For Chris Paul and the Clippers, it's title or bust
"Teams that have a chance to win the championship, they know -- they really know when they have a chance,'' said Paul, the Clippers' six-time All-Star point guard. "We're trying to work our way there because we're not there yet."
He wants them to focus on reaching the NBA Finals and winning a championship this season. It's asking a lot of the Clippers and himself -- neither the franchise nor Paul has ever played beyond the second round -- but he has a story to go with his demand.
"My very first year in the playoffs, I was playing for Byron Scott and the night before our first playoff game we had a huge dinner for our team,'' Paul said of his third season with the Hornets. "Coach made everybody go around the room to say something, and not just players either -- your wife or your girlfriend had to say something, because they're just as involved in the team as we are.
"I remember one of my teammates -- might have been Mike James -- said, 'When you're in this league, this opportunity doesn't come along that often where you're actually on a team where you have a chance to win a championship.' And I honestly thought our team in '07-08 could win a championship. And I remember sitting there while he was talking and I was thinking to myself, I'm going to have a chance to win every year. That was the year I was runner-up for the MVP. I'm thinking to myself, Man, I don't know what he's talking about -- as long as I'm out here we're going to have a chance to win it every single year, you know what I mean? But that's not the case.''
As an emerging 22-year-old star, Paul couldn't imagine what would follow the Hornets' loss in Game 7 of the second round to the Spurs in 2008. Hornets center Tyson Chandler suffered a toe injury the ensuing season that threatened his career and lea to his eventual trade. Scott was fired in 2009, Paul had knee surgery in 2010, David West suffered a torn ACL one season later and by last season all of the players and coaches from the young '08 playoff contender had been replaced.
"We always talk about it with our team,'' Paul said. "You don't want to let these chances slip by because you never know what's going to happen -- injuries, free agency and stuff like that.''
Paul himself will be a free agent this summer, which has increased the pressure on the franchise and his teammates to convince him to stay. They can persuade him by winning.
"This is my eighth year, and I always think back to my third year,'' Paul said. "You appreciate it more."
Before he suffered a bruised right kneecap -- the Clippers have gone 3-6 during his absence -- Paul was focused on setting a winning example. By late December, Nuggets coach George Karl was nominating Paul for Defensive Player of the Year and calling him "an incredible defender.''
"First of all, we've got to get healthy,'' said Paul, who could return for Friday's game at Miami. "But I think definitely we've got to keep getting better. In order to win a championship, the biggest thing you've got to be able to rely on is your defense.''
Paul has been preparing himself to win a championship since he entered the NBA from Wake Forest as the No. 4 pick in 2005. He attended the NBA Finals each of his first two years in the league.
"My rookie year I was there in Dallas, Game 6, when Miami beat Dallas,'' he said. "And then the next year I was in Cleveland when San Antonio beat Cleveland in Game 4 and swept them in the Finals. I was there sitting on the court. That's why my third year, 2007-08, I was so dedicated. I was saying I'm not going to any more playoff games -- I want to play in them.''
What did he gather from those courtside experiences?
"The excitement,'' he said. "The intensity. One burnt image I have in my mind, I remember at Dallas -- there were so many people on the court before the player introductions for the production of it.''
He watches the NCAA tournament and regrets his failure to lead Wake Forest past the third round. When the Clippers were winning 17 straight games throughout December, he was warning his teammates that it was "fools gold.'' He continues to embrace memories of his two gold medal victories in the Olympics and imagines how it would feel to reach those heights in the NBA.
"I want to see what that feels like with guys that I've been with for nine or 10 months,'' he said. "It's definitely huge when you're representing your country, and I love all those guys on my [Olympic] teams. We'll never forget those experiences. We're together with that USA team for two months usually; it's something also to be said with these guys who you've been on the road with 10 months.''
"That's all I think about,'' Paul said. "I think about the process and all that -- of course I want to do that. But I also remember a lot of guys' faces when they won the championship. I can go back to looking at the TV and seeing them and that excitement.''
His Clippers appear to have the requirements -- size up front in Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Lamar Odom to go with scoring on the wing from Caron Butler, Jamal Crawford, Eric Bledsoe, Matt Barnes and Willie Green. Most important is the blend of experience from Odom (who won two championships as a Laker) and Crawford as well as Grant Hill, who has recently returned from injury, and Chauncey Billups, who, like Paul, is expected back soon.
Billups led the Pistons to the 2003-04 championship, but he has found it difficult to pass his understanding on to others.
"It is something that you got to go through,'' Billups said. "I try to share my experiences with the guys, my disappointments, my mistakes. But you really don't know until you go through it. I'm trying to speed them up and not have to let them fall and bump their heads, but sometimes that's the best teacher.
