LOS ANGELES — There’s a word in the NBA dictionary for when a player is showcased before the rest of the league to inflate his value and make him tempting for a new team, and that word is … well, showcased.
It happens every year. But only to a player. And only in late winter, when the trade deadline approaches.
So this represents a twist. What’s happening here in the playoffs, to the surprise of some, is the showcasing of an entire organization, in this case, the Clippers. They’re sprucing themselves up and using their first-round series with the Warriors to spread their peacock feathers and get the attention of top free agents looking for a landing spot.
We will know shortly after July 1 whether the showcasing of the Clippers actually worked. But at the very least, the Clippers have done enough already to put themselves on the radar of the best free agents, which is all they can ask. They’re making it hard for any A-list free agent to say no.
Although they’re fresh off a historic rally from 31 points down in Game 2, and still showing the grit and togetherness that fueled a surprising 48-win regular season, the Clippers are haunted by two things they’re sorely missing. One: A take-charge franchise player. Two: A realistic chance of shocking the world and beating the Warriors three more times.
Those two go hand-in-hand, because the postseason demands stars, and you can’t be taken seriously unless you have at least two, and the Warriors are suiting up four. Which means the arithmetic isn’t in LA’s favor, not this series and at least not this season.
If you placed their hand on a Bible, they’d admit they’re more concerned about winning the offseason than beating the Warriors. That’s because, with a good summer, the Clippers can become a contender. With a great summer, they can switch places with the Warriors this time next April. And that’s why this “showcasing” means everything for the franchise.
Put yourself in the position of a game-changing free agent and ask: What’s important, and do the Clippers, who could have enough money under the cap to sign two top free agents, check all the boxes?
Coaching? Well, Doc Rivers is commonly mentioned, along with Gregg Popovich and maybe a select few others, as the coach most players would like to play for. And it just so happens that Rivers is doing perhaps the best coaching of his career right now — this from someone who already has a Coach of the Year award and won a championship in Boston.
Rivers is walking the tightrope without the safety of an All-Star; the Clippers traded their best player, Tobias Harris, months ago. He has the guts to start a pair of rookies, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Landry Shamet, in the backcourt. Two of his top scorers, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell, come off the bench and have not once complained about it. Plus, this team grinds.
“This is an extraordinary group in its own right,” said Rivers. “They buy into it. Bill Russell once said about his teammates, `Sometimes you’ve got to pull them along with you.’ That’s what we have here. They pull each other.”
Supporting cast? The Clippers are loaded with role players who accept those roles. That’s not typical on the average NBA team, where one or two players are worried about shots or minutes or, mostly, money. The Clippers’ supporting cast just plays, which is ideal for an incoming superstar who can have the ego all to himself.
“We’re all fine with it,” said Pat Beverley. “We know when our playing time is coming so we don’t argue about it. We know when we’re coming out the game and we don’t argue about that, either. We give each other love and respect and hope for success.”
But these aren’t ordinary role players. Williams may only do one thing well, but it’s very well. Same for Harrell, a hardcore clean-up man. Danilo Gallinari can drop 20 points and never demands the ball. Beverley will accept the toughest defensive assignment regardless of size; have you seen what he’s doing against Kevin Durant in this series? Surround a top All-Star with these players and chemistry shouldn’t be an issue.
The Clippers win despite not being a volume three-point shooting team and lacking a dominant big man. Which is to say, they’re not following trends, they set their own trend. And the players are flexible enough to adapt if a new system is necessary to accommodate a great incoming player.
Money? Check the Forbes list for this guy: Last name Ballmer, first name Steve, and see the owner’s net worth. Here’s a hint: You can’t count that high.
Locale? Any star craving a big market will have all the business trappings of LA along with the weather. Of course, much of Los Angeles traditionally is lukewarm to the Clippers, and “Lob City” captured the curiosity but not the imagination of the city. But there’s an opening here — the Lakers are languishing even with LeBron James — and an opportunity.
How many free agents will give the Clippers a meeting and then arrive to see Rivers, Ballmer and team consultant Jerry West sitting at the table, and won’t walk away impressed?
The Clippers aren’t trying to get rave reviews from the Warriors, although that’s happening anyway. They’re hoping Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Kemba Walker and — get this — Durant are taking notice and taking notes.
“What we’ve done so far,” said Beverley, “shows the poise of this team, the character of this team, the high-level coach of this team and the heart of this team. It shows a lot.”
Rivers likened his team to roaches, respectfully and endearingly so because those pests are hard to contain, let alone kill. Ultimately, someone with a size 14 comes along and stomps enough to win the war, a scenario that will likely play itself in Warriors vs. Clippers.
This first-round series might be over by next Wednesday, and most teams on the losing end might lose sleep over being shoved aside in five games. Yet, while the Warriors would move on to the second round in that scenario, the Clippers will soon move onto something bigger — and, they hope, better.