On Thanksgiving night I made my first visit to Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles since New Year’s Day when the defending-champion Lakers hosted an aroused and hot-shooting group of young Sacramento Kings who would’ve prevailed if Kobe Bryant, with customary flair, hadn’t swished a three-point jumper a millisecond before the final horn. The capacity crowd erupted, and though I’d hoped the Kings would win I enjoyed the energy and felt part of something exciting. The Lakers have for three decades been thrill-producing, title-winning showmen. Last Thursday, however, against the same Sacramento Kings, revised but unimproved, Staples Center seemed like a half-empty church in the poor part of town. That’s because the eternally-dreary Clippers, the building’s other basketball tenant, were playing host.
When thinking about the Clippers I often remember the old joke that if not for bad luck those guys wouldn’t have any luck. In the spring of 2009, after another low finish but the theoretical good fortune of winning the first pick in the NBA lottery, the Clippers had chosen Blake Griffin, a Herculean six-foot-ten and two-hundred-sixty-pound power forward whose promise lured me to Las Vegas that summer. Griffin astonished all with a display of strength, quickness, shooting touch, and rebounding ability, and in writing I predicted instant superstardom, which he would have achieved if he hadn’t torn up his knee just before last season started. Was this again the curse of the Clippers? Griffin probably didn’t think so. He vigorously rehabbed the knee and returned in great shape this fall for his delayed rookie season. Alas, standing conscientiously behind the bench and wearing tailored suits on Thanksgiving were two all-star teammates, high-flying Baron Davis and elephantine Chris Kaman, who’ve been injured and played little.
At tipoff the Clippers had only won two games and the Kings three. Those totals didn’t matter. I was tabulating Blake Griffin. In the first quarter he twice spun to toss in short jumpers, drove for a dunk, and hit a free throw, totaling seven points. He controlled the second quarter, spinning for one layup and driving for another, nailing two free throws, and ripping a right-hand dunk. At halftime he had fifteen points and the Clippers led 54-50.
In my notebook I scribbled that Tyreke Evans of the Kings looked out of sync. This was surprising since he’d also starred in Las Vegas in 2009 and last season became only the fourth rookie in NBA history – Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan, and LeBron James are the others – to average twenty points and five rebounds and assists a game. Currently, some in the Kings’ organization, including coach Paul Westphal, don’t understand that you can’t productively pair your six-foot-six point guard with a small journeyman point guard, in this case Luther Head. While Head had the ball much of the time, and shot and passed well, Evans, the team’s best player and its future, stood in confusion and lassitude out on the wing. In the second half Evans handled the ball more and drove into the lane, drawing fouls, but continued to shoot poorly and sank only two of thirteen from the floor. The Kings’ second best player, hulking and sulking rookie center DeMarcus Cousins, did not start, played but twenty-six minutes, and committed almost as many fouls, five, as he scored points, seven. The Kings, rather than featuring their marquee talents, seem to be deemphasizing them.
The Clippers, conversely, continued to feed the ball to Blake Griffin, and in the third quarter he alternately out-muscled, outmaneuvered, and out-jumped the Kings to snare rebounds and score nine points to key an 84-69 lead en route to easy victory. The Clippers’ costar, Eric Gordon, was also spotlighted and scored twenty-eight points. Griffin totaled twenty-five with fifteen rebounds, and now, the following week, has averaged twenty-nine and fourteen during the last five games. The Clippers, though losing, are improving while developing five starters age twenty-two and under. The dispirited Kings meanwhile appear headed into a hole. Perhaps DeMarcus Cousins is as much a chemistry breaker as rumored. But that’s not the most critical problem right now. Though he was a great player and is a respected gentleman, Paul Westphal has long struggled as a coach in both college and the pros, and seems determined to ignore the most critical maxim in the NBA: feature your best players, whether or not you like each other.
Editorial note: The Kings are losing homes games before sparse crowds in an Arco Arena they used to pack, and the owners, Joe and Gavin Maloof, casino owners based in Las Vegas, will likely flee Sacramento, which has steadfastly declined to build a modern arena. As one who grew up in a Sacramento bereft of professional sports, I hope this irreversible cultural and athletic loss can be averted.