What will be the fate of the best Clippers team we’ve ever seen?

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
The Sporting Tribune's Arash Markazi wonders how far the greatest group of Los Angeles-born players will go this playoffs.

LOS ANGELES – I was in New York the night James Harden made his debut for the LA Clippers earlier this season.

It was moment I needed to see in person because, well, as we’ve learned with the Clippers you just never know when all the players on one of the most talented teams ever assembled will actually all be healthy at the same time.

As the Clippers’ new starting lineup of Harden, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Russell Westbrook took the court at Madison Square Garden that night there were several questions about how all new pieces would fit together. They lost six straight following the Harden trade and were 8-10 on Nov. 30 leading to doomsday prognostications but everything changed when Westbrook moved to the bench and became a contender for the Sixth Man of the Year Award. The Clippers went on to win 26 of their next 31 games and were 34-15 on Feb. 6. It looked like they could be the No. 1 seed for the first time in franchise history.

Having covered the Clippers over their 25-year run at Staples Center and now Arena, I knew these exciting mid-season moments were fleeting. I remember Vinny Del Negro being named Western Conference Coach of the Month after leading the Clippers to a perfect 16-0 record in December and being at every one of the team’s franchise-best 17 straight wins in 2012. That season would end in a four-game sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs in the second round.

I wasn’t sure how this season would end for the Clippers (I’m still not) but I knew that this would be undoubtedly the greatest team of basketball players Los Angeles has ever produced.

Before Lakers fans pull a muscle pointing at their team’s championship banners and retired jerseys, I am not calling this Clippers team the greatest in NBA history, I am simply saying no team in league history has ever accumulated as many great players who were born in Los Angeles.

The Lakers’ storied history has been painted by legendary players who were born thousands of miles away from where they won their championships. Magic Johnson is from Lansing, Mich., Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is from New York, Kobe Bryant and Wilt Chamberlain are from Philadelphia, Shaquille O’Neal is from Newark, N.J., Jerry West is from Chelyan, W.Va, Elgin Baylor is from Washington, D.C., James Worthy is from Gastonia, N.C., Pau Gasol is from Spain and the list goes on. Shoot, even the Lakers are from Minnesota, the “Land of 10,000 Lakes.”

If the Clippers are to reach their first NBA Finals this season and win the franchise’s first championship, they will do so on the backs of the four greatest players to ever be born in Los Angeles in Harden, Leonard, George and Westbrook.

For the purposes of this discussion, Los Angeles encompasses all of Los Angeles County, which includes, of course, Los Angeles, where Leonard and Harden were born, Long Beach, where Westbrook was born, and Palmdale, where George was born.  

As Paul Pierce led the Boston Celtics to an NBA championship, two Finals appearances and three trips to the conference finals from 2008 to 2011, I made the argument at ESPN that Pierce could go down as the greatest basketball player Los Angeles ever produced, surpassing Reggie Miller. Pierce, however, was born in Oakland despite being raised in Inglewood and going to Inglewood High School, and Miller was born and raised in Riverside, which is in Riverside County, not Los Angeles County.

Regardless, during Pierce’s run from 2008 to 2011, the four greatest NBA players to ever be born in Los Angeles were beginning to enter the NBA, one by one. Westbrook was selected fourth in the 2008 draft. Harden was selected third in the 2009 draft, George was selected 10th in the 2010 draft and Leonard was selected 15th in the 2011 draft.

Over the next decade, the quartet would establish themselves as four of the best players in the league; combing to claim two NBA MVPs, two NBA Finals MVPs and 32 NBA All-Star appearances. From 2015 to 2020, one or more were in the top three vote getters for NBA MVP. When Westbrook won the award in 2017, Harden and Leonard finished second and third respectively.  

The birthplace of a player might not mean much to some but it’s significant for the Clippers, a franchise still trying to establish itself as a Los Angeles team despite calling the city home for nearly four decades.  One of the biggest steps in this process will come after this season, when the Clippers will move into the state-of-the-art, $2 billion Intuit Dome in Inglewood, Calif. On the 40th anniversary of their arrival in Los Angeles, the Clippers will have a home of their own that was built specifically for them for the first time. They shared the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena with USC from 1984 to 1999 and have shared the Staples Center with the Lakers, Kings and Sparks since then.

Clippers owner Steve Ballmer knew it wouldn’t be easy to win over Los Angeles basketball fans after he bought the team for $2 billion in 2014. He knew he had bought a franchise that had only three winning seasons and one playoff series win from 1976 to 2011, a period of time that saw the Lakers make it to the postseason 35 times, play in 16 NBA Finals and win 10 titles. The Clippers weren’t going to convert diehard Lakers fans overnight, but maybe they could win over their sons and daughters and the next generation of fans.

Under Ballmer’s ownership, the team went from last in the Jr. NBA programs to now leading the league with over 100,000 participants between the ages of 6 and 14 outfitted in Clippers gear. Ballmer also made a commitment to refurbish 350 L.A.-area basketball courts. The total number of Clippers Community Courts across Southern California is nearing 500.

As the Clippers hit their stride this season, Westbrook cut the ribbon as the Clippers Foundation celebrated the renovations of new Clippers Community Courts at the Jesse Owens Park court. It was the same court Westbrook would spend hours on with his father practicing what he and his father called, “the cotton shot,” which is a midrange shot from about 15-20 feet he would shoot 500 times into the wee hours of the night. The backboards on that court, like hundreds of others in the region, now has a Clippers logo on it.

The Intuit Dome will have more courts than any arena in the NBA with four courts in addition to the main playing surface, placed inside and outside of the arena for fans to play on. The concourse of the arena will be lined with a jersey from each high school team in California and reclaimed wood from local courts will made up sections of the floors and walls.

Everything the Clippers are doing now is targeted towards attracting the next generation of fans in Los Angeles but nothing will fast track that process more than winning a title with the four best players to ever be born in the city and opening their new home by hanging their first-ever championship banner.