Commentary

Uneven start to season of high hopes

Updated: December 26, 2011, 1:19 PM ET
By Kevin Arnovitz | Special to ESPNLA.com

OAKLAND, Calif. -- You'll have to excuse the Los Angeles Clippers if they don't know exactly how to feel after going on the road and demolishing the Golden State Warriors by 19 points on Sunday night.

The Clippers realize it was unsightly at times. They know they got annihilated on the boards, and that the defensive rotations behind DeAndre Jordan were slow. The starters are well-aware the offense stagnated for long stretches and told the coaching staff after the game that there was too much standing around in the half court.

But we're talking about a 19-point opening-night win featuring a collection of players whose locker-name plates are still at the engravers. So please understand if they haven't figured out the precise equilibrium between satisfaction and disappointment fewer than 24 hours into their season.

"We ended up winning by 15-plus," Blake Griffin said at his locker. "I don't want to look around this locker room and see guys sad."

Management of expectations has always been one of the more challenging quandaries in sports. Where does confidence end and cockiness begin? When is championship-or-bust appropriate and when is it a fool's errand?

For the Clippers, that task is even trickier.

How are you supposed to measure success when there's no precedent to draw upon? How do you measure the potential of a Chris Paul-Blake Griffin tandem when the Clippers' roster has rarely had one star with that kind of talent, let alone two? And how do you define achievement when the franchise has compiled only two winning seasons since arriving in Los Angeles nearly three decades ago?

[+] EnlargePaul
Kyle Terada/US PresswireChris Paul looked tentative at times, as the Clippers looked to establish a rhythm.

If the Clippers can't take much pride in their rather unsightly 105-86 win over the Warriors, perhaps that reluctance is a measure of success in itself. The Clippers believe they're better than the performance they delivered as the nightcap of the NBA's Christmas Day reboot. They didn't turn the pregame layup line into a mini-dunk recital without some assurance that their game performance could live up to their exploits.

That's why there was an uneasy balancing act after the game. It's not surprising that Paul's opening remark as he stood at his locker after the game was a reproach of the team's effort on the glass.

"The biggest thing that killed us was our rebounding," Paul said. "Our rebounding was horrendous."

Vinny Del Negro was similarly critical as he catalogued the Clippers' shortcomings on Sunday night, while also praising their perseverance when the Warriors made their run.

"I just know we can play better," Del Negro said. "It's the first game, but I wasn't pleased with how we gave up so many offensive rebounds, and I wasn't pleased with the way we were moving the ball in the first half. There are going to be some tough spots."

When asked what happened to the seamless flow between Paul and Griffin that was on display against the Lakers in the preseason, Griffin explained that those exhibitions were just that -- exhibitions. High pick-and-rolls that looked like ballet in the preseason meet stiffer resistance when the games matter. That's the nature of competition.

"We're talented enough to get up and down and just run with it, but we have to improve," Griffin said. "It's our first game. We're feeling each other out a little bit. Not every time are we going to be able to come out and go 'bam, bam, bam.'"

That "bam, bam, bam" you hear are the Clippers' most skittish fans banging their heads against the wall. This team has never lived with any grand expectations. For a couple of months in the fall of 2006 -- the season following the successful playoff run -- a Clippers game felt like an event at Staples Center. The crowds were larger and visibly wealthier, while the buzz both inside and outside the arena was louder.

Once the 2005-06 season was exposed as nothing more than a fleeting romance, normality returned to Clipper Nation. In many respects, the Clippers' fan base is not unlike the team's former coach, Larry Brown. "He's only happy when he's miserable," a confidant of Brown's once said about the Hall of Fame coach.

The Clippers and their fans must wrestle with the uncertainty that comes with heightened aspirations. There's no guarantee the final product will meet anyone's satisfaction -- but it's fair to conclude that the Clippers' first 48 minutes of official basketball won't be their best.

After the win, nobody in the Clippers' locker room spoke with more reasoned confidence than Chauncey Billups, the team's elder -- if accidental -- statesman. The circumstances of his presence on the roster are a little odd, but the mutual affection Billups shares with Paul seems to be greasing the transition. Billups attempted 19 shots from the field on Sunday night -- by his own admission, not all of them well-advised.

Billups could fill an attic with the playbooks he's compiled in a career that has extended over 15 seasons, with nearly as many coaches. In his estimation, the Clippers' playbook is only about 60 or 65 percent complete -- and that's just counting the base plays, the bread-and-butter, as it were.

"But you have to understand that for the great teams, the championship-caliber teams, it's not the base plays that win," Billups said. "It's the tricks, the counters, the misdirections. All of that takes cohesiveness. That takes knowing what guys like to do, where they like it at, and we haven't been blessed with enough time to get that down yet. But we'll get there."

If the schemes on the court appear to be nothing more than the faint sketch on a whiteboard, that might be because they are. Guiding the anticipation that comes from watching the picture come into focus will be occasionally agonizing. Such are the burdens of expectation.

Kevin Arnovitz covers the NBA for ESPN.com and is the editor of the TrueHoop Network.