CLIPPERS HAVE THE PIECES IN PLACE FOR A DEEP RUN
There’s a padded blue section of wall near the entrance to the court at the Clippers’ Playa Vista Training Center that’s covered in tiny team logos.
Since the team opened the facility in September 2008, the area has existed as a backdrop for players and team personnel when they’re interviewed on camera following most practices, a spot reserved for almost any small-scale media event.
Today, it’s much larger, extending nearly 30 feet further from the doorway than when the team conducted its post-draft media scrum following the draft in June.
The expansion speaks to newfangled expectations for the organization. Less than a year removed from acquiring Chris Paul, arguably one of the most impactful players in franchise history, all eyes remain keenly focused on the Clippers.
When Paul arrived in Los Angeles nine months ago, the pieces were not ideal. There was a lack of front court depth, too many point guards, and not enough size on the wing. It was a somewhat difficult proposition, meshing an imperfect roster with two near-perfect superstars in Paul and youngster Blake Griffin. But despite stumbling during a brutal road schedule in February and March, the Clippers navigated what amounted to a fly-by-night season to compile a franchise-best winning percentage and take down the Memphis Grizzlies in the opening round of the playoffs.
They did it without veteran leader Chauncey Billups, who was lost for the season in February and re-signed this offseason. They did it with several members of the rotation playing out of position, hurt, or both. And did it short of an actual training camp with limited continuity.
That’s where the significance of expectation comes in. Year two for the suddenly high-profile Clippers officially begins in fewer than 20 days; the perceived weaknesses from 2011-12 all but fully upgraded.
Enter Lamar Odom: a versatile, ball-handling forward who Head Coach Vinny Del Negro has said will be the third big behind Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.
“We’ll put Lamar in some areas where we can spread the court with him, allowing him to put it on the ground and make plays, get him the ball at the elbow, let him post it up a little bit,” Del Negro said in July. “His versatility gives you a lot of options, which is a good asset to have.”
Likewise, the instant scoring ability of newcomer Jamal Crawford is another major asset. Crawford, who is 6-foot-5, can play both guard positions as a starter or top-flight reserve. He gives the Clippers another ball-handler, shooter, and playmaker on the wing.
When Crawford signed as free agent two months ago, he said the Clippers had “the perfect pieces to continue to get better.”
At the time, though, they had not yet added seven-time All-Star Grant Hill, who shores up the need for a backup small forward and defensive ace with size. He also gives the team a proficient 3-point shooter (42% average in two years preceding 2011-12), and another locker-room leader.
“With Grant, everyone always talks about his leadership qualities, his professionalism and the right mentality he brings to the court,” Del Negro said. “I have known Grant for a long time and we are expecting him to contribute on the court for us in a major way as well as continue to be that strong presence off the court that he always is.”
Add Ryan Hollins, an athletic, shot-blocking center who excelled in the postseason with the Celtics last year; Ronny Turiaf, who has big-game experience in the NBA as well as international competition; Willie Green, an underrated shooter and tough-minded guard; and the continued development of Jordan and Eric Bledsoe; and the Clippers are primed for a deep run.
Of course, questions remain. Can a team stay healthy with three key players (Billups, Paul, and Griffin) coming off surgery and five of their top nine over the age of 31? Or can they play the requisite amount of team defense necessary to contend for a title? Both questions have been bandied about this summer, and both have their share of validity.
Still, the Clippers are building from a position of strength, boasting a lineup that fits together on and off the court unlike any group they’ve had in recent memory.
The day after he was promoted to Vice President of Basketball Operations, Gary Sacks talked about the power of people being of equal mind, pulling in the same direction. He seemed anxious and excited.
He alluded to his high expectations, but he didn’t need to. The roster, and the collection of talent, speaks for itself.