Clippers could be really good
It might sound strange to say out loud, but this edition might just have what it takes
It feels strange to even think it, let alone say it out loud.
These new Los Angeles Clippers have known each other less than a few weeks. Enough time to learn names and faces, but not much more. Tendencies, personalities, strengths and weaknesses, all that will take much more time.
And yet somehow, after watching them soundly beat the Los Angeles Lakers in two exhibition games recently, you can't help but think it, and yes, maybe even believe it.
This might just work.
The Clippers could be good. Really good.
You already knew they would become the most exciting team in the league the second the trade for Chris Paul was completed. #LobCity has been a trending topic on Twitter in these parts ever since. T-shirts were printed up and sold out within days.
But what if they became more than that? What if they actually won something of substance? What if Sunday night's season opener against the Golden State Warriors is the start of something great?
At first glance, all you see are the holes. At shooting guard, where Chauncey Billups has been asked to slide over into an unnatural position for him because up-and-coming star Eric Gordon had to be included in the trade for Paul. And in the frontcourt, where Brian Cook is the primary backup to Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.
All of those holes exist and could come back to haunt the Clippers this season. But when you watch them play, you see something entirely different.
You see a team with a bunch of guys who have come here for a singular purpose.
"Just to win," Caron Butler said. "We're all just here to win."
It sounds a little too simplistic to pin on such grand expectations. Then again, aren't all the best ideas that way? Simple, logical, easy to buy into and sell.
A great concept can change the world. On a team, it makes men do great things. They'll fight for it. Take less for themselves, even.
"We just have a great vibe here," Butler said. "It reminds me of Dallas last year. We were always together. If somebody was down, we'd pick 'em up. After games, we'd go out. The camaraderie was always really tight, and I feel the same thing here.
"The second Chris [Paul] got here, we stepped out as a team. After the Laker game on Wednesday night we all went out to dinner at Katana after.
"It's just happening. It's not like someone is saying, 'We gotta do this. We gotta bond.' It's just happening."
Butler turned down a four-year, $30 million offer from the New Jersey Nets and a four-year, $21 million offer from the last-hurrahing San Antonio Spurs to sign a three-year, $24 million deal with the Clippers. For a guy coming off a major knee surgery, that's a lot of money and security to pass on.
But something in the Clippers' pitch appealed to him.
"After talking to management and talking to them about the direction they were trying to go, I knew something was going to get done," he said. "I didn't know if it was going to be Dwight Howard or Chris Paul, but I knew someone else was coming and I knew I wanted to be a part of that transition."
There was also that Griffin kid on the roster.
Although he has stepped back a bit from the spotlight since Paul, Butler and Billups have arrived, it's obvious to everyone involved that all of this happened because of Griffin. He is the reason all of those players looked at the Clippers and saw a chance to win.
It is a testament to his ability, attitude and potential that they were willing to look past the Clippers' karmically bad history for a chance to play alongside him.
He sees it too but takes no bows just yet.
"We can be much, much better," he said recently. "[The exhibition wins] were encouraging, but we can definitely be much better."
It is a spot he has found himself in before. At the beginning of something that could be great but is not destined to be. Only hard work makes it so.
In college it's what he signed up for. Every top program in the country recruited him. Bluebloods such as Duke and North Carolina were convinced he would sign with them.
Griffin chose to stay home and play for Oklahoma because he thought it would be much more fulfilling to change the place and make it into what he wanted it to be.
"When I was at Oklahoma and coach [Kelvin] Sampson had left, in coach [Jeff] Capel's first year they went 15-16," Griffin recalled. "I committed to Oklahoma and everyone was like, 'Why would you go there? Why wouldn't you go to Duke?'
"I would always tell people: 'You'll see in a couple years.' Then by my sophomore year we were the No. 2 team in the nation, went to the Elite Eight; I got drafted.
"That was so much more fulfilling to be with a team that started like that and worked its way up to that point. There's no greater feeling than to be part of something that's bigger than yourself."
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Griffin says it feels a little strange to be the reason all these veteran players have chosen to play for the Clippers. Why Paul wanted to be traded here. Why Butler took less money to be here. Why Mo Williams will accept his new role as a sixth man. Why Billups got over his initial anger at being claimed off waivers and has since become a willing team leader.
Instead he chooses to focus on something else.
"Getting to play with those three guys is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Griffin said. "Every time Chauncey comes to me, it's like, I'm trying to remember everything he's saying. He knows things and he sees things that most guys don't. You know how physically good he is, but he's on another level on how he thinks the game.
"Getting ready for a game now, stepping out on to the court with these guys, it's a totally different mindset for me.
"It's brought a much bigger spotlight, but at the same time ... I wouldn't say it feels weird."
No, it's only weird to say it out loud. To think, and maybe even believe, that this could actually work.
It's probably best to keep that thought quiet for now. Let them earn it.
"I don't think Chris knew what to expect when he got here, because all you can really do is go off what you've heard about people," said Paul's brother, CJ.
"But I can tell he's happy. I can just see it in his face. I don't think he's slept through the night yet. Part of it is the time change. But he's really excited."
Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.