Clippers build depth with explosive talent

There were several firsts on Saturday night at Mandalay Bay.

It was the first exhibition of the 2012-13 season between two NBA teams, the first ever game to be played on the Las Vegas Strip, and the first time a horde of new Clippers would be able to make an impression on behalf of a team that certainly has the personnel to raise the ceiling from even the lofty expectations of a vastly improved team a season ago.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do, as you could see tonight – get everybody back and healthy – but everything looks good, and we’re looking forward to a big season,” recently-promoted vice president of basketball operations Gary Sacks said to Michael Eaves during a 106-104 loss to Denver on Prime Ticket.

Last year’s Clippers team won 40 games in a lockout-shortened 66-game NBA season, and there is the realistic opportunity for this year’s team to tack on at least another 15 to 20 wins considering the enhancements to the team’s bench, and the playoff and championship experience added to help channel a young team. The Clippers have won at least 40 games in back to back seasons twice in their 28-year Los Angeles history: in 1991-92/1992-93 and 2005-06/2006-07. No team in franchise history has bested the Buffalo Braves’ 49 wins in 1974-75, nor have any teams won a division title.

A year ago, the Clippers’ bench ranked 26th in the league with a 25.3 points per game average.

Welcome to Los Angeles, Jamal Crawford, Grant Hill, Ryan Hollins and Willie Green. Welcome back to Los Angeles, Chauncey Billups and Ronny Turiaf. Welcome back to your old locker room, Lamar Odom and Matt Barnes.

Other than perhaps their cross-arena rivals in purple and gold, no other NBA team made as concerted of an off-season effort to shore up a particular weakness. The Clippers should rebound as one of the league’s deepest teams in 2012-13.

“I think the first thing we wanted to do was give our bench a little more flexibility, a little more depth, and I think we had a great summer. I think we addressed those issues,” Sacks said.

With Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups watching from the sidelines on Saturday, the Clippers started Caron Butler, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Willie Green and Eric Bledsoe, the latter of whom led all scorers with a game-high 25 points on 12-of-17 shooting. Bledsoe, a third-year pro, is expected to be among the first bodies off the bench, along with former Sixth Man of the Year recipients Lamar Odom and Jamal Crawford.

Though only Odom and Billups won titles and have experienced sustained postseason success, there are the expectations that the veteran newcomers, including the savvy, defensively responsible Hill, who turned 40 on Friday, will be the precise fit for a locker room puzzle that contained several sturdy corner pieces in Griffin and Paul but missed many of the glue-type pieces that help win championships.

“I mean, you look at the locker room that we have now – much upgraded talent,” Billups said to Eaves on Prime Ticket. “We’ve got guys who have won, guys that are veterans. We really have everything that we need. Now we just need time to put it together.”

Several months will need to be allotted for Billups’ return from a torn Achilles tendon suffered during a game in Orlando in February, and even Paul isn’t expected to be near 100% until around opening night after undergoing August surgery to repair a torn thumb ligament.

All of this makes it even more important for the newcomers on this talented L.A. team to gel relatively quickly and develop their own roles. It was a good sign that in their first few minutes on the floor together on Saturday, Crawford found Griffin with a nearly 50-foot arced frozen rope that was dunked by the 23-year old who is primed for an explosive third campaign.

The team will have the opportunity to continue to grow together and integrate new members into their organization with a week-long trip to China in which they’ll play the defending champion Miami Heat twice. 
“When you’ve got a lot of new guys, you get a chance to bond as a team, build team camaraderie being on all those long trips. It’s nothing but you guys,” said Billups, who will make the trip. “So it gives us a chance to really just grow as a team not only on the court, but off.”

The Celtics and Mavericks have begun their pre-seasons in Europe. This is a bit of uncharted territory for the Clippers, considering they’re included among the premier teams traveling overseas and will face off against the defending champs in a major NBA showcase in Asia.

“First of all, it’s an honor to be invited to play over in China,” Sacks said. “I think it’s an amazing experience for everybody involved – players, staff, coaches. We’ll be able to spend a lot of time together. We’ll have some practices. Everybody will get to know each other. It’s a great bonding experience.”

The experience of growing as a franchise is evident by their inclusion in games overseas, but more importantly in their transformation towards being a desirable team that attracts top flight free-agents who want to win championships. Surely the bargaining chips of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin have made the other locker room at Staples Center a viable destination for Hill, Crawford, Billups and those who the front office target as potential enhancements.

“We’re going to do whatever it takes to make this team as good as we could possibly make it,” Sacks said. “If there’s a move out there that’s worth doing, we’re going to pursue every opportunity. But we like the guys that we have, and we’re ready to go forward with our group. We’ll keep our eyes and ears open, for sure. That’s what we’ll do.”