Los Angeles is renowned for its summer pick-up scene, from the midnight run at Hangar Athletic Club to the 3 p.m. games at UCLA's Men's Gym, from the impromptu gatherings at Loyola Marymount to the scheduled ones at Westchester Rec Center. Hot spots change faster than trendy clubs and a court that's popular one year is played out the next.
Last summer, the city's many NBA residents flocked to the Clippers' practice facility, even if they were not actually with the Clippers. Paul Pierce showed up. So did Metta World Peace. Some Lakers lifted weights at their facility and then drove the 10 minutes to the Clips' complex for a little competition.
Guard Jamal Crawford, who joined the Clippers in July, was among those players. One of the most prolific sixth men in the NBA, Crawford was tasked with revitalizing a bench that ranked 26th in the league in scoring. Coach Vinny Del Negro told Crawford that Clippers starters were worn down last season, with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin both logging more than 36 minutes per game, and hobbling down the homestretch. By the Western Conference semifinals, Paul was playing with a strained hip flexor, Griffin with a sprained knee and Caron Butler with a broken hand. The Clippers were swept by the Spurs.
"Teams were loading up on CP and Blake," Crawford said. "It was becoming a struggle. They needed more guys who could create."
The secret to a formidable second unit is chemistry, says Crawford. "You have to be a team within a team." He saw a way, with all the pick-up games at the Clippers' facility, to create a training camp before a training camp. While other pros were choosing sides as casually as if they were at the Y, Crawford partnered with the Clippers' other subs: Eric Bledsoe, Lamar Odom, Ronny Turiaf and Ryan Hollins.
"We played together every day," Crawford said. "It's like we got it figured out in September."
One day, Lakers forward Matt Barnes walked in with World Peace, and they won seven games in a row. Paul, who was recovering from thumb surgery, approached them afterward and asked: "How come Mike Brown doesn't play you guys together?" Barnes didn't know. "Well," Paul said, "you're going to be tough next year." Barnes shook his head. "No," he replied. "I'm a free agent." Paul didn't need to hear any more. "Then you're going to be a Clipper," he declared. A couple days later, Barnes was back at the Clippers' facility, alongside Crawford instead of World Peace.
The Clippers on Wednesday won their 11th game in a row, their longest such streak since they played in Buffalo and were called the Braves. That's two relocations ago. Behind the surge are a dramatically improved defense, DeAndre Jordan's rapidly expanding post game and a bench that is the envy of super-teams everywhere. As the Lakers have discovered, there is one problem with putting four stars on the same roster: the lack of salary cap space left over to afford quality reinforcements. Kobe Bryant, as a result, is averaging 38.4 minutes, seventh most in the NBA.
Meanwhile, there's not a Clipper in the top 50, thanks to a second unit that's scoring a staggering 41.9 points per game, nearly 15 points more than last season, according to hoopsstats.com. Paul and Griffin, who have never averaged fewer than 36 minutes, are at 32.8 and 32.4, respectively. These are not high-stress minutes, either. The Clippers' reserves are often the team's closers. In consecutive wins this month over the Mavericks and Suns, the backups were so productive that the starters did not play a single minute of the fourth quarter. In the following game, a win over the Raptors, Butler was the lone starter to play in the fourth and that was only because Barnes was ejected. Paul and Griffin have become content waving towels.
"At the beginning of the season we realized it would be like this," Griffin said. "When they build the lead, why take them out? They're accomplishing what we want to accomplish. ... The less minutes you play, the less wear and tear on your body. That will come in handy for us in April and at the start of the playoffs."
The Clippers worked all summer to build their bench, but Grant Hill has not played a game and Chauncey Billups has played only three. They've relied on Crawford, who was coming off his worst season in a decade; Odom, who was coming off his worst season ever; Barnes, who was unemployed in September; and Bledsoe, who was the fourth-string point guard a year ago. They are remaking each other. Crawford is the early favorite for Sixth Man Award honors, Barnes is up to 10 points per game, and Bledsoe to 9.4, with about as many jaw-dropping highlights interspersed. Odom has been out of shape ever since he left the Lakers, but Del Negro was encouraged enough by his conditioning to use him with the starters in the fourth quarter last week.
Del Negro played for Gregg Popovich in San Antonio, a coach who emboldens his bench and resists the temptation to overuse his starters. Del Negro absorbs plenty of potshots, but he has found a way to win while preserving his headliners and fueling his reserves. Incorporating Hill and Billups will be another challenge for Del Negro, but it's exactly the kind he wanted.
"It's going to be potent," Crawford said. "It's going to be lethal. Coach does a great job with feel. If it's a tie game and our group breaks it open, he lets us ride it out."
Depth does not determine success in the playoffs, when rotations shorten, and stars rule. Last season, the Heat's second unit was one of the least productive in the NBA, and they still won the championship. But the fewer minutes that Paul and Griffin log in the regular season, the less chance they will sustain some bizarre misfortune that capsizes their title quest before it begins. Other teams may not think that way, but other teams have not suffered as many horrendous breaks as the Clippers.
Crawford & Co. is an insurance firm designed to insulate Paul and Griffin, protect this budding contender and boost it all the way to June.