by Andrew Ungvari
In February of 1994, the Los Angeles Clippers suspended guard Ron Harper for one game because he compared playing for the team to being incarcerated. “I’m just doing my jail time,” said Harper after a loss to the Utah Jazz that dropped the Clippers’ record to 17-30. “In about 65 or 70 more days, my time is up and I’ll be out on GB, good behavior.”
The Clippers had acquired Harper from the Cleveland Cavaliers five years earlier in a trade involving Danny Ferry, whom the Clippers had selected second overall in the 1989 NBA Draft. Ferry had no desire to play for the Clippers, either, so he threatened to sign with a team overseas if they drafted him. The Clippers ignored his threats, and Ferry subsequently signed with Il Messaggero of the Italian League.
For these and so many other reasons, the Los Angeles Lakers, the NBA’s most illustrious franchise, have never paid much mind to their city (and now arena) co-inhabitants. Even during the odd year or two in which they were halfway decent, Donald Sterling’s teams always found a way to shoot themselves in the foot, quickly reverting to their sorry status quo. This year’s Clippers squad fancied itself a title contender before losing in the second round of the playoffs to Oklahoma City in six games, Sterling’s dark cloud concurrently enveloping the franchise.
Now, as Sterling and his wife — despite their litigious bluster — appear to be amenable to a sale of the franchise, it is fair to consider the on-court consequences of a change in ownership. For Steve Ballmer, the billionaire ex-CEO of Microsoft reportedly set to acquire the Clippers, it’s actually the perfect time to buy. The Clippers’ two best players are under contract for at least three more seasons, their head coach is under contract for two, and their only free agents are reserves.
As for the Lakers, the timing of the Clippers sale is less than ideal. While still the undisputed “big brother” in L.A., it is undeniable that the Clippers are firmly positioned to be the better team for the foreseeable future. Roster-wise, the Lakers’ situation currently looks dismal. (Surprisingly, though, despite Kobe Bryant’s massive contract extension, the Lakers actually have several options when it comes to using their cap space.)
The Lakers’ current situation is due in significant part to new rules introduced by the latest collective bargaining agreement that, save for a single amnesty provision, provided no relief for contracts signed under the old CBA. When the new CBA went into effect, the Lakers were coming off a season that ended with a conference semifinal sweep to the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks. They had seven players under contract for at least two more seasons and nearly $100 million in combined annual salary.
Still, under the old CBA rules, the capped-out Lakers were able to sign Metta World Peace to a five-year, $34 million contract one summer and Steve Blake to a four-year, $16 million deal the following year. With the new CBA, they were only able to use the mini mid-level exception and sign journeymen Josh McRoberts and Chris Kaman for around $3 million annually.
Meanwhile, the Clippers are a rubber stamp away from introducing Forbes’ 36th-richest man in the world as their new owner. While none of the league’s other owners would publicly admit it now, it was easier for them to pretend they were unaware of Sterling’s checkered history because he never posed a threat to them on the basketball court. The last thing that the owners-at-large wanted, from a competitive standpoint, was two teams in the entertainment capital of the world willing to spend whatever it took to compete for a championship — mostly because escalating salaries was historically an unchecked bean-counting nightmare. The ouster of Sterling, though inevitable, surely will recalibrate all franchise values, which, in vacuum, would seem to be a good thing for the owners — but what if his departure awakens a sleeping competitive giant?
Sterling’s tenure as Clips’ owner produced some of the worst teams in pro sports history, but incessant losing does eventually reward the futile. After all, eight top-8 draft picks between 1998 and 2009 led to Los Angeles obtaining Blake Griffin and, indirectly, with the helping hand of the benevolent Commish, Chris Paul.
(Understandably, Lakers fans are probably none too fond of Paul’s incessantly airing State Farm Insurance campaign. That was supposed to be their PG, and now he’s leading little brother’s uprising instead.)
Now, with a capable roster and a highly regarded coach, some decisions (like DeAndre Jordan’s forthcoming free agency after next season) that might have been problematic under the Sterling regime are likely to be settled favorably under Ballmer. And with only two seasons remaining on their local TV and the league’s national TV deals, Ballmer will have plenty of additional basketball-related revenue to spend before he has to even consider burning through any more of his own billions.
The Lakers also may have inadvertantly played a role in the Clippers’ forthcoming TV negotiations. Just a few years ago, the Lakers and Dodgers were centerpieces of Fox Sports West and Fox Sports Prime Ticket, Southern California’s two regional sports networks. Now, though, after the area’s two premier franchises left to form lucrative regional cable network partnerships with Time Warner Cable, Fox is left only with the rights to the Los Angeles Angels, Kings, Clippers and the Anaheim Ducks.
(Fox acted quickly to renegotiate the terms of their existing agreements with the Angels and Kings. The Angels current deal is reportedly for 20 years and $3 billion, and includes an ownership stake in Fox Sports West. In related news, the Angels announced the signings of free agents Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson the day after their new TV deal was announced. The Kings’ current deal runs through the 2024 season and averages about $21 million per season.)
Regional sports networks are practically a license to print money, forcing cable companies and satellite providers to pony up juicy fees for each subscriber, even those who never watch the channel. Ballmer no doubt knows this, and while the Clippers won’t fetch anything close to the $150 million the Lakers now get annually from Time Warner, Fox now might be forced to offer the Clippers an ownership stake like the Angels got, and pay perhaps triple what the Clippers’ current deal pays. A recent Los Angeles Times story pegs the next TV deal for the Clippers to eclipse $65M per season. That’s a lot of extra scratch for Ballmer to play with.
Included in any sale of the Clippers will also be the the team’s current Staples Center lease, which was extended last year through the 2023-24 season. While it’s always possible that Ballmer could try to buy himself out of the remaining years, the Clippers are likely to stay there for at least the foreseeable future. However, moving the team from Staples Center would go a long way toward changing their identity, and could be incredibly lucrative. The Clippers currently are the number three tenants at Staples, behind the Kings and Lakers, giving them last choice on home dates, among other revenue issues.
In the past, the league had tried to persuade Sterling to move the Clippers to Anaheim’s Honda Center, but he always declined because he didn’t want to make the extra 45-minute commute from his home in Beverly Hills. Instead, the Clippers would play three or four of the least attractive games on their home schedule in Anaheim, selling twice as many tickets to a hoops-starved Orange County fan base than they did at the decrepit Los Angeles Sports Arena they then called home.
In 1992, the city of Burbank tried to lure the Clippers by proposing to build a $100-million arena that could accommodate up to 22,000 people. The Clippers chose to stay at the Sports Arena and the Burbank project never broke ground. If Ballmer’s bid succeeds, he needs to do what he can to escape the Lakers’ enormous shadow. Moving the Clips to a city like Burbank or Carson — far enough from Staples Center and the heart of Lakers Country but still inside of L.A. County — would be a major step in the right direction for the franchise, and Ballmer certainly could afford to pitch in.
What happens with the Clippers will obviously define the NBA market in Los Angeles, but it just might shift the NBA dynamic as a whole. The league’s other owners — including the Buss siblings — will be thrilled that the Clippers are selling for such a massive sum without any real estate changing hands, but with top players, fresh TV money and possibly a more favorable arena situation down the road, the Clippers may just become the competitive force that the Lakers (or anyone else, for that matter) never saw coming.
Sterling’s departure and Ballmer’s anticipated arrival signal a new era of NBA basketball. In Los Angeles, the Lakers are no longer alone. And they’re no longer the better team.