LOS ANGELES – The Los Angeles Lakers have gotten the massive majority of the headlines since the free-agency period began, topped off by their trade for the NBA’s best center, Dwight Howard.
It would be a mistake, however, to think the Lakers are the only contenders residing at Staples Center.
“This is a really good team and we’re going to do some great things,” said Clippers newcomer Grant Hill. “I truly believe that, or I wouldn’t be here.”
The Los Angeles Clippers are coming off probably their best season since moving north from San Diego in 1984. They battled through a ridiculous amount of injuries — including a season-ending Achilles’ tendon tear suffered by team leader Chauncey Billups. They had to get used to Blake Griffin and Chris Paul playing together for the first time — learning how to co-exist with their dominant offensive talents. And they had to share the same spotlight with the 16-time champion Lakers.
Nevertheless, they won 40 of their 66 games in the shortened season, and went two rounds deep in the playoffs, winning an exciting seven-game series against the Grizzlies. After blowing a 3-1 lead, the Clips found themselves in Memphis and on the verge of a complete collapse. Paul and Griffin were also ailing, but the Clippers came through with an 82-72 win at the FedEx Forum to advance and play San Antonio. The Spurs, having won 14 straight going into the matchup, swept the Clippers into their summer vacation. However, an interesting season turned into an uncertain offseason.
General manager Neil Olshey decided to take a job with the Portland Trail Blazers after being a top contender for Executive of the Year honors, leaving the team without a GM heading into the NBA draft. More importantly, they needed Griffin to sign an extension and hope to talk Paul into doing the same. So, in a novel approach for the sporting world in 2012, the Clippers decided on a three-man personnel committee, consisting of team president Andy Roeser, personnel director Gary Sacks and head coach Vinny Del Negro.
Has it worked? Yes, and it’s worked amazingly well.
Griffin signed a five-year extension and Billups signed a one-year deal to stay in LA. The “Committee of Three” then brought back former Clipper Lamar Odom, despite his troubles in Dallas after the Lakers traded him there. They also signed Hill, Jamal Crawford, Ronny Turiaf, Willie Greene and Ryan Hollins, while keeping Eric Bledsoe, Caron Butler, DeAndre Jordan, Travis Leslie and Trey Thompkins. On paper, this is at least a 50-win team, possibly more. Del Negro said things have worked out well despite the initial front-office turmoil.
“They really have,” said the Clippers’ third-year coach, “especially when you look at the fact that we lost our general manager right before the draft, and with so many things to get done. Initially the thought by the media and the public was that there’d be a new GM in place before the draft. Then everyone agreed to give this a try and we haven’t looked back.
“Andy and Gary have done great jobs in bringing guys in and re-signing Blake, Chauncey and getting Lamar, and all the other moves. And any head coach will tell you that he’d like to be involved in the moves that make up the team he’s coaching, So I’m happy with the situation.”
The players seem to be at ease with it as well. Hill said that it was a pleasure dealing with the organization and that’s one of the reasons he signed.
“It’s been nothing but first class,” said Hill, who will be 40 when the season begins on Oct. 31. “There was at one time a perception about the Clipper organization around the league, and it wasn’t positive. But now, you hear guys talk about wanting to play in LA — and not just with the Lakers.”
Hill also wanted to clear up a rumor that made the rounds and at one point seemed like it would happen — him signing with the Lakers.
“No,” he said forcefully when asked about it. “I’m honored that Steve (Nash) thought enough about me as a player and our personal relationship to say he’d like me to join him with the Lakers, but I never talked with them. We’re still going to be able to see each other and play in the same building; it will just be down the hallway from each other instead of in the same locker room.”
Assuming Billups is healthy, the Clippers return their starting five intact:
PG – Chris Paul SG – Chauncey Billups SF – Caron Butler PF – Blake Griffin C – DeAndre Jordan
But now the Clippers have depth on the bench, something they lacked last year. Odom and Crawford are former Sixth Man of the Year winners, while Hill and athletic point guard Eric Bledsoe should be solid reserves. They’ll be joined by 2011 draft picks Travis Leslie and Trey Thompkins, veteran guard Willie Green and big men Ryan Hollins and Ronny Turiaf.
Where does Odom fit in? He is a big question mark coming into the season, but if he recaptures the magic that made him the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year in 2010-2011, he’ll be a big factor for the Clippers in 2012. And Del Negro is confident Odom will put Dallas behind him.
“You might be a little worried about Lamar if you don’t really know him, what drives him,” Del Negro said. “You might think that he’s not the player he was. Well, I’ve sat down with him, gotten to know him, talked about the issues he had to confront last year that caused the majority of his struggles — and I’m convinced he’s going to have a positive impact on our team.
“(Lamar) is one of the best players in the game and can influence how the team plays and can make it better. A lot of the personal things he went through last year would have been hard for anyone to handle — especially when you have to move, join a new team, live in a new place and then try to play through everything. But Andy, Gary and I talked with him and we talked among ourselves, and we’re happy that Lamar is once again a Clipper.”
Odom returning to form, Billups and Griffin coming back healthy from their surgeries and Paul being CP3 again will be major factors in the team’s success, but the other pieces are there as well.
2012-13 is shaping up to be a memorable season in Los Angeles and Staples Center. There could be another championship banner hung in the rafters, too. Question is, will it be Red, White and Blue or Purple and Gold?