With so much controversy and uncertainty about ownership of the Los Angeles Clippers, at least they're not locked in a fight for whose team it is.
There's a huge difference, you know. Macro vs. micro, legal definitions vs. locker-room practicality. One of the reasons the Clippers got through the upheaval of Donald Sterling is that Blake Griffin and Chris Paul don't engage in territorial skirmishes.
Los Angeles knows how destructive power struggles can be. Even though the Lakers had Jerry Buss, the best owner in sports, they left championships on the table because Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant couldn't preserve their tenuous coexistence. The Clippers have emerged as the more successful team in L.A. of late because of the opposite dynamic: the two key players working together to win in spite of the owner.
"There's definitely no battle," said Clippers veteran guard Willie Green. "I think it just comes from maturity on both of their parts. Chris understands that he needs Blake, Blake needs Chris, and we as a team, we need both of them."
Look at the best teams in recent history and you'll find cooperation among the players with the biggest names. The Spurs have remained in the championship discussion since 1999, when David Robinson shared with Tim Duncan, who later stepped back for Tony Parker. Dwyane Wade let LeBron James take over the Miami Heat to win the past two championships. Doc Rivers had the right mix in Boston in 2007-08, when he successfully integrated Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen into Paul Pierce's team, as all three players saw their individual stats go down for the sake of a championship banner going up in the rafters.
"I don't think there's clashes when you're trying to win," said Rivers, now in his first year coaching the Clippers. "I think there's clashes when you're trying to be the leader of the team. I think all the clashes go away when everybody's on board about winning. I think the clashes start when the individual stuff's more important than the team stuff. You need individual egos to be great, but it can never be more important than the team."
Rivers' words remind me of a line from "Moby-Dick," Herman Melville's tale of monomaniacal obsession. There's a scene when Captain Ahab makes his first extended appearance of the book, locking his peg leg into a hole on the deck of the Pequod and addressing his crew. He holds a shiny golden doubloon and promises it to whoever delivers him the white whale with the crooked jaw that cost him his leg. Most of the crew is fired up, ready to chase Moby Dick to the far reaches of the ocean to get the reward. Not Starbuck, the ship's first mate (and yes, the inspiration for the coffee company's name).
"I am game for his crooked jaw, and for the jaws of Death too, Captain Ahab, if it fairly comes in the way of the business we follow," Starbuck says. "But I came here to hunt whales, not my commander's vengeance."
That's the secret of the NBA playoffs, hunting whales instead of individual agendas.
"I know that he can't do it alone and I can't do it alone," Paul said. "And then ... I just want to win. Winning conquers all."