No longer shame of the city
Continuity bolsters Clippers franchise previously known mostly for losing big
For once they have something to build on, rather than bury. So many previous versions of Clippers have felt the need to distance themselves from what had transpired in these parts -- mostly futility -- and remind people that they weren't around for all of it, so they can't be accountable for it.
For Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, Caron Butler, DeAndre Jordan, Eric Bledsoe and (when his Achilles tendon heals) Chauncey Billups, they have something they accomplished together in 2011-2012. So while, to a man, the Clippers say the depth provided by the additions of Jamal Crawford, Grant Hill, Lamar Odom, Matt Barnes, Willie Green and Ryan Hollins is their greatest asset, that's not what will make the difference this year. The best attribute about this year's squad is the core group it had last year.
A team hastily assembled before a truncated season produced the best winning percentage in franchise history. It pulled off the toughest task in the NBA, winning a Game 7 on the road to knock out the Memphis Grizzlies.
So even if the Lakers' galactic offseason once again relegated the Clippers to the secondary discussion of NBA teams in their home arena, there's still an advantage the Clippers hold over the neighbors and their two new stars: the Clippers' core unit has played together. Not only played together, but played in the postseason together.
"Our chemistry last year, our guys really came together as a group," said Gary Sacks, the newly appointed general manager who has been with the franchise for 18 years. "On and off the court it was amazing. We felt like that's a big thing for us. We haven't had a ton of that over the history of the franchise, but this is a different time for us."
They've had time to learn each other's preferences: when to set the screen, when to pass the ball, when to go ahead and box out because you know the shot's going up. All the little things that Paul said are still in the process of becoming second nature.
"I'm not even sure if I'm all the way used to where Blake [Griffin] likes his lobs at," Paul said. "For me, I'm used to guys wanting the ball right around the rim. Blake wants the ball back by the free throw line somewhere, so he can fly it to the rim."
These are the lessons that only come with experience. And last year the Clippers experienced a postseason mixture of success that bonded them and failure that motivated them.
When Griffin went through the game footage he had in his iPad, he didn't linger on the rim-destroying dunks or even the clutch free throws he made with 90 seconds left in Game 1 of the Memphis series.
"A lot of the games we lost were the ones I watched the most," Griffin said.
“"I know what we accomplished as a team last year, and it was great. And I don't want to think about last season and think of it as a failure, because it wasn't. It was a step in the right direction. It's not going to happen overnight. It's tough for teams to come together overnight and win championships.
I don't want to think about last season and think of it as a failure, because it wasn't. It was a step in the right direction.” -- Clippers forward Blake Griffin
"I think we can play with anybody. With our talent and our depth, I think that we can go toe-to-toe with whoever it is. We have the experience as well."
That experience also includes a second-round sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs that humbly ended their season only a week after the exhilarating Game 7 in Memphis. Playoff pain is a necessary part of the growth process. Ask the champion Miami team, or the Dallas team that beat them the year before on the release of all that pent-up frustration from Dirk Nowitzki.
"The Memphis series, I thought our team and young guys grew up a lot," Billups said. "Game 7 situation on the road, it could have gone either way, we could have lost that series. But the guts, man. The pride and toughness that the guys showed really impressed me. And I think it surprised some of our guys too. That was just great. I thought that we grew up a lot.
"And then you go play a team like San Antonio they basically ran through us, man. I think it all had to do with mentally, the small little detail things that are kind of a big deal in a playoff series that we never know about as a team, as a whole. Obviously it showed up in a big way in that San Antonio series."
So the object for the Clippers is to draw from the past without being defined by the past. It's a delicate dance, one whose challenges are best personified in Lamar Odom.
Odom is both a part of the Clippers' checkered history and a reminder of their previous fling as an "it" team. He spent the first four years of his career with the Clippers, back when Quentin Richardson and Darius Miles were pounding their heads and he was dancing on the scorer's table at the end of a 39-win season, which back then was cause for celebration.
But a year later the Clippers gladly let him go in free agency, tired of his immaturity that included a suspension for violating the league's drug policy.
Since then, Odom has added two-time champion and Sixth Man of the Year to his résumé. And then came the lost season in Dallas, which resulted in career lows all across the stat line.
He explained last season this way: "I wasn't over a lot of the things I've been through. Sometimes when you go through certain things, other things that you've been through in the past might resurface."
It makes sense. I think there was a delayed reaction to the death of his infant son in the summer of 2006. If there were a logical time for Odom's play to spiral down the drain it would have been that year. Instead he came out playing some of the best ball of his life, on track for a career-high average of more than 18 points per game through the first 20 games of the season. Knee and shoulder injuries knocked him off that track, but his final average of 15.9 points still was the highest of his seven seasons with the Lakers.
It was as if he put the grief in a locker for storage. He once told the Los Angeles Times, "When I had to bury my child, I probably didn't start grieving until a year and a half later."
In the same interview, he added ominously, "Death always seems to be around me."
It shaped his childhood when his mother died of cancer when Odom was 12. It resurfaced last summer when, while in New York for the funeral of a murdered 24-year-old cousin, an SUV he was riding in struck a bicyclist, fatally injuring the cyclist. Add to that the feeling of abandonment brought on by the Lakers' including him in the voided Chris Paul trade and he never found the proper mindset to play his best basketball.
He says that he is now "in a happier place" mentally, even if he is in a heavier place physically.
And he sees the Clippers in an improved place from where he left them nine years ago.
"The tradition is making a turn for the better," he said.
Even Crawford, the newcomer, can see how much things have changed.
"It's not the Clippers like it was in 2000," Crawford said. "You don't have to be ashamed to be a Clipper."