Sights and sounds from Clippers’ camp
In any sport, training camp serves as an intersection of the past with things that will come in the future. Preseason practices are coming to an end, while the prospect of a brand new season lurks just around the corner. Older players nearing the end of their careers are pushed to the brink by young up-and-comers looking to take their roster spot. Mindsets change too, as players must switch the proverbial flip from offseason mode to game mode.
All of these intersections were on display on Saturday, Oct. 1 at the Bren Events Center at the University of California, Irvine. Inside that building, fans and media members alike were treated to an open scrimmage between the Los Angeles Clippers. For years, the Clippers have been stuck at a metaphorical intersection of their own, caught between being a regular playoff participant and a championship contender that falls short of expectations. This year, for what seems like the third year in a row, the Clippers need to make that turn down championship lane if they want to retain their seat at the NBA’s big boy table.
Before allowing fans into the building, the team ran through a series of drills. With the roster separated into two teams, one in black jerseys and the other in white, the Clippers went back to basics. On both ends of the court, players orchestrated dry plays, offensive plays ran with no defenders, that often ended in emphatic slam dunks or long, arching three point shots. Head coach Doc Rivers also had his team execute three-on-two and two-on-one fast break drills. Again, many of these possessions ended with easy buckets or uncontested tomahawks at the rim. While these drills ostensibly serve the main purpose of simulating game situations and getting the players some cardio work, valuable information can be gleaned from observing how they went down. For instance, while watching these drills it was hard not to notice rookie center Diamond Stone. The 6’11” 255-lb 19-year-old from the University of Maryland was playing with the first team for the majority of the practice. Later on, when the black team scrimmaged the white team, Stone once again found himself on a team with guards Chris Paul and J.J. Redick, forward Blake Griffin, and center DeAndre Jordan.
It is highly unlikely, if not impossible, that Stone will be part of the starting lineup when the Clippers tip off the regular season on Thursday, Oct. 27 against the Portland Trail Blazers. However, he has already done enough to impress his head coach. Rivers noted that Stone and fellow rookie Brice Johnson have been pleasant surprises.
“I would say that Diamond [Stone] may be ahead of Brice [Johnson] right now,” Rivers said. “But they both have played well.”
Around 11:50 a.m. the doors of the Bren Events Center were opened. Clipper fans old and young poured into the building in a mad dash to claim the best seats. Presumably thinking they would be nothing more than passive spectators, relegated to snapping pictures and gawking at the Clippers’ series of alley-oops. The fans actually became a fun part of Saturday’s action.
The intersection of preseason indifference and real life NBA game presented itself in the scrimmage’s final minutes. A PA announcer pleaded the crowd to stand up for the final possessions, explaining that the Clippers were trying to simulate the live game action that they will be thrown into in less than a month. With the crowd on its feet, DeAndre Jordan stepped to the free throw line after being fouled with just over four seconds remaining in the exhibition.
Jordan, who famously makes just a hair over 42 percent of his foul shots, promptly bricked his first free throw off the back of the rim. Guard Austin Rivers encouraged the crowd to make even more noise while himself yelling about how the big man cannot make free throws.
Nevertheless, Jordan converted on his second attempt, giving the black team a lead it would never relinquish. Rivers misfired on a game-winning three point attempt at the buzzer that would have given his team the victory.
Doc Rivers seemed pleased that the scrimmage ended the way it did, with a sort of baptism by fire for Jordan and his legendary free throw woes.
“If you were going to script the way to end the game, that was pretty good,” Rivers said. “It was a great camp. Probably the best camp since I’ve been here.”
Other highlights from the day in Irvine came from the always entertaining, if often frustrating, Blake Griffin. The 2015-16 season was a murky one for Griffin. In Dec. of 2015, the high flier was grounded by a quad injury. Less than a month later, while the injured star was in Toronto with the team, he was suspended for punching a team equipment manager.
The blow was more than just bad publicity, though. Griffin also broke his hand in the incident, and he didn’t appear in a single game from Jan. through the end of March. When he finally got himself back to health, Griffin reinjured his quad during the NBA Playoffs.
Griffin’s actions on the court Saturday were notable for two reasons. One of which was something that fans have grown accustomed to, while the other is something they may soon have to. The biggest reaction from the crowd came after Griffin slammed home a powerful right-handed dunk over Johnson in the team’s scrimmage.
Earlier in the scrimmage, Griffin started his team’s first possession by taking a rare three pointer. He would attempt two more in the scrimmage and make both of them, finishing the day two-for-three from downtown.
Rivers spoke about Griffin, who has shot a paltry 32.2 percent on shots 10 feet from the basket or longer during his six year career. Perhaps recognizing the need to hit outside shots in order to succeed in the jump shot-happy NBA, Rivers revealed that Griffin’s jumper was a point of emphasis for the Clippers.
“He looks good,” Rivers said. “He’s worked on it. When you’re injured, all you can do is shoot. That’s the one thing he’s done a lot. That’s what we wanted him to work on, and he looks good.”
Injuries have been a sort of bugaboo for the Clippers in recent years. Whether it’s Griffin, or aging point guard Chris Paul, the team can never seem to have everyone healthy at the same time. This year’s roster includes a foursome of recently signed veteran players who could be insurance in case the injury bug bites again.
Point guard Raymond Felton, forwards Alan Anderson and Brandon Bass, and center Marreese Speights all inked contracts with Los Angeles this summer. Felton and Bass are both entering their twelfth season of NBA service.
Speights has gained fame amongst NBA fans because of his penchant for shooting, and the nickname Mo Buckets that he picked up while playing for the Golden State Warriors.
Anderson, who spent last season with the Washington Wizards, joined the crowded position battle for the Clippers’ starting small forward spot. Luc Mbah a Moute was the nominal starter last year. Mbah a Moute provides very little in terms of stats, racking up averages of 3.1 points and 2.3 rebounds per game in the 2015-16 season during which he started 61 games.
Wesley Johnson, last year’s backup small forward, shot 44.4 percent on three point shots from the corners, a useful skill that could translate into more playing time in 2016-17. 38-year old Paul Pierce should also be in the mix, although his age and the mileage on his body could indicate a reduced role this season.
Rivers spoke about how he will handle the small forward job, which will undoubtedly be one of the most important aspects of his coaching job in the upcoming campaign. He did refuse to name his starter when asked by the media.
“We’re in no hurry,” Rivers said. “I know you guys like the story, I could care less.”
With the addition of Griffin’s long range shot, a fortified second unit led by Speights and 2015-16 NBA Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford, and the steady presence of longtime Clippers Paul, Redick, and Jordan, this year’s edition of the Clippers could be the one that finally carries the organization to its first ever conference championship series.
Especially if you listen to Doc Rivers, who ended the day in Irvine with a microphone in his hand.
“We’re going to play late in June,” Rivers said. “That’s our goal.”
It’s a goal that Clipper fans have been waiting to attain since the franchise’s inception. With the juggernaut Golden State Warriors and stalwart San Antonio Spurs in their conference, going from playoff team to championship winner will be a tough intersection for the Clippers to cross.
Written by Matthew Roberson, Sports Editor