By Gary Walker
The temperament of the Clippers wasn’t easy to read during a brief encounter with the press on Sunday inside the team’s 42,000 square-foot practice fortress in Playa Vista.
Players, mostly second-team reserves, ran routine shooting drills. Backup Center Ryan Hollins practiced post-up moved in the lane while guarded by a much smaller defender. Coaches called out instructions and encouragement while stars Blake Griffin and Chris Paul took it easy on the sidelines.
But the Clippers, for years relegated to second-tier status in the hierarchy of Los Angeles pro basketball, stand poised this season to wrestle top-dog status from the storied Los Angeles Lakers. Where the aging Lakers struggled to find their tempo last year, the Clippers emerged younger, more athletic and deeper on the bench, beating the Lakers each time they met on the court.
Could the 2013-14 season be the year the Clippers takeover Laker-town?
“We’re still working on a lot of stuff,” answered new Head Coach Glenn “Doc” Rivers, who won an NBA championship with the Boston Celtics in 2010. “We’re working with a new team and it’s going to take some time to get us all on the same page.”
Rivers downplayed any special importance in how his team might fare against their cross-town rivals — “There’s no special trophy for beating the Lakers. I’m looking at how we play against the entire Western Conference,” he said — but there are other signs the Clippers take the comparison seriously.
Rivers, according to an ESPN report, has also ordered Lakers’ championship banners and retired player uniforms to be covered up during Clippers home games at the shared Staples Center.
And during Sunday’s workout, the coach and his team sported T-shirts that read “Los Angeles Basketball,” not “Clippers Basketball,” as if to stake a claim on the city.
Despite high expectations, the Clippers are off to a disappointing start.
On Tuesday, the opening day of the NBA season, the Lakers upset the Clippers 116-103 at Staples with what Los Angeles Times sportswriter Eric Pincus wrote was a “stunning” performance by the Lakers’ second-team.
Rivers was regarded as a defensively focused coach in Boston, where he had a quick point guard similar in style to Paul in Rajon Rando, so 116 points can’t sit well.
On Sunday, the coach offered a blunt assessment.
“We’re still not were we want to be defensively as a team,” said Rivers, citing injuries as a reason.
Griffin, who briefly spoke with the press, said he thinks how his team plays on the other side of the ball will determine how far they can go this season.
“As long as we play within our defensive principles we’ll be OK,” the power forward said.
During the offseason, the Clippers under Rivers acquired a number of players, but most are regarded more for their offensive skills.
Shooting guard J.J. Redick, who promises consistent outside shooting expected to limit the frequency of double-team guarding that Griffin could face. It could also prevent some teams from trying to reduce Paul’s ability to penetrate by sending players to pack the middle of the lane. Redick could also prevent some teams from trying to reduce Paul’s ability to penetrate by sending players to pack the middle of the lane.
The Clippers also added guard Darren Collision and forwards Antwan Jamison and Jared Dudley.
Griffin, who battled injuries during last season’s first-round playoff exit, thinks that it won’t take long to integrate the newcomers into the offense.
“It just a matter of them getting the reps and getting acclimated to our system,” he said.
But it’s the marquee players Griffin and Paul who get the most attention.
Following the acquisition of Paul last year, the Clippers mounted a battling spirit that translated into several close wins that in prior years might not have happened. And the six-foot Paul (diminutive among NBA point guards) was often the one leading the end-of-the game charge.
A SportsIllustrated.com panel recently prognosticated the Clippers making a run at the Western Conference this year, but none of the five writers had them winning it. The clippers “need a year to develop Blake Griffin and [starting center] DeAndre Jordan as future champions,” wrote writer Ian Thomeson.
Griffin said playing with Paul and Jordan last year helped the team recognize what it will take to join the ranks of the NBA elite.
“We have a good understanding offensively and defensively of what you have to do,” he said. “We just have to be consistent.”
Rivers said he considered injuries the wild card that can hamper a team’s performance.
“You really can do much about them. Everything else you control over,” he said.
Rivers also knows fans and analysts alike expect the Clippers to not only prove themselves the better team in Los Angeles, but also make a run for the conference title.
And, even for the typically stoic coach, that’s not a bad thing.
“I love that people think of us in that way. We have high expectations for ourselves,” Rivers said. “I think high expectations are good for us.
But you still have to play the game.”