There's no disputing the numbers: Los Angeles is a major city, full of people, wealth, enjoyment, and possibility. The Clippers, who get the off-nights at the Staples Center, play there. In theory, the Chris Paul deal created another large market powerhouse—exactly the kind of thing the new CBA was meant to undo, or at least avoid. People blogged about it.
Except, despite having landed the NBA's point guard supreme, and harboring the league's most scintillating dunk machine, the Clippers are still the Clippers. Call it a curse, pin it all on sub-human owner Donald Sterling; LA's other team has an especially tricky path ahead of them if they want to capitalize on the city around them. Simply winning won't do the trick, and that would be the case even if the Lakers weren't there to rule the roost. The Clippers have a serious brand problem.
The franchise is shockingly modern in this respect. Well before this marketing term became a dry, prosaic part of our shared internet language, the Clippers had screwed themselves out of LA's boon, and everyone understood it, even if the articulation remained rough, elliptic. The Clippers were never the other team like the Jets, Angels, or Warriors. They were alienation itself, and their fans saw themselves as outsiders, hipsters, or deviants—depending on what peculiar roster the team was working with that season. Even workhorse, and all-around good guy, Elton Brand seemed to need some sort of unhelpful, odd complement. Lamar Odom before he got it together; Darius Miles and Quentin Richardson; Sam Cassell.
By this logic, Paul's Clippers are, best-case, a whopping, undeniable version of the "alt-Lakers" meme someone tries to start up every time Donald's Kids sniff the playoffs. But that look doesn't suit Paul, a nasty traditionalist who often comes across as a premature Hall of Famer, or Griffin, quite possibly the futuristic heir to Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett. They aren't scattershot new jacks, or grit-grind underdogs. Paul and Griffin are a variation on the game's most reliable winning theme: an indomitable big man and endlessly resourceful ball handler. Stir in center DeAndre Jordan, a first-rate leaper and defensive presence whose offense is a well-meaning daze, and free agent Caron Butler, who in the wake of the Paul trade, can be praised for his usefulness and leadership, and this team's nucleus is nothing short of mainstream. But as of today, the Clippers still represent displacement within a major market.
Here's where Griffin becomes key. Griffin flourished as a YouTube cult hero, then swiftly, almost radioactively, found himself at the center of the league's marketing campaigns. Smarter and less blankly affable than you think, he was able to rack up national endorsements without oozing "personality" like Dwight Howard (who, in all likelihood, played himself out by being too eager to please). The connection between Griffin and the Clippers can feel incidental times. They can't bring him down and like it or not, he can't elevate them overnight. Meteors aren't known for chugging along with massive baggage.
It's all straight out of the Kevin Durant playbook. Oklahoma City is truly small, not just figuratively so like Clipper Los Angeles. Durant has circumvented all of that by achieving his national presence through, simply put, buzz. In OKC, the Thunder are careful to never place one player above others, a philosophy that suits Durant fine. However, on the national stage, Durant has captivated and fascinated remotely serious hoops fans since Texas, and their zealotry—coupled with his growth—has created an unlikely monster. Durant is a bizarre, unsettled player whose personality is self-effacing, shy, and benevolent. He's more like a mythical creature than a franchise pillar. Yet this image has proven ideal for the transmission of his brand, allowing it to sneak out away from OKC and establish himself internationally. In the end, it's helped the Thunder. At home, they're the feel-good chums. Out in the world, the Durant-driven team is nothing short of avant-garde. Blame the Internet for that.
Griffin—coincidentally, an Okie who seems incapable of big-timing—is Paul's door to this new sense of "major market". Those red and blue jerseys are clown costumes on the ground in LA, and for anyone whose basketball consumption is limited to conventional channels. But at this point, they know Griffin. Paul tossing alley-oops to Griffin, or getting on television regularly not as a Clipper, but as a teammate of Griffin, provides a buffer. We can pretend those jerseys are meaningless; they leave no slime on him. In branding terms, the Clippers are either shit, or they are the team Blake Griffin plays for. Chris Paul, even if he's eventually bound to take this team over, for now must be content to waltz in behind Griffin, for those eyes.
Griffin and Paul can save the Clippers by making us forget the team exists. That will be enough to make them palatable, even credible, for the worldwide NBA audience. Locally? The Clippers might only overcome themselves, and as Dave Zirin put it, “occupy LA”, if, in effect, they cede their stake in real Los Angeles over to the virtual, brand-and-meme-driven, version of themselves. It’s also the only hope they have of ever seriously challenging the Lakers prestige. Legacy, it seems, is the most dangerous brand of all.