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Saturday, August 04, 2007

The Clippers: The NBA's Bermuda Triangle

The news that Clippers star forward Elton Brand ruptured his left Achilles tendon on Friday during a routine workout session--a potentially season-ending injury--reminded me of how the Clippers franchise has been the NBA's version of the Bermuda Triangle for the past 25 years or so: players sail in and then disappear. If you follow the NBA at all then you saw the gruesome knee injury that promising young point guard Shaun Livingston suffered last season but serious injuries are nothing new to the Clippers. For instance, when Marques Johnson joined the Clippers in 1984 he was a productive and durable 28 year old three-time All-Star; in 1986 he suffered a serious neck injury that ended his career (other than a brief stint with Golden State in 1989-90). Similarly, when Norm Nixon joined the Clippers in 1983 he was a productive and durable 28 year old, a 1982 All-Star who missed only seven games in his six seasons with the Lakers; in 1986 he suffered a serious knee injury and after he recovered from that he ruptured his right Achilles just before the 1987-88 season began. That basically ended his career, other than a brief return with the Clippers in 1988-89.

Perhaps Bill Walton should not be included on this list of woe because injuries dogged him throughout his NBA career but it is worth noting that he won a regular season MVP, a Finals MVP and a championship in Portland prior to becoming a Clipper; meanwhile, his six year Clippers' career--his longest stay with one club--included two seasons in which he did not play a game due to injury, a 14 game "season" and a 33 game "season." Then in 1985 the Clippers traded him to Boston for Cedric Maxwell (plus a draft pick and cash) and Walton promptly played in a career-high 80 games, shot a career-best .562 from the field and won the Sixth Man Award as the Celtics cruised to the 1986 championship.

Speaking of Maxwell, he won the 1981 Finals MVP as the Celtics captured the first of three championships in the Larry Bird era. Maxwell was also an important player on the 1984 championship team. He injured his knee during the 1984-85 season but when he joined the Clippers he was a reasonably healthy 30 year old who had played in at least 78 games in six of his eight NBA seasons; within two years after arriving in L.A. his career was over.

Michael Brooks of La Salle was honored as the national player of the year by the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) after averaging 24.1 ppg and 11.5 rpg as a senior in 1980. The Clippers selected him ninth overall in that year's draft and he played in 293 straight games, including every game of his first three seasons. In 1982 he finished second on the team in scoring (15.6 ppg). For all intents and purposes his career ended when he tore an ACL in 1984.

In 1984-85, former Louisville star Derek Smith emerged as a fine replacement for Brooks, leading the Clippers in scoring with 22.1 ppg. He averaged 23.5 ppg in the first 11 games in 1985-86 before a suffering a season-ending knee injury. Smith was never the same player again.

Jamaal Wilkes was already 32 years old and slowing down when the Clippers signed him in 1985 but after playing 42 games in 1984, 75 games in 1983 and at least 80 games in each of the five seasons prior to that he played just 13 games with the Clippers before retiring; at least he did not tear his ACL or rupture his Achilles.

Danny Manning almost single-handedly led Kansas to the 1988 NCAA Championship, earning the honor (curse?) of being selected first overall by the Clippers in that year's draft. His rookie season was just 26 games old when he tore his ACL. Manning recovered and eventually made the All-Star team twice but he never became an elite, franchise-level player. Perhaps he would not have done so anyway, but it would have been interesting to see how his career would have progressed if he had had two healthy knees for more than 26 games.

Ron Harper finished second in Rookie of the Year voting as a Cleveland Cavalier in 1987. Three years later he was considered one of the league's rising stars when the Cavs traded him to the Clippers early in the 1989-90 season for the rights to Danny Ferry. Harper averaged 23.0 ppg in the next 28 games in L.A. before tearing his ACL. Harper never regained his trademark athleticism. He later escaped from L.A., remade himself as a defensive specialist and won five championship rings, three with Chicago and then two more with the Lakers.

Harper left the Clippers in time to salvage the second half of his career but the best move seems to be to get out as soon as possible. Terry Cummings won the 1983 Rookie of the Year award as a Clipper but was diagnosed with a heart arrhythmia that was potentially career-threatening; he went through periods when he was light-headed and even fainted on at least one occasion--but after his second season with the Clippers he was traded to Milwaukee and he ended up playing in the NBA until he was 39 years old.

Pro basketball is a grueling sport, so injuries are bound to happen, and I don't really believe in curses--but if you were a free agent player who had a choice of going to several different teams would your first choice be set sail into the NBA's Bermuda Triangle with the Clippers?

posted by David Friedman @ 6:15 AM



At Saturday, August 04, 2007 8:03:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brian Williams - Bison Dele was also a Clipper for a season before his Bulls Championship. And didn't Loy Vaught suffer some sort of career ending injury as well? McDyess was also originally drafted by the Clippers.

Then it's draft picks, specially lottery draft picks: Lancaster Gordon, Benoit Benjamin, Reggie Williams and Joe Wolff (along with Ken Norman, one of the worst three-first-round drafts in history), the Danny Ferry fiasco, Bo Kimble, Terry Dehere, Greg Minor... Some of those were supposed to be real prospects, until the Clippers entered their lives.

At Sunday, August 05, 2007 5:19:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vaught had a back injury as a Clipper that essentially ended his career, so you are right that he can be added to the list of woe. The lottery picks who went awry for various reasons could be a whole other article.

Dele could be considered someone who escaped the Bermuda Triangle from a basketball standpoint, winning a championship. Of course, his life ended tragically for reasons that had nothing to do with the Clippers or basketball.

At Sunday, August 05, 2007 7:21:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds like we have a lot of reason to never want to be a Clipper. If I were part of Bison Dele's party, I would blame his death on being a Clipper. It's a curse!



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