Recently, to celebrate the NBA’s 74 years of existence (and, really, to fill the pages while sports are on hold), ESPN put out a list ranking the 74 greatest players in NBA history.
Normally, I don’t care much for these things, but after seeing a friend of mine who covers another of the NBA’s less-accomplished franchises remark that his team had no players in the top 74 side-by-side with Magic Johnson’s tweet lauding the Lakers for having six of the top ten players, I decided to take a glimpse at the Clippers on the list. At first, you might assume that LAC, who has never made a conference finals and experienced very little success, wouldn’t be well-represented, but there are actually seven players on the list who at one point wore the uniform of either the Buffalo Braves, San Diego Clippers, or L.A. Clippers (plus two executives, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West).
Of course, the Lakers and the Celtics are all over the list, with 17 and 16 players chosen, but even the teams with lesser selections seem to reflect major high points for the franchise. The Clippers’ selections, however, speak to the team’s long-running history of what-ifs, on the fringe of relevance. Let’s take a look at the seven players chosen:
59. Bob McAdoo: The team’s lowest-ranked player on the list, McAdoo was one of the few major stars of league history who actually had his best years with the franchise. Playing for the Buffalo Braves, McAdoo made three consecutive All-Star games from 1974-76, scoring over 30 points per game in each season and winning the 1975 NBA Most Valuable Player award. The Braves were also good during those three years. In ’74 and ’75, they lost in the first round, first to the eventual Champion Boston Celtics led by John Havlicek, and then to Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes, and the eventual NBA Finalist Washington Bullets. In 1976, they made it to the second round, beating the Philadelphia 76ers before losing again to the Boston Celtics, who would go on to win yet another NBA title.
54. Paul Pierce: The Clippers, for a variety of reasons including a favorable location, have attracted a handful of well-past-their-prime big names over their history. Pierce, making a Los Angeles homecoming and reuniting with his championship coach Doc Rivers, brought a level of excitement when he signed with LAC on a cheap deal in July 2015. Everyone knew he was no longer an All-Star caliber player, but he was fresh off of shooting 39% from three and making clutch shots for the Washington Wizards. Unfortunately, he was awful in L.A., and his relationship with Rivers meant Clippers fans were forced to endure watching one of the worst players of the Lob City era start 38 games and make an additional 30 appearances off of the bench in 2015-16. He was bad enough that even Rivers had to remove him from the rotation in 2016-17 before his eventual retirement. Pierce’s short Clipper tenure was not only a costly misuse of limited financial resources to put talent around the Lob City core, but also a tragic firsthand look at a Hall of Famer who stayed in the league after his ability to contribute to a team had faded.
48. Bill Walton: On a list of “what-ifs” for one of the most tortured franchises in American professional sports, Walton may represent the greatest opportunity in franchise history that was squandered due to bad injury luck. The Hall of Fame center, who was born just outside of San Diego and won two national championships at UCLA, was set to return home to the San Diego Clippers after being drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers. He had won the 1977 NBA Championship (including a Western Conference Finals sweep of the Lakers where Walton matched up with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and was named Finals MVP. The next year, he won the 1978 NBA MVP. After missing the entire 1978-79 season due to injury, he signed with the Clippers, marking a free agent signing with a comparable magnitude to last summer’s acquisition of Kawhi Leonard.
Then, things fell apart. Walton played just 14 games in the 1980 season and did not make a single appearance in the ’80-’81 or ’81-’82 campaigns. When he returned to (partial) health and played 154 games across the next three seasons, he wasn’t himself anymore. To add insult to injury, this was when NBA teams were still required to compensate teams when acquiring their free agents–meaning the Clippers sent a top-10 draft pick, starting power forward Kermit Washington, and rotation center Kevin Kunnert to sign Walton, who essentially did not play for three years. Overall, despite the potential offered by signing a recent Finals MVP and regular season MVP, the Clippers didn’t even make the playoffs once during Walton’s six-year tenure. It was only salt in the wound for Clippers fans, who were in the midst of a franchise-long 15-year playoff drought, that Walton bookended his time with San Diego/L.A. by winning a second championship as a backup with the Boston Celtics the year after departing Southern California.
46. Dominique Wilkins: Growing up a Clipper fan, I knew who ‘Nique was as an NBA legend, but I actually didn’t learn until later that he had (briefly) played for my favorite team. Wilkins’ legacy as a Hall of Famer and legendary two-time Slam Dunk Contest champion came with the Hawks, of course, but it was strange for me as a kid to even imagine a player with such historical stature ever suiting up for LAC. In truth, Wilkins was still quite good when he wore the Clippers’ uniform, averaging 29 points and 7 rebounds. But after acquiring him in a mid-season trade, the Clippers won just 8 of the 25 games he played in (they were 19-38 before his arrival, so it was hardly his fault), and he quickly departed the next summer, making his Clipper tenure nothing more than a footnote.
40. Chris Paul: It’s entirely possible that down the line, with a couple of decades of space between us and Lob City, the Chris Paul era of Clippers basketball will feel slightly less disappointing. Paul, of course, was individually epic, playing six seasons of his prime in L.A. and earning appearances on three All-NBA First Teams, two All-NBA Second Teams, and all six All-Defensive First Teams. But you all know the story of how those teams went: championship aspirations (and internal expectations) were consistently undercut by gut-wrenching injuries and collapses. Paul and his running mate, Blake Griffin, consistently missed or played injured in the post-season, and two epic playoff collapses shattered the teams’ psyche.
