The San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers open their Western Conference semifinals series Tuesday night, and it's difficult to imagine two more disparate franchises. The Spurs have won four NBA titles and been to the playoffs 24 times in the last 27 seasons. The Clippers have never gotten beyond the second round of the playoffs, and have had a losing regular season record 23 times in the past 27 years. The worst winning percentage in the 15 full seasons Gregg Popovich has coached the Spurs is .610 -- better than the best winning percentage in Clippers' franchise history (this season's .606).
Their head-to-head history is even more lopsided, if that's possible. The Spurs are 84-22 against the Clippers since 1985-1986. During the Popovich era, it's worse still -- the Spurs are 48-7 against the LAC since the current San Antonio coach's first training camp in 1997.
And then there's the Clippers record in San Antonio, where the series opens. The Clippers are 8-46 in the Alamo City since 1985 -- they are 2-28 against Popovich-led teams.
Beyond all the statistics, though, the common perception is that these two teams could not be more opposite. The Spurs are the best-run organization in the NBA, if not in pro sports. They wrote the book on building an NBA winner the right way. The Clippers on the other hand are commonly viewed as completely inept. They tried to save money by photocopying an out-of-print copy of the book written in Sanskrit -- and they don't read Sanskrit.
The Spurs are well-run, there's no question about that. They've been NBA pioneers in locating and developing International talent, drafting Manu Ginobili late in the second round (57th overall pick) and Tony Parker late in the first (28th overall). They also have an uncanny knack for finding productive rotation players on the scrap heap of the D-League and in Europe. Gary Neal was playing for Malaga in the Spanish ACB before making the NBA All-Rookie team at the age of 26 last year. Danny Green played in Reno, Austin and Slovenia in 2011 before becoming a key member of the Spurs rotation this year.
But the Spurs have also had some great fortune over the years, in striking contrast to the Clippers. In the lottery era, the Spurs have missed the playoffs just three times. In their three total trips to the lottery, they twice came away with the No. 1 pick, and once received the third pick. Perhaps even more useful than lottery luck is lottery timing -- and the two times the Spurs won the lottery, there happened to be a couple of players named David Robinson and Tim Duncan available.
It's always easy to draft with the benefit of hindsight -- but sometimes the first overall pick is just as obvious in advance. The 1987 draft (Robinson) and the 1997 draft (Duncan) were two such cases.
Consider for a moment how the Spurs wound up with the pick that became Duncan, the pick that more than anything else has defined and determined their wonderful success over the past 15 seasons.
Robinson (along with a shooting guard with fantastic hair named Vinny Del Negro) had led the Spurs to the Western Conference Finals in 1995 and the semifinals in 1996. But six games into the following season, the Admiral went down with a broken foot and was lost for the year. Shortly thereafter the Spurs' second best player, Sean Elliott, was injured as well and their season lay in ruins. They finished 20-62, the third worst record in the league that year and the single worst record in Spurs franchise history.
That same season the Clippers made the playoffs. In the dismal history of the Clippers, everyone knows about the Elton Brand/Sam Cassell playoff team of 2006, and astute NBA fans remember the back-to-back playoff teams in the early '90s coached by Larry Brown and featuring Danny Manning and Ron Harper. But 1997? The '97 Clippers were led in scoring by Loy Vaught, who averaged under 15 points per game. They were 36-46 in 1997 and were nothing more than a sweep waiting to happen against the mighty Utah Jazz. That team had no business being in the playoffs at all, but ended up slipping in when the Spurs vacated their usual spot.
With the Clippers taking San Antonio's spot in the playoffs and the Spurs taking L.A.'s chair at the lottery, the Spurs hit the jackpot and won the Tim Duncan sweepstakes. It was nine more seasons before the Clippers made it back to the postseason, while the Spurs have won those four rings and have yet to return to the lottery.
The following season the NBA universe returned to normal and the Clippers were back in the lottery, where they got a little ping pong ball luck of their own and received the No. 1 pick. Their prize? Michael Olowokandi. Now, you can criticize the Clippers for making a poor choice and praise the Spurs for making a wise one if you like, but every NBA team would have taken Duncan in 1997, and every NBA team would have taken Olowokandi in 1998 (go ahead and take a gander at his measurements in the pre-draft camp database if you doubt that). Sometimes you get lucky in the wrong year to get lucky.
And now these two polar opposite franchises are meeting in the playoffs. There are so many reasons to favor the Spurs -- they're the hottest team in basketball, having won 25 of their last 27 games, they're much fresher a week removed from their first-round sweep of the Jazz while the Clippers are coming off a grueling seven-game series with the Grizzlies that just ended Sunday, they're better coached with the wily Popovich squaring off against the much-maligned (though maybe not that terrible after all) Del Negro (a former Padawan of the Jedi Pop).
But the most jaw-dropping statistic in recent Spurs-Clippers history is this: before March of this year, the Clippers had never won in the Spurs home arena, the AT&T Center, the site of Tuesday's Game 1. Opened in 2002, the Clippers lost the first 17 times they played in the building over the course of a decade.
Then in March, they broke through, with a 120-108 victory. As it turns out, all that other Spurs-Clippers history happened before Chris Paul arrived in L.A. Paul doesn't care about the sordid past of the Clippers franchise -- he cares about the bright future, and indeed the exciting present. In fact, the Clippers are one blown inbounds pass away from having won the season series with the Spurs in this, the first year of the Chris Paul era. This Clippers team isn't afraid of the mighty Spurs.
Even if they should be.