LOS ANGELES --For a fortunate few, the love of the game develops very innocently before mushrooming into something bolder and better and suddenly, a basketball career is born. For example, take the Clippers: A teenaged DeAndre Jordan grew too tall for football pads in Texas. Austin Rivers watched his father Doc, the Clippers coach and former NBA player, on TV and took notes.
Then there’s the person in charge of running this team. He put funky uniforms in the laundry bin, collected damp socks, made sure the towels were fresh and kept the locker room nice and tidy.
“Well, that’s how you start out on the job,” said Lawrence Frank, explaining his to-do list as student manager of his college team at Indiana. “By the time you’re a senior, you’re assisting the coaches with scouting reports.”
The story of Frank’s basketball life, therefore, is how he kept graduating to something more satisfying and challenging as the journey continued. After Indiana he was an assistant coach in college, then in the NBA, then an NBA head coach, and last summer was handed the basketball operations job with the Clippers after a significant restructuring and shakeup at the top of the organization.
Beneath the executive two-piece suit, however, lies a basketball dreamer who’s eager to do the grunt work, someone who did so while dealing with the unpredictable whims of the mercurial Bob Knight, and that base will never leave him, Frank says. (Oh, and about Knight: Frank was hired on the spot, sight unseen -- no interview, no nothing -- for his first few coaching jobs out of college because Knight simply placed a call.)
“That was an unbelievable foundation for me, for every step of my career,” he said. “You appreciate being on the ground floor and it taught me about the chain of command and about respect for others and if you want to be good, it’s about the work you must put into it. You learn the value of teammates, humility, all the things we preach to our kids and teams. Any job isn’t too small.”
Well, this job Frank has now is fairly ambitious, even more when you consider the hilarious history of the franchise and also the recently unfulfilled era with the dearly departed Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, who left the Clippers with … what, exactly?
That’s the slippery state of the Clippers right now; they can slide in either direction and catch almost nobody by surprise. They do have Jordan, a voracious rebounder and paint enforcer; Lou Williams, an unapologetic gunner and late bloomer; and Tobias Harris, a young scorer who previously played on teams that nobody bothered to watch.
And they also have a hazy picture at point guard, upcoming free agency issues with Jordan, and miles between them and those who rule the West. Also, and this must be stressed because after all they are The Clippers, there’s a stigma to deal with.
About that reputation: Maybe it’s dead. Maybe it vaporized when former owner Donald Sterling was yanked from power and took with him a legacy of crummy drafts, lousy luck, lost decades and a general sense of ridicule within the NBA.
This was the spring of 2014 when Sterling was caught on audio making, to put it mildly, insensitive comments about people who share the same skin color as most of his players. In a warped way, this was a game-changer for a team that has never advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs, if only because it meant the end of Sterling, who made everything he touched turn to aluminum foil.
The franchise came to L.A. uninvited from Buffalo by way of San Diego and never really caught L.A.’s passion even after 33 years. Mainly because of Sterling’s reign of error, they’re Cain to the Lakers’ Abel, a team smack in the entertainment capital lacking the sizzle, celebrity following, national branding or championship chops of their more beloved basketball brother. Ron Harper, whose promising career took a wicked turn when he suffered a knee injury less than two months as a Clipper, would respond “Los Angeles” when asked what team he played for.
In a sense, much like a young Lawrence Frank, the Clippers have spent most of their NBA existence as the student manager of the league.
They’ve clearly taken a few steps backward after being forced to trade Paul last summer to the Rockets and, in a shocking shift of allegiance, sending Griffin to the Pistons a few weeks ago. That doesn’t mean the Clippers aren’t better off in the long run, though. It depends on how much room they create under the salary cap to gain flexibility and the free agents they chase and trades they make.
Frank has the advantage of a thick wallet belonging to billionaire owner Steve Ballmer and the ear of the great Jerry West, the team consultant and sounding board. That’s a start.
What Frank and the Clippers lack right now is traction. And once again, an identity.
“We know we have something to prove,” said Jordan.
What comes next for franchise?
The Golden Age of the franchise was from 2013-17 when the Clippers had Griffin, Jordan and Paul; all three were top-five, arguably, at their position over that time. Plus there was JJ Redick and Jamal Crawford, a pair of respected veteran shooters. And also Rivers, regarded as one of the top coaches in the NBA with a championship from Boston. That was, under almost any definition, a championship contender.