"Chris isn't the kind of guy that has to fall and bump his head. He'll listen to you and learn like that. I wish more guys were like that. They're not, but that's why he's so great.''
While Paul has been building the Clippers to win, he has also been trying to expedite the education of Griffin, who was sidelined Monday and Wednesday by a strained left hamstring.
"I used to talk to Tony Parker pretty often about the years they won the championships,'' Paul said of the Spurs. "Tony used to always say, 'CP, you need that third guy. If me and Timmy [Duncan] don't have it that one night, we know Manu [Ginobili] is going to pick it up.' He used to always say that. And I just watched. I paid attention.''
The role of "third guy'' could be handled by any number of Clippers -- Billups, Odom, Crawford, Hill or Bledsoe. The priority for Paul has been to turn Griffin into his Tim Duncan. Paul can't challenge Griffin to improve defensively "unless,'' said Paul, "I'm doing it myself. I have to work. The thing is, Blake is a hard worker, he works hard on stuff like that. And I forget at times that Blake is young. Like sometimes I look at him like we've been in the league the same amount of time.''
He laughed and went on, "But that's not the case. And I understand that we don't have a chance without him being great. Not being good. Without him being great. That's why he is who he is and what he means to our team.''
All of the talks with rivals, the visits to the NBA Finals and the studies he has made of champions in his lifetime have been designed to provide Paul with the feeling that he has made it to the top of the league already. He knows what they say about NBA champions -- that you have to lose in the NBA Finals before you can win.
"Yeah,'' he said. "I don't believe that."
If he can push this team past Oklahoma City and San Antonio on his way to reaching the NBA Finals, then he believes he'll react as if he has been there before. Because he has been there, in his mind, countless times. He has seen it happen, and now he is trying to make those visions come true.
Maybe the best the Lakers can hope to accomplish is to re-sign Howard this summer, trade Gasol (who will be much more attractive with an expiring $19.3 million salary next season) and hope that everyone is healthy and on the same page going into 2013-14, which will be the final year on Kobe Bryant's current contract. They may yet make the upcoming playoffs and will be dangerous to any opponent this spring, and maybe the end of their big-man controversy will bring out the best in Howard. But this latest news feels very much like the tipping point for this year.
Get To Know: Nikola Vucevic
The 6-foot-10 center has become a Most Improved Player candidate while averaging 12.1 points and 11.4 rebounds for the Magic, who acquired him last summer in the four-team deal that sent Dwight Howard to the Lakers and Andrew Bynum to Philadelphia. Vucevic, 22, was born in Switzerland and grew up in Belgium.
? His father, Borislav Vucevic, was a 6-7 basketball star from the former Yugoslavia.
"He started to play when he was 17," Nikola said. "His dad wouldn't let him play because he thought it wasn't a way to make money, because in the ex-Yugoslavia there wasn't a lot of money in sports. His dad didn't support him playing basketball, so he had to lie to him when he was going to practice, and he was hiding it -- that's how it started. He was playing in our home city in Montenegro, then he moved to KK Bosna-Sarajevo. It was one of the best teams in ex-Yugoslavia, and it surprised him that he made it there. His first year [1978-79] they won the Euroleague and he played there eight or nine years. Then he went to Switzerland and that's where I was born. After that he went to Belgium and he played there 11 years.
"He was a small forward. I grew up watching almost every single one of his games, a lot of his practices, and I was always talking to him about basketball. We even had a little hoop in the hallway in the house and we used to play one-on-one there, and outside, too. I couldn't beat him until I was 16.
"He was a very good shooter, a lefty, and pretty athletic, too. When he got older he couldn't jump high, but he could really shoot.''
? Vucevic was 17 when he moved to Simi Valley, Calif. He enrolled at Stoneridge Preparatory School for his senior year in order to pursue his talent for basketball.
"Growing up you hear all these great things about America, especially L.A. -- nice weather, all the movie stars and everything, so I was really excited," he said. "The only way I knew about America was like the NBA and movies. It was different from what I had in my mind when I came here. I love L.A., it is my favorite city now. I was surprised by a lot of things. It was a different lifestyle than what I was used to.
"It was tough to leave my family for the first time and go all the way across the ocean, like to the end of the world. But my dad came with me for the first week or so. He wanted to see that everything is fine and that I get adjusted to it and I like it. The first month was tough. There were moments I wanted to get back home and be with my family. But people were very nice to me and the high school I went to in Simi Valley was great. They really took care of me, and after I got adjusted it was a great experience.''
Vucevic became convinced he could reach the NBA while at USC, where he played for three years before being drafted No. 16 in 2011 by the 76ers.
