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It’s make or break for the Los Angeles Clippers

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Curses run deep. They fester in bloodlines, foundations and scorched Earth and are lamented in prose, lyric and declaration. From Shakespeare to Dostoevsky, curses are a part of the canon of human creativity. After the Boston Red Sox broke theirs in 2004 and LeBron James brought a championship to Cleveland in 2016, there remains just one cursed franchise: The Los Angeles Clippers.

Since moving from San Diego to Los Angeles in 1984, the Clippers’ existence has been questioned. Why the hell would a city that has the storied Lakers need a little brother? From just one playoff series in their first 20 seasons to being owned by the devilish Donald Sterling to the worst winning percentage in the NBA between 1981 and 2014, there’s enough to believe in a hex.

When they were known as the Buffalo Braves in the 1970s and led by the legendary Dr. Jack Ramsay, they made the playoffs for three seasons straight. Ramsay was a star in the making, turning his expansion team into serious contenders. But every curse has an origin. Then-owner Paul Snyder fired Ramsay despite his success and elevated assistant coach Tates Locke. In his new role, Locke fumbled the reins so badly, the organization never recovered, missing the playoffs for the next 15 years. And Ramsey? He was hired by the Portland Trailblazers and won the NBA championship in just his first season with the team. That was the start of the curse, and the specter continued to stain the franchise through the team’s mostly downs, and few ups. Ask any Clippers fans about Derek Smith blowing out his knee eleven games into the 1986 season. Or the team taking Michael Olowokandi over Mike Bibby, Vince Carter, Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce and Antawn Jamison in 1998. What about Josh Smith and Corey Brewer draining threes in a Game 6 of a 2015 playoff game, losing a 3-1 lead? Or when franchise cornerstones Chris Paul and Blake Griffin both went down in the 2016 Western Conference Semifinals?

But in 2014, an unlikely saint named V. Stiviano unraveled all Sterling owned, releasing damning recordings of his racism, resulting in his banishment. Enter Steve Ballmer, former Microsoft CEO, who purchased the Clippers and immediately went to work reversing their cursed legacy. This being the Clips, nothing would be easy. In 2019, Kawhi Leonard was a top-three player in the NBA, and after winning his second championship in Toronto, he wanted to return home to L.A. to play out his prime. But he used his greatness to leverage the Clips to make a dubious trade for Paul George from the Oklahoma City Thunder, where he had just re-signed on a long-term deal. George would cost the Clippers their future draft capital and emerging youngster Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. For the first time in the team’s history, they were a legitimate contender with two superstars in their prime.

Five seasons later, the Clippers have just one conference finals to show for their mega-trade, while SGA has become an MVP candidate in OKC. The curse has continued, as Leonard and George have suffered season-altering injuries since arriving in Hollywood. This season, though, both have remained healthy. Furthermore, they are clicking for the first time since uniting, with the roster finally stabilized with hungry veterans and a top-tier coach in Ty Lue. Leonard and George are now 32 and 33, respectively, on the tail-end of their prime, and the Clips have the second-oldest median age at 29. That veteran presence includes the two former MVPs the team added in Russell Westbrook and James Harden, who are both past their prime but effective.

Westbrook broke his hand last week and is expected to be out indefinitely, but the injury should allow him to return for the playoffs. Sure, the news sets the stage for a new chapter in the franchise’s long-cursed tome. But the Clips do not live or die by Westbrook, but rather George and Leonard, whose health determines their contention. As they are both near the end of their dominance and the West is as wide open as ever, this season is the make-or-break for their first championship.

If the Clips don’t win it all this season, the future is as dark as ever. The team doesn’t hold control of a first-round pick until 2030, with their capital going out in the OKC deal for George and last year’s Harden trade with Philadelphia. There is no young Clipper with star potential on the roster. Terrance Mann, their youngest core member at 27, has taken a step back this season. Bones Hyland has slightly reformed as an erratic gunning guard and will fill in for Westbrook as the bench spark. Center Ivica Zubbac is underrated as a paint threat and interior defender, but faces beasts like Nikola Jokić, Chet Holmgren, Rudy Gobert and Domantas Sabonis in the West. That leaves creaky knees and high-mileage guys like Harden, Daniel Theis and Mason Plumlee filling key reserve roles. Sixth Man of the Year candidate Norman Powell continues to be efficient in limited minutes, but will be a threat come playoff time. Who can forget his 42 points in Game 3 of the first round versus the Phoenix Suns last season as Leonard watched on after tearing the meniscus in his right knee? Cursed, indeed.

It all comes down to Paul and Kawhi

Clearly, everything hinges on George’s and Leonard’s health. The Clippers are 3-10 in the playoffs without Leonard and George in the lineup. Luckily, they have a coach who is one of the best at adjusting to rotations. Lue will be the best Western Conference coach once the playoffs start, but it’s a star league. When healthy, Leonard has been spectacular this season, averaging 24.2 PPG, 6.2 RPG, and 3.7 APG. George has been equally impressive, averaging 22 PPG, 5.3 RPG, and 3.6 APG. Both wings were named All-Stars this season and have only missed a combined 10 games (five games each). The Nuggets are still the NBA standard as defending champs, but with the Golden State Warriors dynasty and LeBron James’ dominance coming to an end, the Thunder, Sacramento Kings, and Minnesota Timberwolves playoff neophytes, and the Dallas Mavericks, Suns, and New Orleans Pelicans facing roster inequality and injuries, the conference is wide open. If the Clippers stay healthy, there is no reason to believe they can’t win it all.

The 2019-20 season was supposed to be the year for the Clippers as they held the second-best record in the West before COVID hit. Inside the Orlando bubble and up 3-1 in the conference semis, the Clippers choked away the lead. The reason? George himself admitted to battling depression in the isolated environment. What started as championship aspirations became a heartbreaking collapse.

In the 12 seasons between 2011 and 2023, the LA Clippers made the NBA playoffs 10 times. It’s easily been the best stretch in franchise history. They are currently fourth in the West, while the Lakers fight for Play-In seeding. The pressure is on the Clippers as one of the five teams to never make the NBA Finals (dating back to their origins in Buffalo and San Diego). As fans try to put two blown 3-1 leads in the playoffs behind them, all attention is on Leonard and George. Since the duo arrived in L.A., they have been one of the favorites to win it all, but injuries have cut those dreams short. The Lakers’ historic dynasty proves Staples Center isn’t built on top of a burial ground. If the Clippers curse is real, no voodoo, cleansing or prayer will turn the tide. The Clippers don’t need a savior to walk through the tunnel. They have the pieces. They just need a little luck. That in itself would be a first for the franchise, and enough to reverse their fortunes in the most profound way.

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