They had five straight 50-win seasons, the third-best record in the NBA over that stretch … and went no deeper than the second round of the playoffs.
This was their scarlet letter in that “Lob City” era, although it must be explained how injuries once again finger-nailed the Clippers’ blackboard, and at all the wrong moments.
Of course, there will always be the 2015 second round when their injuries came from squeezing their own throats. That’s when they crumbled to Houston after a 3-1 series lead. Most embarrassing was being up 19 at home in Game 6 and losing to Corey Brewer and Josh Smith with James Harden on the bench.
Being here as long as I’ve been here is something I’ve taken pride in.”
Otherwise, their playoff path was a series of players reaching for body parts and wincing. Paul missed the first two games of that ’15 series with the Rockets with a bad hamstring suffered in the first round against the Spurs and was never 100 percent vs. Houston. Griffin and Paul missed the 2016 playoffs with a broken finger and a sore quad. Griffin came up lame last spring against the Jazz in the first round and the Clippers were finished.
Rivers sighs and says: “There’s nothing you can do about it, really. The year Chris gets the hamstring injury in the San Antonio series, that’s the only one I think most about, what if he had been healthy for us in the Houston series which came next.
“It’s all health related, this business. The teams that win owe it to good health. When you’re winning titles, you’re healthy, you don’t have guys sitting out.”
The Clippers were the last team in the West to beat the Warriors in the playoffs and that was the high-water point of Lob City. Otherwise, beyond the highlight reels and individual honors, significant as they were, there wasn’t much to crow about.
Even this year, injuries paid another uninvited visit. In fact, those injuries spooked the club and conspired to make the Clippers re-think their investment in Griffin, whom they gave a five-year, $171 million deal just last summer. They realized they could only grow so much while paying a fortune to a power forward who’s on the wrong side of 30 and a power forward with a significant injury history (most were freakish in nature, but still, they add up).
Rivers has done one of his better coaching jobs this season, given the shifting lineups caused by injuries to his son, Danilo Gallinari, Patrick Beverley and others, keeping the Clippers within a few nose hairs of the final playoff spot with a few months to go.
“I love this team,” Rivers said. “It’s a great group to coach. They just play hard. And our ball movement is infectious. They pass so much that everybody wants to join in.”
It could be argued that Rivers is more at peace, now that he no longer has the personnel title and the hassles that go with that. He didn’t raise a stink, at least not publicly, when they cut his titles in half (perhaps because they didn’t reduce his pay) and seems content to see what the next chapter brings. It helps that he and Frank have history; Rivers hired Frank as his assistant in Boston and also brought him to the Clippers to serve the same role before the promotion.
“Doc and I have such a special relationship because it’s based on honesty,” said Frank. “We deal with each other openly and honestly. We serve each other. It’s a true partnership. We tell and take the hard truths and we both share the same vision in trying to do what’s in the best interests of the organization. We’re both here to serve each other, the players and the organization. He put me in the front office role. When it was restructured we haven’t skipped a beat. For us, we keep moving forward.”
The Clippers padded the front office by adding the expertise of West, who built championship dynasties with the Lakers and Warriors; along with former Oklahoma City Thunder executive Michael Winger and Trent Redden, formerly of the Cavaliers, and the debate amongst them is healthy.
“When everybody agrees on the same thing, No. 1, it’s an echo chamber and No. 2, someone’s not needed,” said Frank.
They did agree two weeks ago that it was time for Griffin to move on, with the biggest nudge coming from West. It wasn’t an easy about-face, of course; Griffin was a five-time All-Star and rescued the franchise from the dumpster when he was drafted in 2011. He sold T-shirts and jerseys, put the club on prime-time TV and, from his jump-over-a-car dunk and catchy commercials, made the Clippers … cool.
But trading Griffin to the star-desperate Pistons was groundbreaking in that it forced the club to try a different approach.
The next shakeup could be felt by Jordan, the longest-tenured Clipper who hasn’t been offered a contract extension by the club and isn’t expected to receive one, at least not right away. Jordan has an option next season at $24 million and he’s in a tricky spot.