"When I first got [to USC], I wasn't physical, I wasn't strong enough," Vucevic said. "It took me some time to get adjusted to that and the game -- it was a different game than I grew up playing. By the end of my freshman year, beginning of my sophomore year, I really got confident that I can play at the college level and I can maybe even get further. I kept working hard and believing in myself that I can make it one day. I told myself I have a chance if I keep working hard.''
? He was inspired by his trade last summer to Orlando, where his minutes have more than doubled.
"When the trade happened," he said, "I looked at the pieces where everybody was going and the roster that we had and I felt like it was a good team for me to get some playing time -- more playing time than we had in Philly, because in Philly we had a lot of other bigs. When I first came to Orlando, I had a good talk with the GM and the coaching staff and the other players. I just wanted to work hard and prove myself. Coach gave me a chance and he believed in me, and I just tried to take advantage of it.
"I talk to my father almost every day. He's back in Montenegro with my mom and my sister. He watches all my games the next morning and he always tells me you can do this better, you can do this stronger. He's been my personal coach since I started playing basketball and he always will be. It's really great for me to have somebody that can teach me every day.
"It depends on the game, but the one advice he always gives me every day is you made it to the NBA, you proved you can play at this level, go out there and play your game and don't try to do too much. Don't think about anything, just go out there and play hard and good things will happen. If you make a mistake, so be it, keep playing. You got to believe in yourself, so that's the main thing he tells me -- be confident.''
Quote Of The Week
"It would be hard for me to deal with another season knowing the facts you just mentioned."
-- Pau Gasol, when asked by T.J. Simers of the
There are two truths here. The first is that the Lakers have been trying to trade Gasol for more than a year. They were going to send him to Houston as part of the unconsummated deal for Chris Paul in December 2011, and his name has been prominent in rumors ever since. Last season the long-running story was that his production was affected by concerns that he would be traded. This season he has played for three coaches and here are Gasol's numbers:
So this is a long-running story for Gasol that has been trending badly for two years, in no small part because the Lakers are paying their 7-footer $19 million this year (and owe him $19.3 million next season).
Despite that trend, I believed D'Antoni and Steve Nash would find a way to bring out the best in Gasol because he is such a terrific passer and team player. I view Gasol as a first-ballot Hall of Famer, not only for the two championships and other honors he has earned but also for his leadership internationally with Spain and his pioneering role as a No. 3 pick who became the first international player to win Rookie of the Year. He's only 32, and it was for good reason that Nash wanted to make sure Gasol would remain with the Lakers. Like Nash, I thought Gasol's versatility and playmaking would renew his career and turn the Lakers into a special team because Gasol is a complementary star with the skills to bring out the best in his teammates.
This is a cloudy issue. On the one hand, I can commiserate with Gasol, who in his interview insisted he should be able to play successfully alongside Howard. On the other hand, I also recognize that the Lakers didn't know what to do with Gasol and his huge salary long before they hired D'Antoni.
Now that Gasol will be sidelined for at least a month by a torn plantar fascia, and Howard continues to struggle with a shoulder injury as well as the consequences of back surgery, it looks as if the Lakers may not have full use of either big man for the remainder of this lost season. The only conclusion I can reach is that it's not going to end this badly for Gasol. He'll be 34 when he becomes a free agent in 2014, and consider this irony among his options: Would it be surprising to see him spending the ensuing three or four years taking over for Kevin Garnett as a passing/scoring center for the Celtics?
Game Of The Week
"Ever since they lost Rajon Rondo for the year, the Celtics have been winning with smoke and mirrors," the scout said. "Eventually that's going to end. I wouldn't be surprised if they make the playoffs -- or if somebody overtakes them for the eighth spot in the East. But if they do make the playoffs, I will be very surprised if they get to the second round. Losing both Rondo and Jared Sullinger is really tough for them.
"I can see why they've had some success without Rondo. I just think Rondo had such a bad effect on Jason Terry and Courtney Lee and the newer guys, that after he went out they were all going to play better.
"Rondo is just so ball dominant. Think about how Terry played in Dallas -- they had given him the keys to drive the bus. But when he came to Boston, he was never himself. While he was playing with Rondo, Terry was not getting the shots he needs to take in order to be successful because the one guy -- Rondo -- was dominating the ball, and the other thing was that they wanted to play in the halfcourt a lot. Rondo is a dominant personality and he didn't want to give the ball up to him [Terry]. If they were on the break, Rondo wanted to dribble up to get the assist. You could see Terry was becoming less confident to the point that he didn't want to take his normal shots even when he was up the floor.
