HOW MUCH FUN ARE WE GOING TO HAVE ?
There have been seasons of great anticipation in years past. From Clipper season No. 1 in San Diego with everything new and exciting to many others in between. However, there has not been one like the coming season.
There was even greater anticipation in year two when the team signed NBA MVP Bill Walton to a giant free-agent contract. The first year in Los Angeles was filled with wonder and hope in 1984.
Former Kansas College Player of the Year Danny Manning was a part of one of the most anticipated Clipper seasons. It was 1992. His former college coach Larry Brown had taken over mid-season the prior year and somehow lifted a sub-.500 club into the NBA playoffs. He would bring back Manning, Ron Harper, Stanley Roberts, Gary Grant and Loy Vaught and then add veterans Mark Jackson, John Williams, Kiki Vandeweghe, and Lester Conner. How could they miss? Well, long-standing bad Karma between Brown and Manning led to a mediocre 41-41 season and a first round ouster to the Rockets in Houston.
A youthful and exciting 2001-02 Clipper team caught the imagination of the country through a season-long weekly ESPN reality series that had full access to the team 24/7. Elton Brand, Quentin Richardson, Lamar Odom, Corey Maggette and Darius Miles were full of bright-eyed exuberance and hope. The only ingredient that team seemed to lack was a steady hand at the point guard position.
The Clippers acquired NBA Assist leader Andre Miller from Cleveland in the summer of 2002 in exchange for the popular and charismatic Miles. It seemed to be a match made in heaven. We could not wait for the season to start. The ‘02-03 record of 27-55 remains absolutely unexplainable. Injuries played a role, but the season was an utter disaster.
Mike Dunleavy took over as head coach in 2003 and slow progress was logged each year. Twenty-eight wins in 2003-04 and 37 wins in 2004-05. It was clear that this team was ready for a break-through season. The acquisition of veteran point guard Sam Cassell fine-tuned the course. The team started off winning nine of their first 11 and never looked back en route to a 47-35 season. They’d blow by Denver in the first round of the playoffs and but for a controversial finish to Game 5 against the Suns in Phoenix, the Clippers would have advanced to the Western Conference Finals against Dallas.
Still, Clipper fans could not wait for the start of the 2006-07 season. Dunleavy always felt that a pair of pre-season games in Russia took a toll. Yet, the Clippers came home to win five of their first six regular season games. They played under .500 basketball the rest of the way and missed the playoffs with a fourth-place finish in the Pacific Division.
High hopes are not always realized. High expectations can lead to big disappointments. That said, I am not at all concerned this year. The ball club did a masterful job in the offseason.
The Clippers kept the starting unit from last year’s 40-26 team intact and totally overhauled the bench. The trio of Head Coach Vinny Del Negro, President Andy Roeser and Gary Sacks, who was named Vice President of Basketball Operations in September, formed a perfect triangle. The roster was meticulously reconstructed. Needs were met. A Balance of youth, experience and championship pedigrees was attained.
The Clippers went 5-3 in the preseason. They won five of their last six, including wins over Miami, the Lakers, Utah, Golden State and Denver. Few records in sport are less important than preseason marks, but this group is obviously improved at every position. They are at least two-deep at every spot. The club also has improved itself within the coaching staff, adding assistant Bob Ociepka and shooting coach Bob Thate.
Last year’s club won the equivalent of 50 games in an abbreviated 66-game season. They should be able to blow by that mark this season in the highly-competitive Western Conference.
Their prime starting five boasts the much improved DeAndre Jordan and four former NBA All-Stars (Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, Caron Butler and Chauncey Billups). The bench includes two recent NBA Sixth Men of the Year (Lamar Odom and Jamal Crawford), three players with championship rings (Odom and Ronny Turiaf), plus the grit and guile of Matt Barnes along with one of the most exciting and athletic young players in the game in Eric Bledsoe. Add decorated veteran Grant Hill, the steady and reliable Willie Green and athletic big man Ryan Hollins to that group and you truly have the deepest team in all of the NBA.
They are united by a genuine love for each other and by a common bond that is built around the belief that they can win and win BIG. They have the extraordinary leadership of Paul and the steady and underrated guidance of Del Negro.
Do not place any limits on this team. For the first time in my 34 seasons with the Clippers, I can honestly say that this year they can contend for the NBA Championship. It’s fun to say. Just imagine how much fun lies ahead.