All Ball Sports: Mustangs bound for the Big Show, Clippers bound over Lakers
by Paul Teetor
In an age of endless war, global pandemics, raging floods, and out-of-control wildfires even the sports pages are filled with depressing stories.
WNBA star Brittany Griner is being held hostage in Russia, and may be traded for an arms dealer known as the Merchant of Death; Dodgers pitcher Trevor Bauer claims it’s perfectly OK to punch, and brutalize women as long as they ask for it; and traditional college leagues like the PAC-12 are fracturing into super conferences built around raw greed and blatant self-interest.
Right about now everyone – even sports fans – could use a midsummer feel-good story.
Last week Beach City baseball fans got a great one when the Dodgers drafted former Mira Costa star pitcher Jared Karros out of UCLA. It was a full-circle moment for the Karros family: his father, Eric Karros was a star at first base for the Dodgers from 1992 to 2002. He was the 1992 Rookie of the Year and still holds the record for most home runs by an LA Dodger with 270. Duke Snider, who played in both Brooklyn and LA, holds the franchise record with 389.
Jared Karros was hailed as one of the best pitchers ever to come out of Mira Costa, and when he committed to UCLA – also his father’s alma mater – the expectations were set very high.
But due to a string of injuries and then the Covid-19 pandemic, the 6-foot-7 power pitcher only pitched in 11 games for the Bruins.
He says he would have gone back to college if any team other than the Dodgers had drafted him. But once his name was called in the 16th round, he realized it was a dream come true that he simply couldn’t turn down to wait until next year, even though he probably would be drafted much higher next year after a full season with the Bruins.
“It’s definitely pretty awesome, just with them being the local team, always grew up watching them, rooting for them, going to their games,” he said. “But there’s more than that. With their development and their organization, it’s more than just the local team that I rooted for. It’s an organization that’s going to give me the best opportunity to help further my career.”
And if he does get called up to the big club by the Dodgers, Beach City fans are in for a special treat because his father currently works as a Dodgers analyst on SportsNet LA.
Now that’s a real feel-good story: Karros on the mic critiquing Karros on the mound!
And possibly analyzing play by infielder Chase Meidroth, Jared Karros’ Mira Costa teammate and fellow class of 2019 graduate. Meidroff, who attends the University of San Diego was drafted by the Boston Red Sox.
Clippers bound for glory
As the Lakers struggle in their El Segundo headquarters over how to resolve their self-inflicted wounds – no one will take petulant, overpaid Russell Westbrook off their hands and LeBron James may very well leave if he doesn’t like the team they put around him next season – the real LA hoops story is happening a few miles away in Playa Del Rey: the Clippers are poised to win an NBA title or at least get to the NBA Finals.
While the Lakers have dominated the daily news cycle this summer by hiring a new coach in Darvin Ham, begging other teams to trade for Westbrook and trying desperately to get Kyrie Irving while refusing to trade away their only two remaining assets – 2027 and 2029 first round draft picks – the Clippers have quietly set themselves up for a championship run in the 2022-23 season and again in the 2023-24 season. That, in turn, would set them up amid a rising wave of momentum for the move to their $2 billion new home in Inglewood, the Intuit Dome, in time for the 2024-25 season.
No one, not even All Ball, has a crystal ball to see into the future. But it’s not hard to project that by the time the 2024-25 season rolls around, and the Clippers leave the Lakers alone by themselves in the Crypt, local hoops fans could be looking at a decade of dominance by the resurgent Clippers.
Meanwhile the Lakers could very well be wandering through a dystopian, post-LeBron future where they have no stars, no high draft picks for years to come and no hope of turning it around in the short or medium term. They’re even going to have an inferior home court compared to the Clippers shiny new mega-mansion, a circumstance that was unthinkable just a few years ago.
In other words, the historic 50-year dominance of the Lakers over the Clippers may very well come to a screeching halt in the next 12-24 months with an epic case of role reversal.
For the first time ever, the Clippers have all the ingredients to be considered legit title contenders. The primary reason for this optimistic state of affairs: multi-billionaire owner Steve Ballmer and his deep, deep pockets.
The former Microsoft senior executive has spared no expense since acquiring the team in a forced sale seven years ago after cheapskate owner Donald Sterling was revealed to be a not-so-secret racist and was pressured by the league into surrendering the team he had controlled for more than 30 years.
Ballmer has revealed himself to be a super fan – attending every home game and most road games while standing and cheering his team at the slightest provocation – and, unlike most super-rich guys who own pro sports teams, it’s not about making more money, it’s about his team making a big splash with the fans and owning the town they play in.
For the Clippers, it all starts with the return of Kawhi Leonard. Every title contending team needs a superstar, a go-to-guy whom they can give the ball to and say go get us a basket when they absolutely have to have one. Guys like Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee, Kevin Durant in Brooklyn, Steph Curry in Golden State and yes, LeBron in LA.
LeBron’s team may suck, thanks to front office ineptitude, but he is still a top five player after averaging 30 points per game last season. The problem in Laker land is that beyond his Deputy Dog, Anthony Davis, he has no help at all.
The Clippers have problems too, but they’re very solvable.
For one thing, Kawhi hasn’t played since late in the 2021 playoffs, when he tore the ACL in his left knee while leading the Clippers over the Utah Jazz to the Western Conference Finals. That was the first time the Paper Clips ever made it as far as the WCF, but without Kawhi to continue his blazing playoff run they were unable to get past the Phoenix Suns, who then lost in the Finals to Milwaukee.
