PATTEN PENDING: THE MAKING OF A BIG 3
There are images of Clippers players all around Staples Center during home games: on a banner strewn across the Star Plaza entry, in hallways, on signage and T-shirts and Prime Ticket billboards.
The most significant, though, are not one or all of the seven images you think. Those have already exhausted plenty of energy.
Along the Clippers’ tunnel to the left of where players run onto the floor before each game is a banner hanging from the metal rails that line section 118 with action shots of Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan. They are facing a group of four more players on the opposite side of the tunnel. But the Griffin, Paul and Jordan banner is what stands out.
It is an unintentional reminder that no matter how lofty the expectations, the Clippers’ trio will be asked to lead the way. They are more than the key to a season, or a second-straight Pacific Division title. They are foundational.
When Head Coach and Senior Vice President of Basketball Operations Doc Rivers arrived in June, he went out of his way to mention Griffin, Paul and Jordan as a collective. Rivers knows a thing or two about Big 3s. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen were the modern original, preceding the LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh trio by three years. He has never compared his Big 3 with the Celtics to his current group with the Clippers. “They’re our Big 3,” is all he has said when asked about Jordan or Griffin or Paul.
And they certainly are. In a way, Griffin, Paul and Jordan have potential to be more like the Spurs than any other. Two of the three are home grown with one a second-round draft pick (Manu Ginobili and DeAndre Jordan) and the other No. 1 overall (Tim Duncan and Blake Griffin). Of course, Tony Parker was a late first-round pick by the Spurs, while Paul was acquired via a blockbuster trade.
It may be foreshadowing, or merely coincidence, that the Clippers were ousted by the Spurs in the second round of the Playoffs in 2012. A season removed, only Paul, Griffin and Jordan remain from that team. They remember what it looked like for a team with continuity and a championship pedigree to advance at their detriment. It is what they want.
If last season was a step back, despite unprecedented regular-season success, then 2013-14 could be a leap forward. Rivers said he’s not interested in taking steps, more so in making jumps. To jump from 56 wins and a first round exit to snatching something the Spurs Big 3 has won three times together would be unprecedented, monumental, unbelievable, a veritable Mad Libs of adjectives.
But it starts and ends with Griffin, the superstar who for some reason still must prove he is a superstar in spite of a three-year success level that rivals only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in terms of individual numbers; Paul, the man more than two-thirds of NBA General Managers recently named the league’s best point guard and fast-forwarded the transformation of the Clippers two years ago; and Jordan, the vivacious longest-tenured Clipper that after a wondrous preseason seems intent on realizing his otherworldly potential.
The idea of the Clippers’ Big 3 was in the making two winters ago, when the side of the Hotel Figueroa downtown was plastered with a 12-story mural of Griffin, Paul and Jordan, and has been furthered with the arrival of Rivers. He has put them in position to lead their championship charge together, and almost insisted upon it.
They all three took the podium together at Media Day on Sept. 30. They were given the keys to three passenger vans during training camp and were asked to shuttle teammates by position group to and from practice at UC San Diego. Rivers did not name team captains, instead the three players greet officials before games on their own accord. They are empowered.
In the four weeks leading up to the season, Rivers has referred to Jordan as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, Paul as a “special” player and Griffin as “unbelievable.” It is not hyperbole. There is a genuine belief in the group.
On Wednesday, less than a week before the season was set to tipoff, Griffin praised the Clippers organization for “putting the right pieces around its core.” He did not name himself, Paul or Jordan, but he didn’t have to paint us a picture. The small contingent of media at the preseason shootaround knew exactly what he meant.
How will those pieces fit with the core? As Rivers might say, there are 110 games to find out.