To the average NBA fan in Los Angeles, the midseason standings look pretty much the way they usually do. At week's end the Lakers were 33-11 and in first place in the Pacific Division, while the Clippers were 20-25 and stumbling around in Lottery Land, down there with other perennially mismanaged flops like the Sacramento Kings and the New Jersey Nets. So it was for much of the 1980s, when the Lakers won five league titles and the Clippers were the only team, excluding the four most recent expansion franchises, not to make the playoffs. And so it will continue in....
No, wait a minute. Stop! This is where the script changes. Positively, absolutely. No one can say whether the Lakers will still be dominant in five years—for that to happen Magic Johnson, who wants to be an owner someday, must remain more interested in running the offense than in running a team—but the Clippers will certainly be a playoff team, maybe even a very good team.
After years of false starts and overblown projections of their talent—mostly by their wild and crazy owner, Donald Sterling—the Clippers are finally doing the right things to become a winner. Moreover, they have enough draft picks (they get their own first-rounder plus Cleveland's in the June draft) and youth (they're the league's youngest team in both age and experience) to do a lot more.
"They remind me of what we were back in '79-80," said Pat Riley after the Clippers beat the Lakers 121-104 on Jan. 30 at the Sports Arena. "I call it the 'innocent climb' period. They're just beginning to believe in themselves, and it's fun for them. Before, it was only lip service when they said they were better."
Let's not, as Billy Joel is warning us these days, go to extremes. At this point, the Clippers are kind of like a colorful Thanksgiving Day float that can't quite make it out onto the main parade route. Every time they accelerate, something happens and they stall. The latest blow was the broken ankle that point guard Gary Grant suffered Friday night in Miami. It likely will keep him out for the rest of the season. That bit of bad luck followed the knee injury (torn anterior cruciate ligament) that shooting guard Ron Harper suffered on Jan 16. Even if his rehabilitation from surgery goes well, Harper, who arrived via a Nov. 16 trade with Cleveland, probably won't play again until this time next season.
Then, too, the Clippers still find their path blocked by the grandest float in the parade, the one painted purple and gold. Not only have the Clippers been doing a banana-peel act since 1978-79, the last time they had a winning season, but every time they have picked themselves off the ground they also have seen their crosstown counterparts tsktsking from on high. "Systemwise, traditionwise, organizationwise, coachingwise, talentwise, Magicwise," says Clipper coach Don Casey, "the Lakers are just better than everybody else. Need any other reasons?"
Those will do for now, Case. Indeed, the Lakers have slid seamlessly into the post-Kareem era. You do remember the balding center who could score a little (page 34). Riley, never one to miss the lessons of history, researched the fate of teams following the departure of franchise pivotmen, and his findings were scary enough to dry the mousse on his hair. Boston (Bill Russell), Los Angeles (Wilt Chamberlain), New York (Willis Reed) and Portland (Bill Walton) all slipped considerably, and Riley, as he told his players during training camp in Hawaii, didn't want that to happen to them. So far it has not.
Ah, but the Lakers without Magic? Now we're talking slippage. They recently were reminded of their vulnerability when a case of the flu forced Magic to miss a Jan. 29 game at the Forum against San Antonio. Without him, the Lakers couldn't execute a half-court or transition offense, and the 86-84 loss would have been far worse if James Worthy, who scored 32 points, hadn't played brilliantly. "When Magic's out it's like they're missing four guys," said San Antonio's backup frontcourtman, Caldwell Jones.
A still-ailing Magic was back the next night against the Clippers, but, he said, "it felt like I was going 20 miles an hour and everybody else was doing a hundred." Particularly Grant, who twice stole a Magic pass in the backcourt—something that almost never happens—and finished with his first triple double (22 points, 11 rebounds, 17 assists) in that 121-104 rout. The Clippers downplayed the win. Smart move, because the next morning they boarded a plane for Salt Lake City, where Karl Malone and the Jazz destroyed them that night by a score of 120-101.
"Let's face it," said Kenny Norman, a natural small forward who has been playing shooting guard in Harper's absence, "we don't get up for other teams like we do the Lakers."