The final years of the Buffalo Braves were a despondent set of circumstances. Abysmal ticket sales and a perilous financial situation enveloped the franchise. A concurrent fire sale of Hall of Fame and All-NBA talent was also taking place. From 1976 through 1978, Buffalo discarded Bob McAdoo, Jim McMillian, Adrian Dantley, and Moses Malone. Whether the chicken of financial peril caused the egg of this revolving door of trades or the other way around may never truly be known. But the death of the Braves was sealed when their owner John Y. Brown conducted the most important trade in franchise history by actually trading his franchise with Celtics owner Irv Levin. Brown took off for Beantown, while Levin took off as well, not for western New York, though. He quickly absconded to his native southern California and rechristened the Buffalo Braves the San Diego Clippers.
The 1st order of the Clippers was to conduct yet another trade with the Celtics, one that would drastically makeover both clubs. The Clippers sent Tiny Archibald, Billy Knight and a draft pick that would become Danny Ainge to Boston for center Kevin Kunnert, forwards Kermit Washington and Sidney Wicks, and swingman Freeman Williams.
In Kunnert the Clippers received a backup center who could mix it up on the boards in tandem or in relief of their starter Swen Nater. The Dutchman Nater was coming off a spectacular final season in Buffalo where he produced 15.5 points and 13 rebounds a game. Standing beside both these men would be the magnificent Kermit Washington, a burly and gritty power forward who was perhaps the most tenacious, if not best, rebounder at that position in the league.
Filling out the forward spots would be veteran Nick Weatherspoon and the newly acquired Wicks. Both men approaching their final years in the NBA, but Weatherspoon had always been a journeyman scrounging out a living as a backup, while Wicks was a former Rookie of the Year and one of the most astounding players of the early 1970s. By decade’s end, though, he’d fallen into the role of reserve after disgruntled years in Portland and his dispassionate stay in Boston.
In the backcourt, San Diego could rely on the Iron Man of the NBA, the venerable Randy Smith. Between 1972 and 1982, Smith set a record of 906 consecutive games played. Although pushing 30, the guard was still quick, explosive and athletic. He was also the last link to the franchise’s glory years in the mid-1970s.
With this tentative roster set, the Clippers tapped Gene Shue as their head coach in August of 1978. Although he was the NBA’s active leader in coaching wins, thanks to stints in Philly and Baltimore, Shue was aware the task at hand in the Pacific Division was a monumental one:
“… San Diego finds itself in a bracket in which every team – Los Angeles, Phoenix, Golden State, Seattle and Portland – had winning seasons last year.
‘That’s major problem – the unbelievable competition.’”
Shue nonetheless promised an uptempo, enjoyable brand of basketball for the San Diego fans, while also believing that the key to Clipper success was Sidney Wicks returning to his all-star form and also on finding backcout help for Randy Smith and rookie Freeman Williams. In Wicks, an all-star form would not return, but the backcourt help would arrive…
Just a day before the start of the 1978 season, the Clippers dealt their 1984 1st round pick to the 76ers for Lloyd “Not Yet World B.” Free. After three reserve seasons in Philadelphia, Free would finally unleash his unbelievable scoring abilities for the Clippers. The combo of himself and Randy Smith was one of the more dynamic (and short with neither over 6’3″) backcourts in the league.
The Clippers began their journey in what would become typical Clipper fashion: an uninspiring 6-11 record after 17 games. That 17th game and 11th loss was a drubbing at the talons of the Atlanta Hawks:
“John Drew scored a season-high 35 points to lead the Atlanta Hawks to a 125-101 [N.B.A.] victory over the San Diego Clippers Thursday night. The lead changed hands 19 times in the first half, and the score was tied 10 times. But the Hawks, trailing 61-60 at the half, took control in the third quarter.”
At least Shue’s promise for uptempo ball was holding true, with the Clippers averaging 110 points a game in the young season. The problem of course was that they were giving up 117.5 points. The night before their Hawk thrashing they were absolutely embarrassed 163 – 125 by the San Antonio Spurs. In the process the Spurs set a new mark for points scored in one game by one team.
