21 meters. That is roughly the length of three-fourths of an NBA basketball court, from the three-point line of one end to the basket on the other. It’s a distance that can be covered by a run-and-gun team in a matter of seconds. Chris Paul has thrown lobs to Blake Griffin from further away.
21 meters. That is also the distance that separates the locker rooms of the Lakers and the Clippers, two teams who share the same hallway, the same arena, the same city, and the same division in the NBA. They share 30 years of history together in Los Angeles.
But despite the physical distance a mere few steps from each other, the franchises couldn’t be further away in their contrasting histories.
The Lakers, one of the founding teams of the NBA, have been a model for league excellence for decades. They have won a total of 16 NBA championships – second most in NBA history – 11 of which have come since the team moved to Los Angeles from Minneapolis in 1960. The Clippers, meanwhile, were long the poster boys of league embarrassment. Since their move to LA in 1984, they have only been to the playoffs six times and never been past the second round. Since both teams began to share the city in 1984, the Lakers have had the league’s best overall winning percentage (.659). In the same 30-year period, the Clippers have had been league’s worst (.349).
The Lakers have a 98-35 series lead over their ‘hallway’ rivals, winning nearly 74 percent of their games against the Clips. In the last 29 years, the Clippers have only finished with a better record five times. The teams have never met in the playoffs.
All the pages of history have been vehemently against the Clippers. But in recent years, there has been a change of fortune. And fortunately, the ‘other team down the hallway’ stopped caring about the past to make a little history of their own.
When the Clippers signed talented young big Blake Griffin, at first, it seemed like another dose of the ‘Clipper curse’. Like failed draftees and injury-ridden players before him, Griffin’s Clipper career began ominously, as he missed his entire rookie season to an injury. But Griffin responded strongly a year later, quickly developing into one of the NBA’s best young players, and now finds his name etched among some of the best big men in the league today.
And then, the veto happened. In December 2011, the NBA Commissioner vetoed a trade that would've sent star point guard Chris Paul from the Hornets to the Lakers. A week later, Paul ended up in Los Angeles anyway, but he would be hanging his hat 21 meters away from the Lakers locker room and wearing the red and white instead of the purple and gold.
The franchises have been on opposite trajectories in nearly three seasons since. The Lakers experienced turmoil through injuries and aging superstars and have won 51 percent of their games after the Paul veto. Meanwhile, in the same period, the Clippers have won 66 percent of their games and have gotten better every season. The Clippers finished with a better record than the Lakers last season and will do it again this year.
When facing each other in the Staples Center, the Lakers and Clippers still lay in the ‘home’ and ‘away’ format, and only the colors and insignia at the arena changes to indicate the home team. When it’s the Lakers, the rafters raise 16 championship banners, 31 conference titles, 23 division titles, nine retired numbers. The Clippers, meanwhile, had none, none, none, and none until the 2013 Pacific Division title. When Doc Rivers was hired as Clippers coach, he elected to have the Lakers banners covered on Clippers’ home games to give his team a sense of their own history.
But on March 6, 2014, riding the recent wave of their success against the cross-hallway rivals, the Clippers – playing ‘away’ – didn’t need any change of the banners to stamp their dominance. In a memorable performance, they blew what seemed like 30 years of frustration on one night, defeating the Lakers by 48 points, giving themselves their largest ever franchise victory and handing the Lakers their biggest loss in their 67 year history.
It will take a lot more than 48 points, or a couple of division titles, or some highlight-reel dunks, for the Clippers to step out of the shadow of their LA big brothers and their glittering history of championship success. But with Paul, Griffin, and company, the Clippers are enjoying their finest stretch ever and are closer to being championship contenders than ever before.
And if they get there, then perhaps finally, after decades of humiliation, they will be able to make that yawning 21 meter distance that separate them in the hallway a little shorter.