This article is part of VICE Sports' 2016 NBA Playoffs Coverage.
A mere decade ago, J.J. Reddick was one of the most reviled men in basketball, a consistent source of ire in ACC country and beyond, the latest in a long line of Blue Devil villains. Which makes it rather remarkable that Reddick, once frequently target of profane taunts, who tightly guarded his cell phone number for fear of harassment, who himself acknowledged some years later, being "sort of a prick," back in the day, should now end up being one of the more popular members of his professional outfit.
But such is the likability, or rather, the lack thereof, of the Los Angeles Clippers.
And so today? J.J. Redick is a rather widely admired shooting guard-slash-podcast host. Meanwhile, Chris Paul is a whiny, dirty, pest of a player, DeAndre Jordan is an drama seeker whose indecisiveness set off an NBA hostage situation, and Blake Griffin is all too happy to show up his competition but far too soft to actually stand up to the consequences. Whether or not these characterizations are true, or fair, is almost beside the point. Every story needs a villain, after all, and the Los Angeles Clippers just so happen to fit neatly as basketball heels.
This year sees the Clips matched up against everyone's favorite longshot. The Portland Trailblazers were not expected to make it this far after the departures of Robin Lopez, Wesley Matthews, and most notably, LaMarcus Aldridge. But thanks to C.J. McCollum's emergence and Damian Lillard's chip-on-the-shoulder hero ball, the Blazers played their way back into the postseason, and became America's plucky Pacific Time Zone underdogs along the way.
Which, of course, set up a perfect opportunity for the deeply loathed, much maligned, but above all else, immensely talented Clippers to crush the Portland fairy-tale. In game one, Paul was the force of nature he has been throughout the season's second half, scoring 28 points in just 33 minutes. Griffin was as efficient as he's been since returning from a broken hand en route to 19 points and 12 rebounds. And Redick lived up to the age-old "shooters shoot" mantra by knocking down 75% of his attempts for 17 points.
But ultimately, this Clips win came via defense, which is to say, they managed to sufficiently ugly up the game. Few teams are better at this, with Jordan clogging passing lanes, Paul pushing the hand-check rules as far as they will allow, and Doc Rivers taking advantage of every opportunity to lobby officials. "Guys, I don't complain much," said Rivers to the media about one year ago at this time, which still stands as perhaps the most blatant lie in Los Angeles since James Cameron promised to bring "Avatar" in on budget.
There is an air of phoniness that, rightly or wrongly, has stuck to the Clippers for some time, thanks to the incessant appeals for more whistles, the battle for DeAndre that introduced the world to the term "free agent moratorium", or perhaps most laughably, the attempt, via Twitter, to convince fans that Griffin punching a team staffer in the face was simply a case of #family business getting a little too heated. The Clippers, eternal little brothers, may want to be loved, but their style, their history, and their prickly personalities, simply won't allow it.
Which ultimately doesn't matter much, because games are determined not in our hearts, but on the court, where the Clippers, for stretches, can still appear tantalizingly brilliant. Depth remains an issue, due largely to the inability of Rivers, in his role as Team President, to procure any effective reserves beyond Sixth Man of the Decade Jamal Crawford. But there is no denying that when healthy and in tune, Paul's tenacity and court vision, Griffin's athleticism and improved arsenal, Redick's energy and accuracy, and Jordan's command of the defensive rotation, all combine to make the Clippers, at the very least, a worthy challenger to the league's top tier.
Few will be rooting for them to climb the mountain, mostly because they lack Russell Westbrook's undeniable authenticity, Steph Curry's babyface charm, or the San Antonio Spurs' delightful weirdness. (Yes, we're talking about you Boban...but not just you.) But while no-one on this Clippers' team would likely draw a nomination for Mr. Congeniality, their knack for the game is worthy of grudging respect, all the same.
Just a few weeks ago, with March Madness approaching, and the country setting its sights on Grayson Allen, Redick took to the airwaves to explain just how ridiculous the whole "Duke evildoer" lineage really is.
"It's almost like, every time there's a player at Duke, the media says, 'You should dislike this guy.'," explained Redick on his podcast. "The media, I guess, was choosing who we should hate. The media was saying, 'This guy is the next guy.'"
Redick is right, of course, not only that sports media (guilty as charged!) plays a major role in choosing the bad guys, but that the very concept of "villainy" on the court is inherently flawed. Complaining about calls, fouling too hard, saying the wrong thing to the press, waffling in free agency... These are all sports crimes, which is to say, they are not real crimes at all. The world has enough real problems without worrying about whether Blake Griffin is actually the lovable lug he plays in Kia commercials.
But as Redick knows too well, logic alone is not enough to shake the black hat. There is plenty to love about the Los Angeles Clippers, but it's still much easier (and more convenient), to hate them. Perhaps it's time for the franchise to simply embrace it.
Assistant Coach Christian Laettner has a nice ring to it.