PLAYA VISTA, CA – In past years, the Los Angeles Clippers would draw anywhere from 30 to 50 members of the local media for their annual Media Day – and that was considered an exceptional turnout.
Not this year.
More than 150 reporters – local, national and global – filled the team’s state-of-the-art practice facility Friday to talk to a team that many feel will challenge Oklahoma City, San Antonio and the Lakers for superiority in the NBA’s Western Conference.
Last year, the Clippers finished one game behind the first-place Lakers in the Pacific Division, then fought through a series of injuries to Blake Griffin, Chauncey Billups and Chris Paul to pull out an exciting seven-game playoff win over Memphis in the first round of the playoffs. The Game 7 win came on the Grizzlies’ home floor, with Griffin and Billups struggling to suit up due to injuries. But they showed the heart and grit to compete at the highest level and move on to the second round, where they were swept by the Spurs.
Griffin and Paul both moved on to the U.S. Olympic team, where the injury spate continued. After being told he’d made the squad, Griffin proceeded to tear cartilage in his left knee, undergoing surgery on July 16. CP3 came back with a gold medal – and a torn ligament in his right thumb. He went under the scalpel on August 21, and is still unable to participate in contact drills. The Clippers’ medical staff says that should end sometime in the next two weeks.
And the club is still dealing with the devastating left Achilles tendon suffered last February by Billups, their on-court and emotional leader. He’s able to play in limited team drills, but his return to NBA competition is on hold.
During the media day interviews, each of the walking wounded talked about their recoveries and how anxious they were to get back to no-limit game participation.
Billups, smiling as always, is hoping that he will be ready for opening night.
“Everything’s good,” the 36-year old guard said. “I’ve been working my tail off ever since I got hurt, and it’s looking pretty promising right now.
“It’s a tough injury and a tough rehab, but as I said when I first went down, ‘This is what I do.’ I wasn’t going to let anything stop me from getting back – other than God saying that it’s just over. Anything short of that, I was going to give it everything I have, and I did that. So far, it’s going in the right direction and there have been no setbacks to slow me down. None.
“I’m in shape and I feel good, but I’m not in basketball shape because I haven’t played basketball. I’m going to listen to my body and when it tells me I’m OK to get back out there, I will.
“I wish I could play opening night, but it’s probably not going to happen. But I’m going to listen to my body and let it tell me, and who knows what will happen? I haven’t set up any timetable to comeback, and some people I’ve heard say I wouldn’t be back until January or February. I promise you, that’s way off. I’ll be back long before that.”
Griffin – who has been cleared for full contact – said that while he was recuperating from the knee surgery he was able to work extensively on his shooting.
“I feel great,” he said, “and I’ve been at 100 percent for quite a while now and have just been honing in on certain things I wanted to take care of.
“I spent a lot of time working on my shot, changed some things up, and I hope to keep improving on those results. I’m not going to be a great shooter overnight, but I think I have the tools and I just have to keep practicing the right way. …
“Everything was about my shot. (Shooting coach Bob Tate) and I just did some things to streamline it; be less error-prone. It’s about making sure I’m doing the same thing every single time (I shoot the ball). It’s been every single day, working with the same guy and doing the exact same things.
“I feel great about the way things are right now. When I started out, the (new) motion was so foreign that it might be only three out of 10 times that I was doing it right. Now it’s to the point where it’s almost 10 out of 10 – at least nine out of 10. It’s not that I’m making every shot, but the form is getting there. It’s very encouraging, but I know I still have a long way to go. It’s got to be one of those things that becomes muscle memory.”
It’s been a strange offseason for CP3, who came home from London carrying a gold medal, but because of the thumb injury was barely able to pick up his newborn baby girl, who was born three days before the surgery.
“But it did get me out of a few things – like changing diapers,” he said with a smile on his face. “I’ve only been able to help my wife with that the last week.
“I cannot wait (to be back on the court with Chauncey). When I got back from the Olympics, I came here to the gym and saw Chauncey working out. Before I left (for London) he was stand-still shooting. Now I come back and he’s running, getting ready to go. I’m excited for him and I’m excited for the entire team.”
Which is music to coach Vinny Del Negro’s ears.
“We’re all excited about getting going,” said the Clippers’ third-year head coach. “But we’ve also got to figure out how to work around the fact that some of our big guys might not be available right at the start (of training camp). It makes it more difficult, but we’re going to have enough time. You want them ready tomorrow, but our guys will be back. Hey, injuries are just part of the game. You have to deal with them.”