NBA

Uncertainty surrounds Clippers

Lamar Odom, Los Angeles Clippers
Lamar Odom's health and mindset are among the Clippers' question marks.
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Billy Witz

Billy Witz has contributed to The New York Times and covered a multitude of sporting events. A Tulane University grad, Witz has won Associated Press Sports Editor awards for investigative reporting, feature writing and game stories. He covered the Lakers' every move last season for FOX Sports West.

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LOS ANGELES

As this NBA season gets set to begin, there might not be any better place than here to measure the difference between the labor-induced hectic, injury-riddled, what’s-going-on-here 2012 season and this season’s expected return to normalcy.

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The Lakers have snapped out of their malaise — and perhaps their streak of consecutive second-round playoff flameouts — thanks to a star-grabbing offseason.

Snatching Dwight Howard and Steve Nash has had a way of energizing the base.

And the Clippers, bless their hearts, have slipped into their usual place, the shadows. There does not appear to be a run on Lob City T-shirts, there is no chatter about who owns the town and the transformation that Chris Paul has made has been significant but not quite transcendent.

It all appears to be a little quieter, no?

“It’s definitely not quiet, not with DJ and Lamar,” Blake Griffin said of DeAndre Jordan, whose game may be maturing faster than his personality, and Lamar Odom, who is trying to regain his mojo — and his game — back where his career started.

“Obviously, getting (Paul) last year was one of the biggest stories, as far as transactions go before the season, and there was a lot of hype coming in. But I don’t think we’ve paid attention to it. We’ve been kind of focused on ourselves.”

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The Clippers’ last season was tumultuous with the trade for Paul, the free-agent signing of Caron Butler, the amnesty claim on Chauncey Billups at the start of the season and a nearly revolving door of players during it. With the condensed schedule leaving almost no time for practice, it all had to come together on the fly.

The overhaul of the roster was nearly as drastic this season, with seven new faces.

The Clippers are hardly the only team to remake their roster, but, for some, the logic appears reasonable. The Lakers, for example, have acquired pieces that complement one another. The Celtics have filled Ray Allen’s role with Jason Terry and have improved their frontcourt depth drastically with Jeff Green, Darko Milicic, Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo, perhaps creating matchup problems for Miami.

The Clippers, though, seem less like a makeover and more like a laboratory experiment.

The two biggest gambits are their two biggest additions — Jamal Crawford and Odom.

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Both are former NBA Sixth Man of the Year winners who could give the Clippers one of the NBA’s most dynamic second units, with havoc-wreaking guard Eric Bledsoe. But what can you count on from Crawford and Odom?

Odom, who went into a funk when he was dealt to Dallas last season, proclaimed himself a changed man when he was dealt to the Clippers. He backed out of an invitation to the United States Olympic team camp so he could focus on getting in shape.

Then he showed up out of shape and injured his knee. He is unsure when he’ll return.

He bristled after sitting out an exhibition win over the Lakers on Wednesday when he was asked if there had been something keeping him from being in shape.

“It makes no difference,” he said, before exiting the locker room.

Coach Vinny Del Negro said Odom was dealing with personal matters that the club was helping him work through, and that Odom — who could give them a gifted, personal big man that otherwise doesn’t exist behind Jordan and Griffin — is crucial to the team.

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“We need him, and he knows it,” Del Negro said. “I have all the confidence that he’s doing everything he can to get to the level he needs to be at for us.”

Meanwhile, Crawford has drawn criticism since he revealed last week that this was the first offseason during his 13-year career that he spent doing drill work to refine his game.

“People acted like I’m laying around on the couch,” said Crawford, 32, who signed a four-year deal. “But I’m in the gym all the time, for like 10 hours a day — that’s how I’ve trained instead of using cones. This year, I did both. Playing the game is different. I know guys who knock down 40 shots in a row in practice, but in games they struggle with their shots.”

If the Clippers are fortunate, Crawford’s new-found awareness of the game’s finer points might translate to an improved shot selection and an interest in playing defense.

Beyond that there is 40-year-old Grant Hill, who is likely to join the 36-year-old Billups, who is recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon, on the bench for the season opener. The one seemingly solid commodity the Clippers picked up is Willie Green, who should give them a dependable shooter and ball mover off the bench.

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The reality is that if the Clippers do build on the improvement of last season, it will largely come on the backs of their two stars. A year of familiarity with Paul should benefit everyone as should a real training camp. And Griffin’s diligent work on his perimeter game in the offseason made it look Wednesday night as if he and Pau Gasol will be the NBA’s best power forwards, with Kevin Love hurt.

Whether Butler shedding 15 pounds will translate to a better second season, whether Jordan has matured enough to finish games and whether Bledsoe’s disruptive defense demands he be on the court are the types of speculative questions — along with the impact of Odom and Crawford — that typically greet the Clippers.

Their place in the Western Conference hierarchy may have changed, but by returning to the shadows and crossing their fingers that all the changes work out, not everything that is normal for the Clippers feels so new.

Tagged: Celtics, Clippers, Lakers, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol, Caron Butler, Jamal Crawford, Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan

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