First impressions are sometimes lasting. Here are some from the Clippers' 114-95 win over the Lakers from the season's first preseason game:
10 THINGS WE LEARNED
1. These guys will be fun to watch.
There are never-ending storylines with this team, from Blake Griffin's development from star rookie to outright star to point guard Chris Paul's adjustment to life in the spotlight to veterans Chauncey Billups and Caron Butler taking a young team under their collective wing. Above all, though, is simply that the 2011-12 Los Angeles Clippers will probably be the most exciting team in the NBA to watch on a nightly basis.
There's a special NBA League Pass package -- less expensive than the full version -- that offers fans the choice of any five teams in the league to watch every night. You can't convince me that half the subscribing fans in the world won't be putting the Clippers on their lists, alongside the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers.
2. Chris Paul's good.
It was only preseason, sure, and he played only 24 minutes, but Paul's plus-minus figures from Monday's game do a great job of explaining just how dominant he can be on an NBA floor. When he was on the court, the Clippers led the Lakers by 26 points. When he wasn't, they lost by seven. That was the best ratio of anybody in the game and a full 10 points better than Griffin's.
3. They call it "Lob City," and rightfully so.
Griffin and DeAndre Jordan ached to get lob attempts from tipoff, and they finally got it when Paul connected nicely with Jordan midway through the second quarter. Lakers center Andrew Bynum smartly stepped in front of another try later in the first half, but Paul and Jordan had three total connections -- at least one of which is guaranteed to be a "SportsCenter" Top 10 highlight.
4. Billups can still shoot it, and he actually may be just the right type of guard to work with Paul.
For some reason, he has a reputation as a true point and a bad fit at the 2 position, but Billups was actually considered more of a combo guard when he was drafted out of Colorado in 1997. A common knock on him early in his career as he bounced around was that he wasn't adept enough at passing the ball to cut it in the league.
He had 23 points on eight shots in 20 minutes Monday, and those numbers speak for themselves -- especially considering he was guarded by Kobe Bryant for most of the time he was on the floor. That went about as far as a preseason performance could possibly go in proving Billups' potential worth to this team.
"As long as I'm in a position where I can switch it up occasionally and bring it up, still do some of the things I've always done, that process will speed up," Billups said after Monday's game. "But I'm not really worried about me. I've been around a long time. I'll be able to do what I do in due time."
5. Ryan Gomes isn't a total lost cause.
He had a horrific first season with the Clippers in 2010-11, producing by far his worst-yet pro season as the starting small forward. But he can help this team in a clearly defined off-the-bench role backing up Caron Butler, as evidenced by his first-half play Monday. If he can knock down those 18- to 20-footers in the corner, he can be effective. And he made one in the first and made a nice pass for a basket out of a similar spot on the floor in the second.
6. Blake Griffin's going to pick up some T's.
Griffin joked after the game that he was going for a technical foul in every game, but the truth is that he's going to get called for a few of those this year. He can pick them up in one of two ways: Like he did in the first half Monday, hanging on the rim for an extra second after a ferocious dunk, or by pulling his passive-aggressive stuff on the NBA's officials. He's not vocal like a Kobe or a Rasheed Wallace, but his incredulous faces make it known when he's unhappy with a call. Refs don't like that so much.
7. Low-post defense isn't as much of a concern.
On the topic of Griffin, the assumption with a player of his stature and work ethic is that he'll make big improvements each offseason. Monday wasn't his best game, but his defense did look a tad stouter than it did a year ago. He spent some time on Pau Gasol and Bynum and wasn't overmatched by either of them. If he can be an average defensive presence and up his blocked shots, the Clippers will be much, much more formidable defensively.
8. Fitness isn't at its best right now, across the board.
Paul probably needs to lose 10 pounds; Billups and Butler will need to drop some, as well. Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro has freely admitted that. And it's probably not a huge issue considering the players. Where an issue could arise is if a Billups or a Butler goes down early because they're out of peak physical condition.
9. This team is smart, and it's not afraid of you, either.
A lot of that comes from Billups, just about the headiest presence there is in the NBA nowadays. He will serve as a sort of on-court compass for the Clippers this season, steadying them whenever the Butler 3s and the Paul to Griffin and Jordan lobs become too tempting.
10. The term "workmanlike joy" sounds fitting.
There's always a dramatically different feeling in an NBA locker room following a win as opposed to a loss, but there was a certain sense of, 'OK, this was good, but what else can we do?' in the Clippers' space Monday.
FIVE THINGS WE DIDN'T KNOW YET
1. Who will back up Griffin and Jordan?
Clippers brass keep raving about veteran Brian Cook and rookie Trey Thompkins, but neither of those guys is a true big man. Cook is far more comfortable on the perimeter than banging in the post and Thompkins also likes to operate outside the key. The Clippers desperately need a real big (think 6-foot-10 or taller) to protect against sure-to-come foul trouble from Jordan. And they need it soon.
2. What happens when they don't make about half of what they throw at the basket?
"It was an impressive win tonight," Billups said after Monday's game. "But we made shots. We gotta be able to win games when everybody's not making shots. That'll speak to our defense and being able to stop teams from doing what they want to do. With the playmakers we have, we're gonna have these nights where everybody's going to make their shots."
That says it all.
3. What sort of role will Mo Williams play with this team, if any?
He's been upset since the Clippers acquired Billups and Paul last week and made the media aware of his feelings. Del Negro called him a "pro's pro" twice before Monday's game, but will Williams, who turned 29 Monday, actually be able fulfill that proclamation? He didn't exactly play the part of a happy camper on the bench Monday and had the worst shooting percentage on the team.
4. Who will play the part of defensive stopper?
Butler's not a terrible defender, but he's not elite, and he's not exactly the most durable player in the league, either. Rookie Travis Leslie was thought of as a potential player in that role, but he didn't play Monday and looks destined for the D-League, if he makes the team. The Clippers need players to handle the Bryants of the league, and they don't have them right now.
5. Will Del Negro mold the players to his style, or will he mold his style to them?
Last year, the Clippers' coach showed a willingness to modify his strategies to fit his team best, playing Williams, Randy Foye and Eric Gordon together in a small backcourt after Williams was brought over from the Cleveland Cavaliers. The expectation is that he'll do the same with Williams, Paul and Billups this season, but that wasn't the case so much against the Lakers. It seemed more like he planned on Williams anchoring the second five than playing with the starting guards. But there's still plenty of time to change that around.