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In a reverse layup, Clippers toast of L.A.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Los Angeles -- The Staples Center was packed on a recent Saturday night, all the way up to the skyboxes. LeBron James was in town, the Hollywood types were in their courtside seats and the home team was one of the hottest in the NBA, leading the Pacific Division and already talking about the playoffs.

But their uniforms sure looked funny.

They read "Clippers" across the front.

In a town where you're only as good as your last performance, the Los Angeles Clippers have become the league's biggest turnaround story this season. Though many are still skeptical of a team that hasn't made the playoffs in nine years and hasn't finished the season with a winning record since 1991-92, third-year coach Mike Dunleavy remains optimistic, if cautiously so.

"I don't really care what people think or say," Dunleavy said after a Dec. 3 win over James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. "I can see where we are and who we are. I haven't been the one saying we're an elite team. I think we're a good team, I think we're a playoff team if we stay healthy. We have a chance to grow and develop into maybe a better team than we are right now."

The arrival of veteran guards Sam Cassell and Cuttino Mobley has given the Clippers the late-game leadership they lacked last season, and the development of power forward Elton Brand from a blue-collar banger into a potential All-Star has brought new respect from opponents and maybe even from referees after years of being the butt of jokes.

With a division-leading 14-6 record, the Clippers have raised the expectations of their long-suffering fans. Forever treated as the unwanted stepchildren of their more glamorous co-tenants, the Lakers, the Clippers suddenly find themselves as A-list celebrities.

Dunleavy knows life on both sides, having coached the Lakers during the 1990-91 and 1991-92 seasons. He understands how quickly things can turn, celebrated after taking the team to the NBA Finals in his first season (losing to the Chicago Bulls in five games) and then getting fired after his second year when the Lakers dropped to sixth in the Western Conference.

"In this case right now, we're obviously in direct competition, as far as the building and in our division," said Dunleavy. "But our focus is really what's in front of us. Last year they finished behind us. Our mind-set right now is that we have to knock off teams that made the playoffs. I'm not worried about them, I'm worried about us."

Though the Lakers still attract bigger crowds, the success and playing style of the Clippers - they actually resemble a defensive-minded version of the Phoenix Suns - might bring a few converts who won't mind paying less while seeing their team win more.

Asked the biggest difference between Clippers fans and Lakers fans, director and Clippers season-ticket holder Penny Marshall puts it succinctly.

"The ticket prices," Marshall said between whooping and hollering during the fourth quarter of a win last week over the Miami Heat. "If they start raising their ticket prices [for Clippers games], they'll start becoming more like the Lakers."

Though the downfall of the Lakers can be traced to the trade of Shaquille O'Neal to the Heat and the resignation of Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson two summers ago, the ascent of the Clippers came the previous summer, when longtime owner Donald Sterling matched Miami's offer sheet to Brand and the one made by the Utah Jazz to Corey Maggette.

It marked a drastic change in policy from Sterling, a Los Angeles real estate mogul who has owned the team for 25 years.

"I almost didn't believe it myself," said Brand, who in his fifth year here will pass Danny Manning later this season as the longest-tenured Clipper in history. "There was no consistency before. That started it right there."

Brand received more than a few consolation calls after returning to the Clippers.

"A lot of guys were saying, 'Don't you wish you could be in Miami, on the East Coast?'" said Brand, the former Duke star who grew up in New York. "I was ready to move back here, to move on and keep the team going. That was my goal."

When Mobley signed as a free agent last summer, some of his friends in and outside the NBA thought he had lost his mind even though the Clippers offered him a five-year, $42 million deal.

"I saw something last season," said Mobley, who played last season for Orlando and Sacramento. "I saw a polished forward [in Brand], and when you have guys that get you double doubles down low, that's what you need. I don't like going one-on-one no more. I'm done with that. Play your role, win some games."

The addition of Cassell, 36, and Mobley, 30, has made a huge difference at the end of close games to a team that lost 27 times last season by seven points or fewer.

"Last year we had two guys, Brand and Maggette, and teams would double them and we had no one to go to," said Elgin Baylor, who like his team had been much maligned for most of his 19-year tenure as the vice president for basketball operations. "This year, we have four guys who can score. Cassell wants the ball late in games, and Mobley can hit big shots."

But what Dunleavy is focusing on, and what other coaches around the league are talking about, is a new attitude about defense. The Clippers have led the NBA for much of the season in field-goal percentage defense, holding the opposition to a paltry 40.7 percent. They are also second in rebounding.

"Probably the biggest difference between what they've done the past couple of years and this year," said Miami coach Stan Van Gundy, "they've become the best defensive team in the league, at least so far. They block a lot of shots, they really protect the basket, it's really tough to score inside."

The Clippers have made a few statements this season, none bigger than beating the Lakers in what was considered a road game on Nov. 18. That meant the Staples Center was packed with fans wearing purple-and-gold jerseys and Jack Nicholson was sitting in his familiar $1,500-a-game courtside seat.

More significantly, it was believed to be the first Lakers home game that Sterling had ever attended as owner of the Clippers.

As much fodder as that victory generated on the radio talk shows around town, it didn't get much attention in the Clippers' locker room.

"For me, it's important to beat everybody, I don't care about the Lakers," said Mobley. "I just wanted to get that out of the heads of the guys on the team that have been here and had that losing mentality and tried to please the city by beating one team. We want to accomplish something, go to the playoffs."

Michael Olowokandi, who was the first overall pick in the NBA draft when he was taken by the Clippers in 1998, said the dynamics aren't changing in this one-sided rivalry, but sees the slightest of crevices for the Clippers to slip through in claiming their share of fan interest and media attention.

"It's been a Laker town for decades," Olowokandi, now with the Minnesota Timberwolves, said after a recent game against the Lakers. "It comes with history, tradition, accomplishments. If you win in Los Angeles, people will come. It's an opportunity for the Clippers to milk it for as long as it lasts."

Dunleavy doesn't see it that way.

"What we do is going to make us better, us winning, if the Lakers can win and we win more, it doesn't matter," said Dunleavy. "Making the playoffs, advancing in the playoffs, doing the things that we do. That's everybody else's story. My story is to let us play our game, and in the end, people can pick and choose."

don.markus@baltsun.com

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