In the second round of Rivers’ first year as coach in 2014, the Clippers were tied 2-2 had a 7-point lead with 49 seconds to play in game 5 on the road against Oklahoma City. The Thunder, who trailed by as much as 13 in the quarter, closed on a 17-3 run to win the game by 1 point. The disastrous run included Paul turning the ball over up 2 with 14 seconds left as he attempted to draw a 3-shot shooting foul instead of accepting a 2-shot intentional foul, fouling poor three-point shooter Russell Westbrook on a three-point attempt with 6 seconds to play and a 2-point lead, and then losing the ball on the Clippers’ final possession as he attempted to win. It only hurt morale more that in these closing seconds, the Clippers were harmed repeatedly by the referees–the non-call on Paul’s first turnover, a botched out of bounds review when Matt Barnes stripped Reggie Jackson after that turnover, the phantom foul called on Paul that sent Westbrook to the line, and an uncalled reach-in foul on Jackson that resulted in Paul’s final turnover. The next year, the Clippers made the second round again, winning a road game 1 with Paul hurt after his heroic, hobbled game 7 buzzer-beater against the Spurs in round 1. They’d go on to take a 3-1 lead against the Rockets before the wheels came off in game 6, where the Clippers blew a 19-point lead and lost the fourth quarter 40-15 at home, including 29 points from Corey Brewer and Josh Smith and not a single second of court time for James Harden.
It feels easy to say, after his six-year tenure, that Chris Paul is the greatest Clipper of all time, as he led the team to its most successful era and is the highest-ranked player to have an extended tenure with the team. But it also feels noteworthy that his time in L.A. seemed to be marked by frequent disappointment and rare successes. Maybe the team was never quite as good as the hype suggested, or maybe poor front office management held back a title-worthy core, or maybe they simply had a couple of years’ worth of bad injury and on-court luck. It’s likely that Paul’s own intense personality contributed to the team’s mental baggage following their playoff collapses, making him the rare all-time great who is still met by his team’s fanbase with never-ending what-ifs.
25. Kawhi Leonard: After perhaps the most depressing entry on this list, here’s the one with the most hope: Leonard, the reigning NBA Finals MVP with the Toronto Raptors in 2019, chose to leave his northern throne and return home to Los Angeles in free agency. Most notably, both Los Angeles teams had salary cap space and championship-caliber rosters with which to recruit him, and he chose the Clippers over the storied Lakers. But windows of opportunity are fleeting, and the Clippers seem on the cusp of another horrific what-if, as the season’s unprecedented suspension due to the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with Leonard’s degenerative quad injury and choice to sign a short contract that only guaranteed LA two years of contending with him, makes a disappointing tenure terrifyingly popular.
Still, like I said: hope. Kawhi’s injury might cause him to miss some regular season games, but that load management is helping him ensure that he can be a top-level playoff performer as he was for Toronto last year. The 2020 playoffs haven’t been canceled yet, and even if they are, the Clippers would be able to keep the best team in franchise history intact for the 2021 season. And if Kawhi wanted to be a Clipper badly enough in July 2019 to walk away from the defending champions and turn down LeBron James and Anthony Davis, there’s no compelling reason yet to believe he’d be a major flight risk in July 2021.
18. Moses Malone: Like ‘Nique, it’s easy to forget that Malone was ever a part of the franchise. After starring in the ABA and then being drafted by Portland in the summer of 1976 following the league’s merger with the NBA, the Trail Blazers traded Malone to the Buffalo Braves for a first-round pick. After just two games (and only six minutes played) with the Braves, Malone was on the move again: this time, to Houston for two first-round picks. His six minutes in Buffalo were followed by six years in Houston, where he won two of his three NBA MVP awards and began a string of 12 straight All-Star selections. He won a championship and Finals MVP with Philadelphia in 1983, and after 19 NBA seasons he is all over the league’s career leaderboards: 2nd in free throws attempted and 4th in made (8,531 and 11,090), 1st in offensive rebounds (6731, and he led the league eight times), 5th in total rebounds (16,212), 9th in points (27,409), 26th in blocks (1733). An NBA career that began with six minutes in Buffalo would feature a title, three MVP awards, eight All-NBA selections, and a Hall of Fame selection. Buffalo traded him for two draft picks they would never use, trading one for big man George Johnson and then packaging Johnson, the other pick, and an additional draft pick package for Tiny Archibald (who never played for the team due to an Achilles injury).
The Archibald wrinkle makes for another twist to the Malone what-if: the Braves not only quickly traded away one of the best players in league history, but they used those assets to eventually acquire another Hall of Famer who would never play for the team due to injury. When the Braves re-traded him to the Boston Celtics in August 1978 (as part of a massive franchise swap between the two teams’ owners that led to former Celtics owner Irv Levin moving the Braves to San Diego and selling the team to Donald Sterling in 1981), they didn’t get a player nearly his caliber in return, and Archibald went on to win a title with the Celtics while Bill Walton was sitting on SDC’s injured reserve list.
Which of these legendary Clippers (or, legends who happened to be Clippers) had the most compelling story? Do you have any memories of these players’ time with Buffalo, San Diego, or L.A., or thoughts on how they were ranked by ESPN (and who was excluded)? Let us know in the comments below.