Clippers still building chemistry
With Blake Griffin willing to defer, L.A. could make fast strides under Paul, Billups
LOS ANGELES -- They stood side-by-side after a scrimmage that meant nothing in the short term but felt like a beginning to something special. Chauncey Billups on the far left, Chris Paul in the middle, Blake Griffin on the far right.
As the media throng around the Los Angeles Clippers' three star players grew, Griffin noticed one of the team's beat reporters straining to reach his tape recorder in far enough to pick up what Billups was saying. He grabbed the recorder and held it out for him.
It was a considerate gesture, which should surprise no one who has met the young power forward.
It was also a wise one. When Billups talks, it's worth a little extra effort to listen.
"Those two are going to make it easier on me not only on the court but off the court as well," Griffin said. "Teaching me things they've learned over the past 800 years or however long they've played."
Billups has won something in this league. So has Paul, although not as much as Billups. Griffin is still hungry, and yes, still learning.
A week ago, Griffin was the unquestioned face of the franchise. He was prepared to lead them, too.
Now he seems all too happy to let Billups and Paul help show him the way and soak up everything they can teach him.
"They're competitive. They've won. They're tough. They know what it's like," Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said of the impact Billups and Paul have already had on Griffin.
"There's a big difference between just playing to win and knowing how to win."
Griffin answered the first question Sunday afternoon after the Clippers scrimmage at USC's Galen Center. He was short and to the point. Then he stepped back and let Paul and Billups do most of the talking.
Last season, heck, last week, Griffin was the only Clippers player anyone had much interest in speaking to. It was a heavy load for such a young player, but Griffin bore it as well as he could. On the court he took on even more.
If this franchise was going to become a winner, he would have to make it that way. Too much had gone wrong here over the years. Too much needed to change, starting with a culture that accepted losing and mediocrity far too easily. Only a player with Griffin's ability and will could really affect things. Deep down he always knew that.
Now all of a sudden he has help.
A different kind of personality might balk at ceding the spotlight to other men so quickly. A different kind of man might exhale too loudly at knowing his load had been lightened.
Griffin seems inspired by it, which is a big part of the reason Billups' initial misgivings about joining the Clippers seem to be fading.
"He's a very humble dude," Billups said of Griffin. "That's why you guys are in such a good position to be watching him for the next however many years.
"Watching greatness as it evolves."
Sunday afternoon was the first time all three of them had played together. There were a few nice moments, but there were more rough ones.
Paul threw two alley-oops on the day, neither of them to Griffin. Billups looked smart and savvy as always, but it's obviously going to take him some time to adjust to playing alongside another lead guard.
The sample size was too small to draw any large conclusions. The scrimmage lasted only 21 minutes.
But good things were happening even from one minute to the next. Chemistry was being formed. Camaraderie was developing.
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None of that happens quickly in a league men spend all their lives trying to conquer. This team will be no different, even as good as their new players are.
Monday night the Clippers play their first exhibition game against the Lakers. Tuesday they will practice. Wednesday they will play again. Next week at this time, the games will count.
It's too much, too fast for a group of guys who just got together in a gym a few days ago. But it's the reality all teams in the NBA face this season, after the protracted lockout.
Of the three, Billups has the least time left in the NBA to make this work. And yet he seemed the most patient of all of them.
"What you have to do is not try too hard to force it," he said. "You have to go out and compete, and people will start to respect each other for different reasons. It just kind of comes together. You can't force that.
"When you talk about a good team, it's never about what I'm going to be able to do or how I'm going to fit in. It's all about the whole team combined together. That's what it's all about, and we're going to make it work."
Griffin stood to the side, with his arms crossed and a towel over his head. The tape recorder was rolling. He was listening.
Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.