"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit."
That quote from the Greek philosopher is pasted on the hallway leading from the Clippers' locker room to the Staples Center corridor. It's supposed to remind a team that has been anything but excellent that if it were to, you know, win, it might become habitual.
Problem is the only thing the Clippers have done repeatedly in recent years is lose players to injury and lose a lot of games. Aristotle might call that a habit. But hang around this season's team long enough and a phrase from another famous philosopher comes to mind.
"What, me worry?"
-- Alfred E. Neuman
After a 126-86 loss to the Lakers on Friday, the Clippers are 17-21, placing them just ahead of Sacramento, Golden State and Minnesota in the Western Conference. They've lost Blake Griffin, their No. 1 overall draft pick, for the season because of a broken kneecap. They're on a three-game losing streak that could stretch to four Sunday against Cleveland. And they seem to be monitoring a new injured player every day (Chris Kaman, who missed Friday's game with a lower-back issue, has been a fixture on the trainer's table this week). Yet everyone in their locker room acts as if they're a few wins away from being a playoff team.
"We just need to get on a winning streak," said Clippers guard Eric Gordon, who scored 17 points Friday. "We need it now because it's basically the halfway point of the season. Some teams have already established themselves and we need to start doing that."
It wouldn't be a bad idea to start stringing some wins together before the NBA All-Star break in February.
As difficult as this season has been for the Clippers, it's important to keep it in perspective, a skill that Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy has perfected over the years as he tries to explain the upside of his oft-injured, oft-underachieving squad.
The Clippers will probably double their win total from last season, when they finished 19-63, and will finish with their best record since 2006-07, when they went 40-42. They have Baron Davis, who nearly went to blows with Derek Fisher in the third quarter, showing some of the spirit the Clippers were looking for when they signed him to a five-year, $65-million deal two years ago. Chris Kaman has blossomed into a 20-10 machine and one of the top five centers in the league. The Clippers' best player might be Gordon, the soft-spoken shooting guard who is averaging 17.1 points in his second season.
"If you look at our top six guys, we compete against anybody statistically in the league," said Dunleavy. "Our nucleus is really good and that's without having Blake Griffin, who looked good in the pre-season. I think anybody who knows anything about basketball would think that guy might help us out. We've beaten some pretty decent teams without Blake and we think he could bring a lot to the table and help us get a lot more wins."
The Clippers were adamant they weren't affected by Griffin's season-ending surgery news, despite losing three straight games following the announcement. They had been playing without him all season.
"It's like the TV show 'The Naked City,' there's a million stories but there's only one story that really matters and that's how your team is performing and what you can project your team to be," said Dunleavy. "It's all about the big picture.
"Are you in a position where you think you're on the rise and still in a position to compete for the playoffs and a championship? If you are on the rise in that direction things are still good. If you got all your guns out there blazing and you're still losing then it's time to blow it up and figure out a way to retool.
"The way I look at our team is that we have a lot of really good pieces in place."
As Clippers forward Rasual Butler looked around the locker room and thought back the Clippers' wins over the Celtics, Lakers and Nuggets at home this season, he said his teammates weren't down on themselves.
"We're a good basketball team and we know we're a good basketball team," Butler said. "We feel we have some of the best basketball players in the world in this locker room and if we can just play like that we'll be in good shape. We know that's where we need to be at for us to be in the playoff picture. So that's why it's such an issue for us to get to .500 ... .500 is not going to get you in the playoffs but you're talking serious business once get there and start climbing up the list in the West."
As much as Dunleavy may like to believe he has a playoff team this year, his optimism for the Clippers stems largely from their potential. When asked about his team's upside, he brought up the return of Griffin next year, the team's position in terms of cap space in the off-season and how many draft picks it had acquired.
It was as if he were already planning for next year, which seems to be a theme for a team that continues to be in search of a way to win this year.
Arash Markazi is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com.