With Chris Paul, Clippers feel like contenders
LOS ANGELES -- Despite an abbreviated training camp during which they barely got to know each other, Blake Griffin and Chris Paul appear ready to help the revamped Los Angeles Clippers navigate the shortened season all the way to the franchise's first playoff berth since 2006.
"We're not getting caught up in the hype. We can't control what happens in the media and what people say, but we can control what happens in this locker room," Paul said. "We still have to go out there and continue to get better and compete. We're just making sure guys stay focused and understand that it's a long season. One thing that can't be measured in the box score is how hard you play. And as long as we do that every night, we have enough talent that we're going to give ourselves an opportunity to win."
Paul is the centerpiece of an offseason overhaul that also brought Caron Butler and Chauncey Billups to Los Angeles, where the Clippers are now enjoying the kind of buzz usually reserved for Kobe Bryant and the Lakers, who share Staples Center with the Clippers but have never really had to share the spotlight with them.
This is hardly the first time the Clippers felt they had enough talent to compete for a postseason berth since coming within a victory of the Western Conference finals six seasons ago. Now all they want is a chance to see if they can get through a grueling 66-game schedule without being undermined by the kind of injuries to key personnel that derailed those plans in the past.
"We're going to have to work through some things, there's no question about it. But I know one thing, the guys we brought in want to win," said coach Vinny Del Negro, who is beginning his second season with the Clippers. "I know they're going to find a way to make it work, and it's my job to put them in areas that will help them. It's going to be a process every day."
Shooting guard Eric Gordon and center Chris Kaman were traded to the New Orleans Hornets along with Al-Farouq Aminu and a 2012 first-round draft pick in exchange for Paul. The Lakers also tried to obtain Paul but a prospective three-way trade with Houston and the league-owned Hornets was rejected by NBA Commissioner David Stern.
Paul, a four-time All-Star who will make $16.3 million this season, assured the Clippers he would exercise his player option for the 2012-13 campaign if they acquired him. There's no guarantee Paul will stay once his contract runs out at the end of next season -- but once he starts running the court with the high-octane Griffin, CP3 may be enticed to stay in L.A. for an extended period.
"It's definitely given us kind of a boost," Griffin said. "Our goal is the playoffs, obviously, But I'm not going to sit here and promise that we're going to win this amount of games, or that we're going to go this far in the playoffs, win 60 games and guarantee championships. There's going to be none of that."
Griffin slam-dunked his way to unanimous rookie of the year honors last season and clinched the All-Star slam-dunk title by jumping over a car on his way to the basket. He and Paul (2005-06) are the only players ever to sweep the rookie of the month awards.
"I think we have a great cast, and that's going to make each of us better," Griffin said. "Chris is going to find us on the floor, so we just need to do a good job of spreading the floor and making sure we're available. Right now, it's just me and the rest of the team figuring out a new point guard."
Paul, entering his seventh NBA season at age 26, has led the league in steals three times and assists twice.
"Chris is tricky, the way he uses screen-and-rolls and his ability to shoot the ball," center DeAndre Jordan said. "He gets into the paint and draws fouls, so you have to keep your eyes on him, which is good for us because of the way I score and the way Blake scores. It'll just make it a lot easier for everybody on this team."
With Kaman gone, Jordan becomes the senior member of the Clippers. A restricted free agent during the offseason, the three-year veteran has proven to be a dependable defensive stopper, and last season combined with Griffin to form one of the league's top slam-dunk combos. Jordan remained with the club after the Clippers matched a four-year, $42.7 million offer sheet he got from the Golden State Warriors.
"We all know what we can do with this team. And with the new guys, I just think it's going to take us to another level," Jordan said. "We're going to try to make a run at the postseason. With the moves that we've made, you can tell that we're committed to winning this year and for years to come. I'm happy about the direction we're going in."