Even amidst this low point, there were signs of promise such as Kermit Washington’s defensive dismantling of All-Star Marques Johnson in an October game against Milwaukee. The promise began to manifest as the situation slowly began to turn around for the Clippers. After 5-4 stretch, to end November, Lloyd Free was burning up the league with routine outbursts of 30+ points and he was certainly not shy about it:
“Nobody can guard me. I tried to guard myself once, but I couldn’t do it. I’m unstoppable.”
In addition to Free’s scoring, the Clippers were also a collective beast on the boards. By season’s end they would finish 6th overall in rebounds collected, which given the speed of Free, Smith and Freeman Williams, led to fastbreak trouble for opponents. By the All-Star break, the Clippers had fully righted their ship and were now dreaming of playoff glory. Winning 7 of their last 8 games before the February 4th All-Star festivities, the Clippers held an even 27-27 record overall.
Stumbling out of the break with 4 straight losses, the Clippers proceeded to reel off 13 wins in 14 tries including a blowout win against Boston that left Celtics assistant coach K.C. Jones impressed:
“I rate San Diego above Golden State, about even with Denver, and would place Portland ahead of them,” Jones said.
That’s pretty elite company for a team in its first year at its present location and a squad most people, including opposing NBA coaches, have ignored.
Lloyd Free and fellow guard Randy Smith combined for 70 points as the Clippers went over the .500 mark for the first time this season. Free hit 14 of 24 field goal attempts for 38 points and Smith was 15-of-23 form the field with 32 points.
While opposing coaches finally gushed, Clipper coach Gene Shue was enthused and elated with his uptempo offense finally paying dividends:
“That was one great offensive game. The third quarter was sensational. You just can’t shoot any better than that and when you’re shooting like that it turns a game into an easy win.”
As March began, there were but five weeks left in the NBA season and the Clippers were sitting with a 35-32 record, one game ahead of Portland for the final playoff spot in the West. Coach Shue was ecstatic with the offense but still a bit amazed at the team’s success after going 27-55 the previous year in Buffalo and the “disorganized” start to the current season.
Their guard-heavy offense was working beautifully by this point. Free’s rainbows, Smith’s acrobatic finishes and rookie Williams’s jumper would wind up accounting for 60 of the Clippers’ 113 points per game that season. Although not the hub of the offense, the one-on-one play of the guards allowed the Clipper big men, namely Nater, Washington and Weatherspoon, to pummel the offensive glass and get many a-clean up bucket. The Clippers bested the entire league in offensive rebound percentage, the frequency with which a team captures its own missed shot, with 37.5%.
If Shue was optmistic, his players were positively over the moon for their postseason hopes. After their March 18 victory over the New Jersey Nets, the ever-quotable Lloyd Free declared “this team can go all the way.”
The victory over New Jersey represented the highwater mark for the Clippers. With just 10 games left and possessing 40 wins and 32 losses, they were ostensibly secure in the 5th playoff spot in the West. However, over the final 10 games of the season, San Diego only managed to win 3 of them. Finishing with a 43-39 record, the Clippers would not secure one of the six playoff spots. Over this same final stretch to the season, the Portland Trail Blazers went on an 8-4 streak to overtake and dislodge San Diego.
This winning record would be the first and last one posted by the San Diego Clippers and the franchise wouldn’t post another winning season until the Los Angeles incarnation posted a 45-37 record in 1992.
Still, it didn’t have to be that way. The Clippers morass looks inevitable in retrospect, but that offseason they didn’t have to sign injury-riddled Bill Walton away from Portland and thus have to send away Kunnert, Randy Smith, Kermit Washington, and 1st round draft pick to the Blazers as compensation. The core of 1979 was obviously a competitive and dynamic bunch that could have established a legacy of playoff basketball in San Diego.
Despite the disastrous Walton trade, San Diego would just miss out on the playoffs in 1980 and 1981 with respectable win totals in the high 30s. Perhaps with those missing playoff appearances under their belt, fan interest would have been sufficient to keep Irv Levin as owner instead of his eventual sell to Donald Sterling who justified a move to Los Angeles because of the dwindling fan interest.
Then again, maybe it is just blasted Clipper luck. That 1st rounder sent to the 76ers for the glorious Lloyd Free would be used by Philadelphia to select Charles Barkley.
C’est la vie des Clippers.