Each team is building (or rebuilding) around a young post player such as Blake Griffin, whose return from knee surgery has the Clippers thinking playoffs
This is an article from the Oct. 25, 2010 issue
When he was not allowed to walk, Blake Griffin would sit in a folding chair five feet in front of the basket and shoot from his backside. When he was allowed to walk but not run, he would pace the perimeter of the court and dribble tennis balls with both hands. By the time he was finally cleared to run and jump, the season was over and all his teammates were gone, off on vacations he did not believe he had earned. So he stayed behind, and whenever Clippers officials heard sneakers squeaking on the floor of their practice facility, they knew the soles belonged to their young power forward.
Sixteen months have passed since Los Angeles drafted Griffin out of Oklahoma with the No. 1 pick, and still he has not given the team a point, a rebound, even a minute of service in a regular-season game. "And yet," says vice president of basketball operations Neil Olshey, "I think every day how lucky we are to have him."
Griffin's contributions have been made behind closed doors. When Clippers rookies came to L.A. after this year's draft and saw Griffin going one-on-one against his own shadow, they realized they should probably stick around as well. The veterans took notice too. Center Chris Kaman returned from his Hawaiian honeymoon in mid-July to work out with Griffin. Backup center DeAndre Jordan cut short his off-season at home in Houston and joined them. By the end of August, no fewer than 13 players were on-site. "That kind of thing," says Olshey, "did not happen here before."
The Clippers used to train at the Spectrum South Bay Athletic Club in El Segundo, ideal for budding models, not professional basketball players. "Chicks would be running around half-naked," Kaman says. "It was hard to concentrate." Two years ago, the team moved into a shiny new $50 million practice facility spread across 42,500 square feet of prime real estate on Los Angeles's Westside, believing that players would work harder if they had a dedicated space. But on many summer days the big building felt empty. "We still had veterans who were more interested in being other places," says Olshey.
Like so many L.A. power brokers, Olshey had already been a soap opera actor and workout guru when the team promoted him to general manager last March, after six years with the organization. He studied the clubs he wanted to emulate—ones light on superstars, like the Bucks, Blazers and Thunder—and took the same ethos from all of them. "Culture wins," Olshey says. "Those teams aren't a bunch of individuals. They brought in good people and instilled a culture of character and commitment."
Olshey had the catalyst for a culture shift in place. He just couldn't unveil him publicly yet. Griffin broke his kneecap in the final preseason game last year, went through two fruitless months of rehab, a two-part surgery in which his patellar tendon was repaired and reinforced, and then three more months of rehab after the operation. The Clippers were devastated by the injury but inspired by the way Griffin responded to it. During practices he worked to remake his outside shot, one of the few areas he needed to polish. During games he sat on the bench, issuing small personal challenges to teammates. "He'd tell you, 'Give me three blocks before halftime' or 'Give me five rebounds before the game is over,' " Jordan says. "You think about that stuff when you're on the court."
The Clippers insist that Griffin is fully recovered from his injury and better off for having overcome it, which sounds like typical training-camp spin. But the surgery did alleviate tendinitis that bothered Griffin in college and also gave him a chance to absorb the pace of the NBA game. "I watched him [in summer league and the preseason] last year and he was like a kamikaze," Olshey says. "He was going 100 miles per hour. You can tell the game has slowed down for him. He would have been a physical force if he had played right away, but now he'll be a basketball force as well."
All five teams in the Pacific Division are counting on a young big man they are still learning about. The Lakers are championship favorites when they have Andrew Bynum starting at center, but he has suffered knee injuries in each of the past three seasons and may not fully recover from his most recent surgery until December. The Suns saw enough from center Robin Lopez in the Western Conference finals to believe he can fill much of the void left by departed power forward Amar'e Stoudemire, but he has been hounded by a bad back since last season. The Warriors spent $80 million on a sign-and-trade for power forward David Lee, but the six-year deal left them without any depth inside. And the Kings used the fifth pick in the draft on Kentucky power forward--center DeMarcus Cousins, a supreme talent with a temper to match.
The development of Cousins and Lopez, the acclimation of Lee and the health of Bynum will determine whether these teams reach their own wildly varying definitions of success. The Lakers would win this division even if Bynum never stepped on the floor, but they are obviously aiming much higher, for a third consecutive championship. When Kobe Bryant's jumper went AWOL in Game 7 of the Finals last season, Bynum—on one leg—helped Los Angeles overpower the Celtics, and he could potentially do the same to the Heat should the teams meet in June. Every other team in the Pacific is playing for second, but finishing there would be an accomplishment for any of them. Though the Suns are the most likely candidates, having already reinvented themselves as surprise contenders last season, the Clippers and the Kings have sturdier frontcourts.
When the summer began, the Clippers were eyeing the big-catch free agents, hoping to build around one of them. They wound up settling for a new acquisition already on their roster. Griffin is the second top pick in the last three years to miss his debut season—Blazers center Greg Oden being the other—and he is wrestling with some of the same awkward questions. Is he eligible for Rookie of the Year? (Yes.) Is he still hazed by veteran teammates? (No.) At All-Star weekend would he play for the rookie or sophomore team? (Rookie.)
Griffin did not come across like a rookie even when he was one. He is 6' 10" and 251 pounds, with what teammates call the strength of a power forward, the speed of a point guard and the mentality of the last man on the bench. When Griffin was a sophomore in high school, playing for the Athletes First AAU team in Oklahoma, his older brother Taylor told him, "The only way you will get playing time and earn respect is by doing the little things." So in his first tournament, Griffin concentrated solely on blocking shots, rebounding and running the floor. "I decided that would be my deal," Griffin says. He would be a grinder, even if he someday became a No. 1 draft choice.
"Blake is going to be a tough matchup for anybody because who else is that big and that strong and that quick?" says Kaman. "The guy is already a monster, and then he comes in here and works harder than anybody else. He doesn't know when to stop." Kaman believes that he and Griffin could immediately form one of the top five power forward--center combinations in the league, reminiscent of—if not better than—the Kaman--Elton Brand duo that led the Clippers to 47 wins and the second round of the playoffs five years ago.
For coach Vinny Del Negro, making the playoffs in consecutive seasons with the Bulls was not enough to save his job. If he can duplicate the feat in Los Angeles, he may be in line for a lifetime contract. His security depends on Griffin, who never once associated his injury with the Clippers' long history of hard luck. He has been brought in to change that pattern and will not allow for the possibility that he is another victim of it. Griffin mentions that Michael Jordan missed 64 games as a rookie and Magic Johnson missed 45, and even though Jordan and Johnson were actually second-year players then, his point is well taken. Sometimes a lost season is just a lost season and nothing more, even for the Clippers.
Griffin feels the culture changing—"You can see the shift," he says, "in the way we work and the way we talk"—but he knows such proclamations have been made many times before. They will be greeted with eye rolls until they are followed by progress. "Nobody wants to play for the team that people always talk about negatively," Griffin says. "I don't want guys to hear all summer that we're never going to make the playoffs. We have to earn respect. The best way to do that is to work for it."