
Of course, the last time the Lakers were $1 under the cap was 1996 when they signed Shaquille O’Neal. Sixteen seasons later, the team salary is at $88 million, plus another $26 million or so in luxury tax, making the total cost about $114 million.
For younger fans, a GOP Senate Minority Leader named Everett Dirksen once put the exorbitant sums thrown around by politicians (and now by professional athletes, teams, et al.) into perspective.
“A billion here, a billion there,” Dirksen said. “The next thing you know, you’re talking about real money.”
By 2013, the Lakers could be over $125 million, looking at the new, punitive rates coming the following spring, going up to $4.25-per-dollar for teams far enough over the tax threshold, often enough… or, in other words, for the Lakes.
Ask Jerry Buss, who charges $2,750 per courtside seat, gets an annual $120 million raise in local TV revenue next season and still goes on economy drives, like getting Phil Jackson to accept a 25 percent pay cut, laying off almost the entire organization during the lockout and dumping Lamar Odom’s $8.9 million salary… $100 mill here, $100 mill there, it adds up.
Of course, by 2014, the Lakers will be looking at a payroll of… zip.
None of their contracts goes past the 2013-14 season, not even that of Kobe Bryant, whose $30.5 million comes off the books that summer.
Add minimums for 2012-13-14 No. 1 picks–presumably in the 20s unless the bleep really hits the fan–worth, say, $7.5 million.
Of course, they could have Dwight Howard or Deron Williams. In either case, a sign-and-trade would mean the new Lakers’ max deal that started at $17 million would be up to $18.5 million.
That would put their committed salaries around $26 million… leaving them, say, $39 million under the cap.
Making sure that’s what they would have, and no more, is what’s called a “salary cap strategy.”
Not that many understand that higher math, or can stay the course.
Take former Knicks president Donnie Walsh, who spent his first two seasons dumping their big salaries–it wasn’t that excruciating at 25 wins a season–clearing room for three (3) maximum slots, two in 2011 when James, Dwyane Wade, et al, would be free.
All they got was Amare Stoudemire, which still looked good at mid-season, with a nice young team with admirable chemistry… and two (2) maximum slots remaining for CP3 and whomever he wanted to bring.
Unfortunately, owner James Dolan picked this moment to re-engage, presumably drawn in by Paul’s people, and Carmelo Anthony’s people… who were more or less the same people under the CAA umbrella.
Knowing they might get Melo as a free agent, Walsh had drawn the line in talks with the Nuggets at one player–Danilo Gallinari or Wilson Chandler. No one to delay gratification, Dolan took over and offered both players, plus Raymond Felton.
At the last moment, the Nuggets said they needed Mozgov, a 25-year-old seven-footer with some upside, so not even Dolan could have confused him with, say, Jared Jeffries.
In went Mozgov, too, with Anthony Randolph and Eddy Curry’s contract going to Minnesota, to make the deal work.
Melo arrived to great fanfare, eclipsing the fact that Mike D’Antoni’s flowing, open-floor offense, died upon his arrival.
Worse, after the lackluster finish, the 4-0 sweep by Boston and the lockout, the Knicks found they had misplaced their last maximum slot, which was supposed to be CP3’s!
Two things had happened: Instead of six players (four sent to Denver, two to Minnesota), with three on expiring deals (Chandler, Curry, Randolph), they had Anthony at $18.5 million.
Second, the salary cap, projected in the $61-62 million range after the NBA revenues reached ‘s record-setting $4 billion season, was frozen at $58.4 million.
Instead of a $17 million max slot, the Knicks had about $13.5 million in room–and that required ditching the max-room plan for 2012, amnestying Chauncey Billups and trading for Tyson Chandler.
Instead of holding the whip hand in trade negotiations with New Orleans, since they could sign Paul next summer, the Knicks were told to step aside so Hornet GM Dell Demps could call the other two names on CP3’s list, the Lakers and Clippers.
The Knicks now look like the way they looked late last season, with D’Antoni trying the ball-stopping Melo as a point forward, presumably out of sheer desperation.
Walsh was quietly moved into a consultant role, enabling him to move back to Indianapolis, away from those meshugeneh, and get paid for the final year on his contract.
The Lakers, on the other hand, understand cap strategy. Jerry West and Mitch Kupchak, his No. 2 guy and cap expert, used it in the ’90s, freeing the money that brought Shaq.
Kupchak set out to do it when Shaq left in 2004, which was why he dealt Caron Butler a year later, eyeing Stoudemire and Yao Ming, who could be on the market in 2007.
Instead, Yao and Amare signed extensions, the Lakers gave up the strategy and signed Vlade Radmanovic, whom they tried to give away for most of his three seasons with them.
With Griffin the prize, and 2014 looming as the real crossroads for both teams, don’t expect the Lakers to take themselves out of the running.
Of course, who’s to say the Clippers aren’t good enough to make it work with Blake, CP3, Chauncey and Caron?
Of course, they’d better fix a few things, like rebounding, having been beaten by 10 a game.
If the Clips knew they needed another big man, someone like D.J. Mbenga won’t be enough if DeAndre Jordan, a fabulous shot-blocker but a D+ rebounder, can’t get more than 7.3 a game.
Whether or not the Clips bring in someone, the players they have need to hit the boards harder. To date, if Griffin didn’t rebound the ball, opponents had a 64 percent chance of getting it.
That’s no way to win their big guy’s heart, literally or figuratively.
Mark Heisler is a regular contributor to SheridanHoops. His columns and power rankings appear each Wednesday. Follow him on Twitter.