Knuckleheads: A look back at ‘01 Clippers

Published July 18, 2022, 1:00 PMJon Carlos Rodriguez
Jon Carlos Rodriguez

There was a brief moment, a blip in the timeline, pre-Lob City, when the Clippers were perhaps the coolest team in the league.

The “Clippers gonna Clip” is a catchphrase thrown around when the Los Angeles Clippers do something that isn’t very cool. Like blowing a 3-1 series lead in the Playoffs, for example. Twice. 

It’s the perfect description for when the Clippers stumble and fall, which in recent years, seems to be the reputation they picked up for not meeting high expectations. It wasn’t always like this. 

There was a brief moment, a blip in the timeline, pre-Lob City, when the Clippers were actually cool – perhaps the coolest team in the league. This wasn’t a time when the Clippers were championship material, no. But there was an endless stream of highlights, lobs, dunks, 3s, and no-look passes. This was back in 2001. The league looked way different back then.

State of the NBA

The 2001-2002 season started off looking to be either Tim Duncan’s or the Sacramento Kings’ season. Tim Duncan was named MVP that season (the first of a back-to-back). 

The Kings led the league with 61 wins, boasting the nearly unbeatable starting five of Mike Bibby, Doug Christie, Peja Stojakovic, Vlade Divac, and Chris Webber – “nearly” being the operative word. Because come playoff time, in the Western Conference Finals to be exact, the Los Angeles Lakers snuck in and stole the Finals spot from the Kings. The Lakers would go on to sweep the New Jersey Nets for their third straight title.

Where were the Clippers in all of this? They were at home watching the postseason, probably basking in the glory of their rock and roll mixtape.

The lineup

They were rock stars, these ‘01 Clips, or at least that’s how they carried themselves on the court. But they didn’t rock the way the ‘01 Kings rocked, which was epic and classic and could fill up your country’s largest concert venue. The ‘01 Clips were more of an indie band thrashing an underground dive bar.

Check out this roster: Elton Brand, Lamar Odom, Corey Maggette, Darius Miles, Quentin Richardson, Michael Olowokandi, Jeff McInnis, Earl Boykins, Keyon Dooling, Sean Rooks, and Eric Piatkowski.

If you were a video game head in this era, these names would definitely pop out. If you were a hardcore gamer then, then you’d know how much of a good time a 3-on-3 game of   was with Odom, Miles, and Maggette. The crazy part is that their video game counterparts are not too far off from real-life.

Watch this play and tell me that’s not straight out of a Playstation fantasy:

The way the roster was built was like a quick one-minute montage of forming the band–drafting Odom with the fourth pick in 1999, then drafting Miles and Richardson in the following year. Maggette was acquired through a trade with the Orlando Magic. They gave their second pick in Tyson Chandler to the Chicago Bulls’ for 1999’s first pick Elton Brand.

It took just a year of getting this young group of athletic guys together in a quest to take all the highlights. In this short span together, that’s exactly what they did. Richardson and Miles formed a duo unlike no other. While Richardson provided the lethal shooting from deep, Miles was the finisher up top. It was during this frantic era when the “knucklehead” celebration was born. 

Odom was in his infancy stages of showtime, perfecting his point-forward role that would later in his career win him championships with the Lakers. Brand was the reliable cornerstone, their version of a low-post bruiser who can match up against this eras’ Duncans and Webbers. Then there was the freaky hops of Maggette, who in the same year performed a front-flip leading up to a two-handed slam at the dunk contest. They were coach by Alvin Gentry, who served as the team’s empowering instigator in their run to outrun and out-highlight opposing teams.

The aftermath

All good things must come to an end and this version of the Clippers ended quickly as it started. Front office immediately moved on from the Miles-Richardson show after two years of missing the playoffs. Miles was shipped to Cleveland for Andre Miller, a steady, pass-first, no-frills point guard. And just like that, the fun was over for the Clippers.

The succeeding season had them losing Brand, Maggette, Odom, and Richardson to injuries. The Clips looked deflated that year, the fun sucked out of them. There were no more knucklehead celebrations (the Knuckleheads podcast hosted by Miles and Richardson, however, would emerge more than a decade later). 

Odom would soon make his way to Miami, and the Clippers went on a new path to play different music with Brand as the lead. There hadn’t been a Clipper lineup since then that captured the same pure joy and reckless vibe that the ‘01 Clippers embraced.

The closest, of course, is the core of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan in the 2010s. This group enjoyed a run of high playoff chances, doing it in a way that was reminiscent of how the ‘01 Clippers ran the break, relied on young knees, and threw the ball in the air with the guarantee that someone will throw it down. The influence of that iconic, promising, and fun Clippers team was palpable.

The 2001 Clippers walked so that Lob City could fly.