By Mitch Chortkoff
After the Clippers set a franchise record for victories in a season Vinny del Negro was fired as coach.
There was the matter of the Clippers losing in the first round of the NBA playoffs.
That was last season and this one began with Clippers management sending a very clear message.
It was time for the Clippers to approach – and possibly win -- the first NBA championship in their history.
Doc Rivers, leaving Boston after nine years, was hired as the coach who might change Clipper history.
The theme was carried out in promotions. “It’s time,” is shown on the big screen at Staples Center on Clipper game nights.
Now 26 games have been played and the Clippers have an admirable 17-9 record. Without question, they’re on the right track in a season when the Lakers have a losing record and the Clippers regularly draw sellout crowds. They’re getting better and more popular.
But there’s another side to this story.
While Oklahoma City, San Antonio and Portland have breezed through their early schedules the Clippers have been a little less than advertised.
The Clippers have critics.
“They have a tissue paper defense,” says Charles Barkley, expressing his opinions on Direc TV’s NBA channel.
“I know one thing already. The Clippers won’t be a contender for the championship this season.”
Another former star player, Dennis Scott, is kinder but also somewhat disappointed in the Clippers.
‘I don’t see the consistency in Blake Griffin I’d like to see,” he observes. “Some nights it’s there, some nights it isn’t”
I traveled with several Laker championship teams and saw what a hard-driving guard could do to bring on the big prize.
Magic Johnson drove Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to greatness. Kobe Bryant drove Shaquille O’Neal.
So I wonder if Chris Paul can elevate teammates, particularly Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, to a championship level.
Paul, with masterful direction from Rivers that is. Can Rivers get his point across like Phil Jackson and Pat Riley did during those memorable Laker years?
I don’t know, but the Clippers have my attention and I’m going to find out.
I went to Staples Center Monday night to see if the Clippers could pass a major test. The San Antonio Spurs, to me the best-run organization year in and year out in the league, arrived with a 19-4 record.
If the Clippers are going to be great, they can’t be satisfied with moderate success. They have to win games such as this to show the league how serious they are.
Early in the game the Spurs were leading, and I was impressed with their discipline and consistency. They have Tim Duncan and Tony Parker but they also have a splendid supporting cast, with new players quickly learning their roles and fitting in.
But Parker was injured in the third quarter. He had to leave the game and didn’t return. The Clippers seized upon the opportunity and took control, winning without any drama in the last few minutes.
What did it mean? Not a lot. One game early in the season isn’t enough to inspire strong conclusions.
But it did have some meaning. The Clippers shouldn’t be satisfied with finishing fourth, fifth or sixth in the Western Conference. They have to develop a killer instinct that carries them further than a Clipper team has ever gone.
Rivers has the resume to take them there – an NBA championship with the Celtics in 2008 and another Finals appearance against the Lakers two years later.
The Clippers are knocking on the door and the city is taking notice. I arrived almost three hours before gametime and the press room, so empty in the past, was jammed.
Then every seat in Staples Center, almost 20,000, was filled.
The Clippers had been swept, four games to none, by the Spurs in their most recent playoff series. But maybe, just maybe, the next time could be different.