It has been agonizing for Clipper fans ever since that fateful May day as they watched their team try to compete in a stacked western conference without their best player, their go-to-guy, their silent-but-serious leader by example.
In an age of endless social media blather by players, coaches and fans alike, Kawhi is an old-school guy who keeps his feelings to himself, and lets his actions speak louder than the few words he deigns to utter to the press and public.
Despite his self-enforced silence, the 6-foot-7 Kawhi has already proven he can be that superstar guy every title team needs. He was the alpha-dog in San Antonio after Hall-of-Famer Tim Duncan retired, and he was that same guy in Toronto after the Raptors mortgaged their future in exchange for Kawhi – and he delivered them a championship in his one and only season north of the border.
But then he broke hearts across Canada by signing with the Clippers in the summer of 2020. He also broke hearts in Oklahoma City when he demanded that the Clippers acquire Paul George from the Thunder as a condition of his signing here. Ballmer did what he had to do to make it happen, and thus the Clippers had a big two capable of going to the Western Conference Finals if not making it to the NBA Finals.
That vision was fulfilled in the 2021 playoffs, as George happily provided what every championship team also needs: a wing-man, a side-kick, an All-Star level player who is happy to defer to the team’s superstar at crunch time, and to be ready to score heavily when the superstar is having an off-night, or is out with an injury.
In the status conscious NBA, not every star is content to take a secondary role. Indeed, most regular stars think that they really are superstars who just aren’t getting the opportunity to prove it.
And that is where most of the chemistry problems start. Unless there is a team-wide, universally understood pecking order as to who is the best player, who is the second-best player and even the third-best player, there are always going to be chemistry problems.
Just look at the Lakers last season. Everyone – except Westbrook — knew LeBron was number one and AD was number two. But Westbrook’s bloated ego couldn’t accept that hierarchy, and chaos ensued.
George, a 6-foor-10 forward with a silky-smooth shot who also happens to be a lock-down defender, delivered on both counts – as a reliable supporting player most nights, and a fill-in leading man some nights — in 2021. But with Kawhi out with his knee injury in the WCF, he wasn’t quite good enough to carry his team over that hurdle.
George missed almost half of last season with injuries, although he performed brilliantly when he was able to play. But he too now claims to be 100 percent healthy and raring to go – and the Clippers doctors agree.
So the Clippers are now where they were at the start of the 2020-21 season when they featured the necessary superstar plus a supporting star who knew his place and was happy to stay in his lane because it suited his laid-back personality.
Back then they had two clear-cut flaws that happened to be related: no obvious third star, and no experienced, reliable point guard to run the show and take the pressure off Kawhi and PG to make plays for themselves and others all night long.
Enter John Wall, a five-time NBA All-Star who was the league’s fastest player up and down the court ever since he was the first overall NBA draft pick in 2010. For years his problem with the Washington Wizards was simple yet frustrating: he was so good, and so fast, that his teammates couldn’t keep up with him. In the process the 6-foot-3 human blur proved he was also a great defender and passer.
But in 2017 he started having knee problems, and for the next three years he was in and out of the Wizards lineup, causing frustration to build up on both sides – especially because he had signed a maximum contract in 2017, just before his injury problems started.
By 2020 he wanted out of Washington, and the Wizards were happy to accommodate him by trading him to Houston for – wait for it – Russell Westbrook. The main reason the deal was possible: they had identical maximum salaries and would both be owed $47 million in the fifth and final years of their contracts.
While Westbrook was stinking up the joint in Washington, Wall came out smoking in Houston. But he was so good and the Rockets were so young and so bad that management decided they were going to focus on developing their young guards like Jalen Green and Kevin Porter Jr. Why give playing time to Wall when he was 10 years older than the kiddie corps they were trying to groom for the future? After consulting with Wall, he agreed to sit out last season as long as he got his contractually committed $43 million.
So he sat out the whole season, let his body heal from more than a decade’s worth of injuries, and made the decision that at age 31 he didn’t want to sit out another season even though the Rockets still owed him $47 million for this upcoming season.
After much negotiation, the Rockets agreed to cut him loose and pay him $35 million of the $47 mil they still owed him. That made him an unrestricted free agent, and more than a dozen teams sought to sign him. After all, how often does a five-time All-Star become available to a team that wouldn’t have to give up any assets to get him?
Not very often.
But to the chagrin of the other teams around the league, the fix was already in. Wall is best friends with George, who was the 10th overall pick in the same 2010 draft class as Wall. It only took a few days for George to convince Wall to sign with the Clippers, citing the rich owner, the new stadium soon to open, and the hole in their lineup – a top-end point guard to run the show – that Wall could neatly fill.
So Wall signed a two-year contract for $12 million, which just happened to be the amount of money he gave up to get his release from Houston.
The other selling point George used to convince Wall to come to LA? The presence of Head Coach Ty Lue, a former Lakers point guard who is now one of the top three coaches in the NBA. He has a point guard’s savvy about how to manage the ebb and flow of the game, a scrub’s understanding of every player’s mindset – Lue was never a star, always a guy scrambling to make the team – and a sixth sense of how to motivate and challenge players privately while never undermining them publicly.
Indeed, his profile – former supporting player who came up through the coaching ranks – was cited by the Lakers as the criteria that led them to Darvin Ham after an extensive search.
The difference is that Lue was already a proven head coach – he won a title with Cleveland in 2016 – while Ham hasn’t been a head coach anywhere.
Lakers fans may want to avert their eyes once the season starts.
But Clippers fans?
Nothing but blue skies ahead.