If there’s a secret to the Clippers’ success, it just might be in their collective chemistry – a nebulous sports term that either has everything or nothing to do with winning.
In the Clippers’ case, there is deep meaning. They’re on a 12-game winning streak, they lead the Pacific Division and they’ve already established themselves as the most well-adjusted team in LA. Take that for what it’s worth.
The reason has something to do with their ability to mesh into a cohesive unit, a team that plays well on the court, gets along off it and has a leader who makes sure the parts work together.
Chris Paul is not just the Clippers’ point guard, he’s their cruise director – a leader who makes sure everyone is content, whether they’re surging late in a game or spending a few off days on the road.
On the recent four-game swing through the Midwest, Paul arranged for the entire team to enjoy a movie night to see the Tom Cruise film “Jack Reacher.” They even got free popcorn.
“Whether it’s getting everybody together for dinner or going to a movie or the mall, he makes sure to include everybody,” guard Jamal Crawford said. “When you do that, you create bonds and friendships. I’ve never been on a team this close.”
Paul believes he’s creating ties that bind. The Clippers have a certain camaraderie that works on the court, in the locker room and away from the game, and it’s a component that helps their chemistry.
Not all teams are like that. The baseball adage about 25 cabs for 25 players can also apply to professional basketball players. But not on this team.
“I remember when I first came into the league, my first two years were in Oklahoma City,” Paul said. “After practice every day, I was at Speedy Claxton’s house or J.R. Smith. Me and him were together all day every day.
“But now I’m married, I’ve got kids. You stop spending all that time together. So when we’re on the road, that’s our time to be together to do things together. I don’t care what anybody says, when you have that connection, it makes you want to fight for each other just as much on the court.”
There’s something else. The players have well-defined roles that were spelled out in the offseason, and Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro made sure everyone knew what was expected of them.
Their entire bench, with the exception of guard Eric Bledsoe, was made over. The result is a collection of players who perform specific jobs and provide valuable relief minutes for the starters.
They have a super-quick point guard in Bledsoe, a shot-maker and shot-creator in Crawford, a multi-talented forward in Lamar Odom and two active rebounders and defensive-minded players in Matt Barnes and Ronny Turiaf. The group’s collective energy has often helped the Clippers establish leads and allowed Del Negro to rest his starters.
Crawford, Turiaf, Barnes, Grant Hill and center Ryan Hollins signed as free agents. Odom came in a trade after his lost season with the Dallas Mavericks.
“As a coach, you’re looking to find guys that want to battle, that you can trust when the game’s on the line, whether it’s going well or going poorly,” Del Negro said. “Talent is great, but you have guys that work together, and if you don’t work together, I don’t care how much talent you have, you’re not going to be successful.
“So guys have to buy into the team concept. When the team was put together, everyone was told this is their role, this is how I envision it, and this is what we want to do. If you want to be a part of it, we want you. If you don’t, then we’ll move on.”
On a less successful team, that philosophy might not have worked. Players want minutes, they want to score points and they don’t like sitting. But Paul cites guard Willie Green as an example of the importance of being unselfish.
Green, acquired in an offseason trade with the Atlanta Hawks, started the first 14 games while Chauncey Billups completed his rehabilitation from a torn left Achilles tendon. When Billups returned Nov. 28, Green went to the bench without complaint. After Billups went down with tendinitis in his left foot three games into his return, Green returned to the starting lineup and remains there.
Paul, Blake Griffin and the team’s other starters have spent several games on the bench in the fourth quarter, primarily because the reserves played significant roles in either putting the Clippers in front or stretching leads. Although Paul said he preferred to be in the game rather than on the bench, he didn’t protest.
“We weren’t pouting, we weren’t upset,” he said. “It starts with that. Everyone on our team is genuinely happy for each other. When it’s like that, it’s fun. It’s fun to see other guys play. We’re playing for one goal, not for individual accolades. We all just want to win.”
Del Negro likes to use Paul as an example of unselfishness. Paul has an ability to take over a game offensively, but his first option is always to find the open man. When he picked up his 5,000th career assist Wednesday night, he had to be told by Griffin what he’d just done.
“We’re an unselfish team,” Del Negro said. “It starts with Chris. He’s as unselfish a player as you’ll find, and everyone else buys into that.”
That’s not difficult to do when a team is winning and building chemistry. If the parts are working and the victories are mounting, it’s easier for players to accept their roles, no matter how small.
“Nobody gets jealous,” Crawford said. “We all support each other. When we do that, it’s really a good feeling. We all have a role to play and we’re all trying to do that to the best of our abilities.”