Culver City, CA-It’s hard to shake futility. But the Los Angeles Clippers are working on it. The arrivals of All-Star guard Chris Paul and team stabilizer Chauncey Billups galvanized the franchise. Young veterans like Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan helped put the “Wow” into Clippers basketball this season.
Nick Young, Randy Foye and Kenyon Martin gave the Clippers bench an identity. The goal of reaching the postseason was achieved. On many levels, reaching the playoffs for the first time since the 2006-20078 season was a huge facelift for the team.
Even with Griffin making the highlight reel seemingly in every game during his rookie campaign, this season the Clippers looked and played more like a complete team, a franchise capable of mixing it up against the big boys of the NBA.
Outdueling the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round, the Clippers took years of frustrating and underachieving basketball to a level of competence and success. Before this season the Clippers were not even considered relevant on the NBA radar screen.
In two separate business transactions, the Clippers changed all of that when they picked up Paul in a trade and Billups via the league’s amnesty clause. Because of the high level of the play the Clippers executed during the regular season there were even early rumblings the team had an outside chance of making it to the Western Conference Finals.
The Clippers came up four games short in reaching that goal, losing to the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference semifinals. Billups’ devastating torn Achilles injury midway through the season dimmed the Clippers’ chances of making the Western Conference Finals.
Clipper Nation had to feel good with the fact that Los Angeles other team came within a hairline of winning the Western Conference Pacific Division, finishing second to Staples Center roommate Los Angeles Lakers. The Clippers, however, are a long way off from matching the success level of the Lakers.
One good season doesn’t necessarily equate into sustained success. Despite the great season they had, the Clippers still have a lot of work ahead to remain in the conversation of teams with a realistic shot of competing for an NBA title. Both Griffin and Jordan still have work to do to improve their low post game. It’s also critical that Paul stays healthy.
After suffering a hip injury against the Grizzlies, Paul was not his usual dominant self against the Spurs, a fact he felt the need to apologize for. Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said an apology from Paul is not warranted.
“Chris has nothing to apologize for,” Del Negro said at the media availability session after the players/coach exit interviews at the team’s practice facility in Culver City. “Chris is a phenomenal competitor, a phenomenal player…one of the top players in the league. He battled through injuries. We’re not in the second round of the players, for sure, without Chris Paul.
“Like I’ve said before, I go to battle with him every day. He’s all about the right stuff-on and off the court. I just have a lot of confidence in him as a coach, as a person. You’d be hard pressed to find a guy that competes as hard as he does. He’s a great building block for us. He has nothing to apologize for.”
Flashy dunks aside, the Clippers can get a lot better job executing their half-court offense. They can also use a bit more discipline on the defensive side ball as well. But at least the team appears to be headed in the right direction it wants to go in. They have the right coach and the right combination of players. They just need a bit of seasoning together as a unit, something the lockout-shortened season did not allow them.
While Clippers players acknowledged that the team made great strides to become a legitimate contender following their season-ending exit interviews, no way are they satisfied with the way the season concluded. Paul, who is expected to play this summer on the U.S. Olympic team, said in order for the team to play better, he has to play better.
“I’m taking it one day at a time,” Paul said. “I played well this year. The team and the organization really put me in a great situation…One thing that has to get better is that I have to get better.”