"When Rondo had a chance to make the first pass to help get the ball to the other side of the court, he was not going to make that pass because he wanted to get the assist. Rondo would pound the ball until he could get a guy open for the shot so that he could get the assist. That's why the ball wasn't moving as much when they had Rondo, and it's why the ball is moving so much better now that he's out. The reason they're running more is because he didn't kick the ball ahead. He wanted to hold on to it.
"I think it's going to be a good thing for Rondo if he sees them playing well without him. But I also don't think they would be better if they moved him [in a trade]. He's a hard guy to get rid of -- he's probably going to come back to haunt you because he's so good. But they've got to let him know that he's not the boss. Other teams knew that you should not help on Rondo [with a double team] because he just wants to get the assist. He was trying so hard to get assists that it was bad on everybody with their team.
"Paul Pierce is the key to the team, but I felt that way even before Rondo got hurt. Pierce is not the same guy he was, but he's still better than most everybody in the league. He makes threes, he can post up. Maybe he's not as good at beating guys off the dribble, but he's still got that pump-fake stuff that he can use to get fouled or to get his shot off. I think he's still one of the best one-on-one players in the league, and by creating for himself he's also able to create for his teammates.
"I still think they could have gotten better this year with Rondo, because Doc Rivers is good at getting his point across and allowing things to happen until he can finally get his guys' attention. If they continue to play well, then this will help Doc with Rondo any way you slice it. But they're definitely not a contender as long as they have to give a lot of minutes to Courtney Lee. The only way they get to the second round now is if Pierce and Kevin Garnett are incredible.
"Coming into this year, I thought the Celtics could get to the conference finals. And I thought the Lakers were going to win the whole thing before they fired Mike Brown.
"When Mike Brown came into this year running the Princeton offense, I thought that was the stupidest thing ever. But I never thought they were going to fire him for it. I was figuring they were going to scrap that offense and then, instead of running some kind of system, they would play to their guys' strengths. Steve Nash would be the guy running the show, knowing that all he had to do was get the ball to Kobe Bryant for isolations and get the ball in the post to Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol, and then if they're running up against the end of the clock, Nash could do his pick-and-roll to get something going. I still think Nash can adapt to play a half-court game. I'm sure it would be easier for him to adapt to the half-court style than it would be for those other guys to start running. They should just go with whoever has the mismatch.
"That's why I think Mike D'Antoni is the worst coach for that team. His system does not fit them. You can argue Pau Gasol is being a punk, but I think Pau should be doing what he wants to do. He's one of the best foreign players in the history of basketball, he's been a post-up guy at the highest levels, and now they're telling him not to post up.
"This whole idea of Kobe as a playmaker is such a crock. This is where the media gets it so wrong. For how many years have people been waiting for him to do this? Everybody is double-teaming him and he could get an assist anytime he wanted if he didn't take so many bad shots.
"I have great respect for their talent. I thought they were going to be the best team in the league this year. But they've been a bunch of whiny brats that are infighting and pointing fingers. I wouldn't count them out of the playoffs, but the truth is that making the playoffs for them shouldn't even be a question. The teams that are in front of them -- Portland, Houston, Utah -- are not as good as the Lakers are.
"At least Mike Brown made them a good defensive team, which is something that D'Antoni doesn't do at all. Their problem is they're not getting stops. They're older, their guys are bitching and moaning, and they don't get back on defense. I saw a game with three possessions where all of their players didn't even get past half court -- that's a rule for most coaches, that you need to at least get to half court. But it looks like there is no accountability on them.
"To me they're still the most talented team, but I don't think D'Antoni will get it done with them. They'll be a tough out, but I think they'll be out in the first round.
"The amazing thing about this game is that you might see Boston trying to play faster than the Lakers."
All-Chris Bosh Team
This team is in honor of No. 3 options like Bosh, without whom the Heat could not have survived the conference final on their way to the championship last year. In this Big Three era, which is likely to expire as harsher luxury taxes kick in over the next two years, the depth provided by the players on this team will prove crucial to the playoff races -- and the playoffs themselves.
SF Tayshaun Prince, Grizzlies -- At least Prince is capable of handling the pressure of replacing Rudy Gay.
SG Manu Ginobili, Spurs -- San Antonio's trio has been together longer than Kirk, Spock and Dr. McCoy.
SG Klay Thompson, Warriors -- An excellent shooter at age 22, and his range will continue to improve over the next decade.
SG Jason Terry, Celtics -- Looking like his old explosive self in Rajon Rondo's absence.
PG/SG Jamal Crawford, Clippers -- His scoring off the bench is crucial to the Clippers' hopes.
PG Jeremy Lin, Rockets -- The QB of an explosive team who has shown he doesn't need to be the star.