Before we get too gaga over the alley-oops and intrigued by the interconnected struggles of the Clippers and Lakers, I've got one question: why are all these wonderful things happening to Donald T. Friggin' Sterling?
Our man Tom Ziller brought it up, but it bears repeating: The Clippers are the sorriest franchise in the history of sorriness, but they have suddenly become the biggest story in the league. The one constant in their struggles is Sterling. The Clippers have suffered bad breaks, but bad ownership has always been the franchise's greatest burden.
But because life isn't fair, the basketball gods -- both figurative and literal -- have repaid Sterling's negative contributions to the NBA and the world with a team legitimate title contender. All he had to do was be in the right place at the right time.
Just like that, after a lockout where owners tried to understate the significance of talent, a shortened preseason has blown that out of the water. And suddenly, an embarrassment of an owner -- and a man -- has been granted an embarrassment of riches. Instead of respecting the leverage Chris Paul earned fair and square, the stage has been set for Sterling to be the lockout's biggest winner.
And that makes me sick.
Make no mistake: what makes the Clippers' sudden emergence intriguing is Sterling. Were it not for him, it's hard to imagine a basketball team in a city where basketball players would love to play being so perpetually putrid. Even the Nets, who are excited to become second fiddle to the Knicks in a new locale, managed to convince Stephon Marbury and Vince Carter -- in their primes -- to give them a try. Between being in Los Angeles and their VIP booth at the lottery, being so bad for so long has taken work.
With his notorious thriftiness, demonstrated indifference to winning and refusal to sell the franchise for any reason, Sterling stained the Clippers brand so badly that we'd forgotten what it could be. Without him, there would be a chance the Clippers would have been in the hunt for every big free agent for years. Paul's willingness to kick their tires would be less surprising than Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady taking big money from Orlando in 2000. With a different owner -- and I mean just about anyone else on Earth -- Blake Griffin signing a maximum contract extension would be a no-brainer. The same would go for Paul. Both would be walking away from too much money, sunshine and potential for greatness. 2011-12 would be the beginning of a run, not just the experiment it currently seems to be. But he's the owner, so we'll have to wait two years to see where this is really going.
In the meantime, consider the tragic irony of how Sterling's even got that time to work with. To prove a point to CP3 and any other player who dares play the cards he's dealt, Stern loudly sacrificed a huge chunk of his league's credibility. And who was the greatest beneficiary of the NBA's moves? A man who's paid over $8 million to plaintiffs in housing discrimination lawsuits, including $3 million to settle the largest verdict ever of its kind.
Apparently, Stern had no point to make then. As AOL Sports' Jon Weinbach points out, the NBA never even released a statement about Sterling's troubles. This was the commissioner's chance to say something, to speak in opposition of the indefensible and show he was just as concerned that Sterling thinks black people "attract vermin" as he was with Allen Iverson's rap lyrics.
Sterling's mistakes should be a black mark that shames him, his comrades and commissioner like a superstar trade did. Instead, the man who bristled when Jesse Jackson and Bryant Gumbel placed him and his owners into their plantation metaphors stayed quiet while Sterling cut checks to men to whom he would not rent a home.
And when it was time to limit Chris Paul's agency over his own existence, the NBA engineered a deal to send him to a place where it's alleged the owner may bring women to the shower to admire his "beautiful black body."
For some reason, Sterling isn't dogged by these lawsuits and allegations. Michael Vick will be a dogfighter forever in many eyes, but Sterling will just be a shitty owner. He does not have to answer for this like players have to answer for their public mistakes. This is the case even though, short of especially violent crime, nothing a player could do would be as dangerous and unforgivable as what Sterling has paid damages to rectify.
But that's too big for me to ignore, and it's impossible not to think that a few months ago, Sterling was heckling Baron Davis -- his own player! -- from his courtside seat. Now, he'll be watching what might be the best show in the NBA and making a fortune in the process, while little is said about about the man behind it all.
Seeing how little has changed since I brought this up five years ago, you're damn right it makes me sick.
The pure basketball fan in me doesn't want to think. The mere idea of Paul and Griffin running the break is why I love basketball. It's powerful virtuosity, the beauty and athleticism belying a fiery intensity. And it was one of the reasons this week's two preseason games may have been the two most compelling in the history of the Clippers' franchise.
No one expected to glean much from watching a team which has barely practiced together. But the point guard who made Tyson Chandler a legitimate offensive threat simply by throwing lobs playing with the most explosive big man of his generation? I just had to see it. Twice. Each time with 10:30 tipoffs on the east coast.
Such is the draw of top-notch NBA talent. After a lockout where slews of gullible people bought into the owners' notion that players are merely cogs, this week made it clear that talent is the engine that powers this whole thing. And now, the Clippers have two players who go together like rack and pinion. That quickly, an exciting large-market power was born from out of nowhere, and there's no such thing as too many good NBA teams.
The Clippers are an example of why the players should have won the lockout, how great players can change everything. But they also illustrate the worst part of it all: as Twitter follower @ReverendDrDash says, the NBA is minimizing the competitive advantage of competence. The rules prevent exceptional players like Griffin and Paul from making their fair market value. The will of the commissioner and owners penalized Paul for leveraging his singularity.
And a bumbling, reprehensible clown like Donald Sterling will be the biggest winner of all. The Clippers will be fun to watch, but that will be hard for me to take.
The bright side? The two years between now and when Paul and Griffin can become free agents is plenty of time for Sterling to find a way to mess this up. And if history's told us anything, chances are that he will.