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Short season could be Clippers' long-awaited chance for relevancy

You would think a league that eternally rests so precariously on the tightrope of popularity would not have risked a public relations disaster, particularly in the wake of a highly successful 2010-11 season. Keep the momentum going -- that should've been the M.O.

But the NBA and the players' union nonetheless engaged in a labor standoff that delayed the opening of the season by almost two months and shrunk it from 82 games to 66, and by the time it was over, few fans cared, or even understood, why we had to endure it.

So as we head into the Christmas Day openers, there is one looming question: How much residual public resentment remains? That answer may not come for a while, not until we see the extent of product damage stemming from an abbreviated preseason and a glut of personnel moves, major and minor.

Still, one has to wonder if the masterminds on both sides weren't aware of the fact that -- hard-core fans aside -- the NBA doesn't have much punch in the early going anyway. Christmas Day has come to be recognized as the unofficial opening of the season, and my guess is that meeting that date was floating around from the outset of the labor conflict, whether anyone admits it or not. If the NFL didn't open on time, fans would be flinging themselves off of tall buildings, but it's not like that with the NBA.

Then, too, the league just might be able to hold public relations serve because one of the most compelling questions of last season is still around. Which is: LeBron James -- fact or fiction?

Yes, James' Heat are back, seemingly stronger than last season, buffered by a newly extended coach, Erik Spoelstra, a strong defender/locker room stalwart in Shane Battier and a presumed lethal post-up game from LeBron, who worked out in the long offseason with back-to-the-basket master Hakeem Olajuwon. So, to a greater extent than I can remember since the dominant Shaquille O'Neal-Kobe Bryant teams a decade ago, one team is the odds-on favorite to win the championship. That is Team South Beach.

Let's be clear: This one's on LeBron. It's his ninth season, and it's time to bring it home. Maybe he deserved a hall pass last season when he and Dwyane Wade were getting accustomed to each other in clutch situations. But amnesty is now revoked, and, if James again demonstrates that he's a choker and a fourth-quarter fraud, then that's what he is.

That storyline, though, won't present itself for several months, by which time we will have been engrossed in following ... no, this can't be right.

The Clippers?

We can't be sure what David Stern had in mind when he vetoed a trade that would've sent New Orleans' Chris Paul into the waiting and grateful arms of Bryant in Laker Land. Though the NBA does own the Hornets -- how many people actually realized that before Stern rejected the deal? -- no one expected him to make such an anti-free-market move, not in the still-charged atmosphere that followed the labor war.

But after the NBA (read: Stern) finally OK'd Paul's being dispatched to the Other L.A., there evolved a possibly stronger narrative than the Kobe-and-Chris-together storyline. Which is: Can this franchise, noteworthy mostly for futility, contend for a title? And would a Supreme Being -- meaning someone above Stern in the cosmic sense -- actually allow Clippers owner Donald Sterling, one of the most reprehensible characters in NBA history, to get measured for a ring?

We don't know the answer to that last one. But as we prepare for Clipper Clamor, a story line that will draw attention from liftoff, it might be illuminating to reflect upon what has transpired in other Clippers seasons that began with promise. It is not pretty.

• We begin in 1978, the year that the franchise moved from Buffalo to Southern California and was renamed the Clippers. The scoring of Lloyd B. Free, before he was known as World B., gave great hope to the San Diego Clippers, and they did indeed play well, winning 43 games. But four teams finished with better records in an exceedingly tough Pacific Division, and they didn't make the playoffs.

• The acquisition the following season of Bill Walton, who was just two seasons removed from his Finals MVP year in Portland, promised much hope. But Walton's fragile feet gave out, and, though he hung around for several agonizing seasons, he never did help the franchise. In what would become somewhat of a pattern, Walton then succeeded in another venue, helping the Celtics win a title in 1986.

• In 1984, Sterling, then in his third year as owner, moved the team, with much fanfare and promise, from San Diego to Los Angeles. The Clippers vowed to be a serious competitor for the Lakers and boasted players such as Derek Smith, ex-Laker Norm Nixon and Marques Johnson. But Smith suffered a career-ending knee injury and that group never came together.

• Optimism was high in 1985 after the drafting of Creighton 7-footer Benoit Benjamin, the third pick. But Benjamin rarely looked engaged, never improved and is considered one of the most underachieving players in NBA history.

• In May 1988, the Clips got a great stroke of luck when they won the draft lottery and the rights to Danny Manning -- a talented, versatile and reliable guy. No Benoit Benjamin he. But Manning injured his knee, played only the first two months of the season and Los Angeles won 21 games.

• The next year, another well-grounded, popular player high in the draft -- Duke's Danny Ferry. But Ferry preferred Italy to the wonders of Clipperville, and his rights were traded away.

• OK, the 1991-92 Clippers team was legit with a rehabbed Manning, a strong Ron Harper, a tough Olden Polynice and lots of depth. It was the team that, at last, was going to be better than the Lakers.

And it was, winning 45 games to the Lakers' 43 and making the playoffs for the first time in history. Sterling thought he was on his way. But neither the '92 Clips nor the '93 Clips could make it past the first round, succumbing to, respectively, the Karl Malone-John Stockton Jazz and the Olajuwon Rockets. And that was that for a few years.

• The '97 Clippers team is perhaps the only one in franchise history to overachieve rather than underachieve -- its best player, after all, was Loy Vaught --and it again made the postseason. But there again, in the first round, stood Malone and Stockton, at the height of their powers. Three and out.

• In '98 the Clips had the top pick, and again they blew it with a center, choosing the soft-as-a-baby's-behind Michael Olowokandi, who came to be known -- aptly -- as Kandi Man. He helped them get nowhere.

• Two years later, as the hated Lakers were beginning their first three-peat, along came promising rookie Lamar Odom. And with Odom came more bad luck -- injuries and a suspension for marijuana use that just about negated his sometimes-stellar double-double play. And, of course, Odom never fully blossomed until he became a Laker.

• In 2005-06, it all came together for the Clippers, who picked up veterans Sam Cassell and Cuttino Mobley and got steady interior play from solid citizen Elton Brand. They got out of the first round for the first time in franchise history by beating Denver, and they had Phoenix on the ropes in the second round. With the series tied at 2-2, the Clippers were in position to win Game 5 in Phoenix when the Suns' Raja Bell hit a miraculous three-pointer from the corner to send the game into a second overtime. The Suns pulled that game out, lost Game 6, but won the series at home. Many observers believed that the Clippers were the better team.

So ... 33 seasons, only four postseason appearances, one lone incursion into the second round. Numerous bad draft picks. Horrible free-agent signings. Disastrous injuries. Plain bad luck. All that and constantly living in the shadow of the Purple and Gold.

But, look, maybe this is the year all that changes. Maybe the Chris Paul-Blake Griffin combination will be that good. Maybe someone Up There figures it's about time. Maybe Sterling sold his soul, if he still has one, to get an elite team.

Or maybe, by season's end, the 2011-12 season will have proved to be just another sad chapter in the Clippers' story. Only shorter.

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