Year one of the Doc Rivers era with the Los Angeles Clippers was in many ways a roller-coaster ride of high points and low points. The arrival of Rivers, and Chris Paul agreeing to a long-term deal with the team, started the season off on a high point. But there were several low points throughout the season as well, including injuries to Paul, J.J. Redick, Matt Barnes and Jamal Crawford. But the lowest point came during the postseason when TMZ released audio tapes of then-Clippers owner Donald Sterling making racist comments during a phone call.
What ensued was a public firestorm that drew attention away from the basketball court. Instead of focusing solely on Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors, the Clippers were considering, even if just briefly, whether they should hold out from playing Game 4 in response to Sterling’s racist rant. Cooler heads prevailed, and before tipoff the Clippers wore their warm up gear inside-out to hide the Clippers logo, showing that they were playing for one another, not Sterling. In addition, team sponsors suspended their support of the team, which led to an unusual Game 5, where typical corporate advertisements, promotions and half-time performances were absent. In addition, many fans wore black as their own form of protest against Sterling. The Clippers eventually advanced past the Warriors, but that was in spite of the inescapable distractions surrounding the team.
The situation played itself out over the summer and now Steve Ballmer is the new owner of the Clippers. With Sterling out and Ballmer in, the Clippers are now focusing their attention where it belongs— on the basketball court.
“We’re going to talk about basketball [this season]. That’s going to be really nice,” Rivers said at Clippers Media Day. “Last year, obviously, it was a strange playoffs when there was very few basketball questions. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a playoff like that, where, I mean I know for three or four games, I don’t think there was one basketball question asked. So it will be nice for all of us that we can focus on just being basketball players, and I can focus on just being a basketball coach.”
To their credit, the Clippers didn’t use the Sterling issue as an excuse when they lost in the second round to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“Honestly, we didn’t use it as a reason why we lost; we lost because Oklahoma beat us,” Rivers said. “We didn’t execute in Games 5 and 6, but the controversy had nothing to do with that, and we wouldn’t allow that to be a reason why we lost, and I think that was good.”
“Looking back, we felt like when we lost, we made mistakes ourselves,” Blake Griffin said. “We felt like it was the small things, and that’s something that Doc talked to us about all during the year. It’s the small things that end up being the big things that make you lose. We can’t sit and dwell on what happened last year in the playoffs. We have to be all about this year and this year we’re going to really harp on the small things and really stay on our teammates, and stay on each other about the mental side, taking care of the little things and letting everything else take care of itself.”
This season, the Clippers bring back a majority of the core from last season’s team, with a few significant free agent additions. With one of the deepest and most talented rosters in the league come championship expectations, but the Clippers have failed to advance past the second round in three consecutive postseason appearances.
When asked whether it’s time to “put up or shut up” after falling short the last few seasons, Rivers said, “Our goal is (to win a championship), with about 10 other teams in the West.”
“Our goal is the same as last year to be honest,” DeAndre Jordan said. “We know what we want to do and so we’re going to go after it.” “We’re looking to just improve this year and move forward, and be a championship basketball club.”
One thing that will help the Clippers this season is familiarity. As previously stated, last season was Rivers’ first with the Clippers, which meant training camp and the start of the season were spent learning completely new offensive and defensive systems.
“It feels different [this season]. It feels better. Obviously I know guys, and that helps,” Rivers said. “I think camp should be better than last year. We had a good camp last year, but this year we’re putting in stuff they already know as opposed to everything being new.”
“I definitely think it will be a more productive training camp in that we sort of know what to expect now,” Paul said. “We know what Doc expects from us. We understand. Even from ourselves, we expect a lot more. For us three (Paul, Griffin and Jordan), this will be our fourth year together, and we’ll just approach camp with a different mentality than last year.”
“I think it’s huge, I think it’s a huge step,” Barnes added. “Last year we had a lot of new guys, and a new staff. I think anytime you keep the core of your team together, a great coaching staff, even though we have new coaches, and we had some major, I think under-appreciated free agent acquisitions this year that are really going to help our team. So, to have your main seven or eight guys back with a few great additions, it’s going to be a huge advantage.”
Another issue for the Clippers last year was health. Paul separated his shoulder, Barnes struggled through several injuries to begin the season, Redick missed significant time with hand, elbow, back and leg injuries, and Crawford missed time with a calf injury. However, the team is reporting that everyone is now healthy and ready to start the season.
“My focus for that first six-to-eight weeks in Austin was getting my body back in shape, and regaining strength in my leg,” Redick said. “The strength in my right leg is healed, so I feel good.”
“I lost 20 pounds this summer, started eating right, yoga, everything I could possibly do to prevent all the [injuries] that happened last year,” said Barnes. “I feel great, as fast as I’ve been, jumping, I feel good. I feel great. I’m 100 percent healthy and 100 percent ready.”
“The calf is good,” Crawford said. “Dealing with a little foot issue, but nothing serious.”
The major hurdles for this team are now gone. Everyone is healthy. The core players have played with each other for several years. They have playoff experience. The team made significant additions in adding Spencer Hawes, Jordan Farmar, Chris Douglas-Roberts and Ekpe Udoh. And, perhaps most importantly, the Sterling scandal and era is over.
When asked about how the organization now operates under Ballmer, Paul simply responded, “We play basketball.” With last season behind them and new ownership in place, Paul and the Clippers can now focus on just that— playing basketball.
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