With salary cap money drying up for 2018-19 and most teams suddenly becoming budget conscious, it's unlikely Jordan will bank that much on the market this summer, even though he’s still a solid rebounder (14 per game over the last five years) and defender and just 29. He can opt-out and get more years, but less annual money, from another team; or he can stay in L.A. and play for the $24 million and then hit the market in 2019.
“I’ve been here when it was horrible times, good times and great times,” said Jordan. “Being here as long as I’ve been here is something I’ve taken pride in.”
He paused, then added: “I’ve been loyal,” which is somewhat true; he did try to flee the Clipper ship four years ago when he accepted, then backed out of, a free agent deal with the Mavericks.
Surely, Jordan can see the handwriting; with Paul and Griffin gone, what’s stopping the Clippers from washing free of Lob City and starting fresh?
All Frank would say is: “We have a great relationship with DJ and his agent. He’s one of the top players in the league and having another terrific year.”
The Clippers’ plan is clear: Get leaner with the cap, and develop younger players while mixing in a few reasonably-priced veterans. That’s why they kept Lou Williams at the trade deadline; when he agreed to a three-year extension at $24 million, it fit the plan. He’s averaging 23 points and five assists this season, by far the most productive of his career, yet he’ll be 32 next season. So the team-friendly money helped the Clippers while the security helped a player who previously bounced around five other teams.
Beyond Jordan, Harris, Williams and Gallinari, the remaining talent is either aging or tapped out or just average. There’s a need for a star, but those type tend to gravitate toward the other team in town.
Next move is up to Ballmer
If the Clippers were truly a reflection of ownership during the Donald Sterling years, and if this pattern continues, then the ball belongs to a former software executive who’s balding, wears clothes that scream Jos. A Bank, tends to get goofy after a great play and is worth upwards of $30 billion.
We know Steve Ballmer is rightly hailed as a savior in L.A. simply because, if nothing else, he’s clearly not Sterling. But what kind of owner is he, and will he be going forward?
There haven’t been any burps since he paid $2 billion for the club four years ago and Ballmer doesn’t appear to be the intrusive type. He also, and rather boldly, stripped Rivers of the personnel duties and brought in West, and you can’t find many in the basketball world who will argue against either of those moves. They indicate that Ballmer is a quick study and is getting the hang of this ownership gig.
“What Steve has been able to do in a short amount of time has been great,” said Frank. “Everyone sees the passion but don’t get to see the humility, investment and commitment to make this a world class organization. He provides every single resource necessary to all the people who work for the Clippers. We’ve been able to add so many high level people, new resources, technology in a short amount of time. That’s why we’re optimistic about what we are and what we can be.”
Frank says Ballmer is a basketball guy beneath the billions, and a boss who holds people accountable, yet is reasonable.
“You see the intelligence but what’s pressing the most is his humility,” Frank said. “People’s eyes widen when someone’s worth $30 billion but he’s just a very likable guy. There’s no false pretenses. He’s very direct, honest and connects with people. He wants to do the right things. He loves the game. He’ll watch five games a night, you can pick his brain and bounce ideas and he’ll give you an unfiltered opinion.”
Ballmer has retired from the daily role at Microsoft and is living in Los Angeles part-time and tending to all things Clippers. Eventually, though, he must weigh in on the two people still remaining from Lob City: Jordan and Rivers.
Both decisions must be run by Ballmer because they involve money and/or direction. Is a low-post center who can’t create his own shot still worth $20 million-plus in today’s NBA, especially as he drifts toward the other side of 30? Is Rivers the right man for a team that’ll suddenly lean more toward youth and development?
Mostly, does Ballmer have all the right people in place under him who’ll steer the club correctly through this transitional stage?
“We want to be very good for a very long time and every decision we make is based on that,” said Frank. “There’s no one formula to build a team. You must do what’s best to fit your overall vision. If there was one way to build a champion, everybody would be doing it. There’s also timing and an element of luck, some of it circumstantial. You try to plan and make the best informed decision you can.”
This isn’t the hapless Clippers you once knew. And it’s not the Clippers of four years ago, either. The goal is to carve out an identity that lasts, not only for decades, but beyond May, for once.
Yes, the Clippers are dying to get past the second round of the playoffs. In their present state, however, just reaching the playoffs will be progress.
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