LOS ANGELES -- When I lived in Los Angeles back in 1997, my roommates and I picked up our morning newspaper -- that's how you know it was 1997 -- and saw an advertisement for the Los Angeles Clippers. It didn't look like an ad for the Clippers at first, because it featured a large photo of Michael Jordan who, after checking out his Basketball Reference page, I can confirm never played for the Clippers.
The ad showed a cut-out of Jordan standing at the free throw line, staring intently with that Jordan stare, and he took up almost the whole ad. Then, in the bottom left-hand corner, we noticed a tiny picture of Brent Barry, whom the Clippers had just drafted the year before. Barry had a quizzical, almost awed look on his face as he gazed upon the great Michael.
Here is what the ad said:
"Brent Barry doesn't have to pay a lot of money to see Michael Jordan play. And now you don't either. With a six-game Eastern Conference flex plan, both you and Brent can see Michael, and Grant Hill, and Alonzo Mourning and all the stars at the LA Sports Arena. Call 213-555-5555 for tickets."
I can't think of better way to sum up the first 25 years of the Clippers' lives in Los Angeles than resorting to selling tickets to their home games by encouraging fans to ignore the home team and instead pay to watch better, more exciting players on the other team. You'd almost admire the moxie if it weren't so sad.
(The Clippers would trade Barry to the Heat later that year, so then he really didn't have to pay much to watch Alonzo Mourning, and he got to do it every day.)
Whenever two sports teams play in the same town, there's a natural sorting, a muscling for territory with a clear winner. It's difficult to argue that in every town with two teams, there's not an alpha and a beta. Some are more definitive than others, but even if a town is big enough for two teams, it's never big enough for them to be equal. Here's my take on how things stack up across the country:
|New York Yankees||New York Mets|
|Los Angeles Dodgers||Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim|
|Chicago Cubs||Chicago White Sox|
|New York Giants||New York Jets|
|New York Rangers||New York Islanders|
|Los Angeles Kings||Anaheim Ducks|
|New York Knicks||Brooklyn Nets|
|Los Angeles Lakers||Los Angeles Clippers|
A couple teams on that list -- the Mets, the Jets, maybe the Ducks -- are a little closer, but the delineation between the alpha and the beta is impossible to ignore. There is the dominant team, and then there is the Other Team. The Other Team can have pockets of success, but generally speaking, it doesn't have the track record of success as the dominant team, both in the past and moving forward. (The White Sox are an exception to this, a team that can win a World Series, breaking a near 100-year drought, and still have no one remember that they did it). If you had to bet on a team over the next 10 years, you're always going to bet on the alpha.
But then there are the Clippers and the Lakers. The 2016-17 season will be the fifth consecutive season that the Clippers will have had a better record than the Lakers, and none of the five years have even been close.
|YEARS||CLIPPERS WINS||LAKERS WINS|
Of course, during this time, the Clippers have also had two of the most exciting stars in the NBA, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, as well as a NBA title-winning coach in Doc Rivers and some spare future NBA Hall of Famers like Paul Pierce hanging around. This year, the Clippers are one of only five serious contenders for the NBA championship. This has been the best run in Clippers history, and it's not even close.
Meanwhile, the Lakers have been a nightmare, both on the court -- in which the only real thing worth watching was Kobe's last desperate gasps at fighting whatever imaginary demons he created for himself -- and off, with a once-impenetrable front office collapsing in upon itself and the NBA's first (but probably not last) I Taped My Teammate Talking About Cheating On His Celebrity Girlfriend And Posted The Video On Social Media For Reasons That Are Still A Bit Baffling scandal. For crying out loud, Metta World Peace is still hanging around on the Lakers. There is nothing quite like a 37-year-old swingman.
So, the Clippers are at their historical peak. And the Lakers are at their historical nadir. And guess what? The Clippers are averaging roughly 200 more fans a game than the Lakers are. This has been the case for these past five years. The Clippers have eaten the Lakers' lunch on the court, and they've been rewarded by outdrawing them by roughly 300-500 fans a game. Ever since Phil Jackson left the Lakers, they've been a total mess, and they're still essentially right there with the Clippers, attendance-wise. Oh, and their franchise is still, despite tripping all over its own feet for a half-decade, worth more than the Clippers' is.
The handy thing about the Clippers-Lakers comparison, unlike the other alphas and betas, is that they share a control group: The Staples Center.
The teams play in the same place, in the same division, against the same teams. Their games are equally easy to get to, and tickets cost roughly the same. And still: The Lakers either win or stay equal. Even when the whole thing is imploding, and the Clippers are doing everything right. (Other than win a championship, of course.)
Is the crowd more enthusiastic at a Clippers game than a Lakers game? Sure, but hey, there's a lot more to cheer for at a Clippers game. At the Lakers-Knicks game last Sunday night, even with a high-profile opponent with a lot of fans in the building, Lakers fans still represented: This is a proud franchise that minted itself several generations of fans over the past 50 years. Five years isn't going to drop those people, and they'll be able to say they were still here when the Lakers, inevitably, return to greatness.
And it's that history that has to be scary for the Clippers, a team that plays in a building with two statues of legends for its biggest rival outside. (This has to be strange, right? Imagine going to a Mets game and having to pass a statue of Derek Jeter on the way in.) Because, already, you can see the Lakers starting to recover. They've got one of the brightest young coaches in the game in Luke Walton, and they've got four players under 24 -- Jordan Clarkson, D'Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Brandon Ingram -- who could form the basis of a scary core in the next few years. And they are still the Lakers and all that comes with that. They will never lie dormant.
Meanwhile, the Clippers, as terrific as they are this year, still have the feel of a team that is running out of time. They were wise not to break up the team after last year's playoff disappointment like some wanted them to, but this is an old team -- the youngest player is Austin Rivers, whom no one will confuse with a star -- that has to play at peak capacity just to even come close to where the Warriors and Spurs are on a nightly basis. If the Clippers don't make the NBA Finals this year -- something they've never done, and something the Lakers have done 31 times -- it's fair to wonder whether they ever will. Which means this peak will end up with no conferences titles, and nowhere to go but down.
But that's life for a beta, isn't it? You have the best half decade in your franchise's history, you get rid of the racist dirtbag owner who has been dragging you down, your rival with whom you share an arena falls apart at the exact same time your make your rise … and your reward is only slightly better attendance and no titles. The peak of the Clippers is a tad above the nadir of the Lakers, and soon, gravity will reassert its power, and the Lakers will be back where they always are, and the Clippers will be looking up at them again. This is the balance of the alpha and the beta. Just wait: The Clippers don't have to pay much to watch the Lakers, and with this four-game flex plan, you won't have to either.
Tomorrow: The Dodgers, and the end of old Los Angeles