Clippers’ ship finally has wind in its sails
A 1-13 start didn’t discourage Clippers general manager Neil Olshey. It didn’t make him say, “Here we go again.’’ That’s past Clippers logic.
There is hope in the other hallway at Staples Center, and it’s centered around a rugged, red-headed power forward who dunks on opponents with fearlessness, like no other rookie has in recent memory.
For the first time in their putrid existence in Los Angeles, the Clippers may have a franchise player, one who can make the team watchable and exciting. Blake Griffin is already in elite company around the NBA; like LeBron, Kobe, and Dwyane, he is a road draw.
Griffin is bringing allure to Clippers basketball. His highlight-reel dunks are a staple on “SportsCenter’’ and his NBA career is still nine games short of a half season.
And with USA Basketball standout Eric Gordon, the improving DeAndre Jordan, and rookies Eric Bledsoe and Al-Farouq Aminu, the Clippers (11-24) have a young core that could turn them into a factor in the Western Conference.
We have heard this before coming out of Clipperland, but what makes this different appears to be a vision.
The organization actually went after LeBron James, and when he opted to take his talents elsewhere, the Clippers did not make the mistake of dumping their available money on another free agent who didn’t fit.
Olshey said they were looking for a small forward, chased the best one to come along in the past 25 years, and when they fell short, they exhibited patience.
While Donald Sterling remains the owner — and he is engaged in an uncomfortable lawsuit with former general manager Elgin Baylor — the Clippers are approaching the coming years with a definitive plan.
“I think it was easier [to be patient] on the inside than it was on the outside,’’ said Olshey, when asked why he did not panic after the 1-13 start. “Because you could see the work that was being put in.
“I’ve been around teams with better records and the environment wasn’t as good, and you knew eventually it was going to fall apart. That’s not really where this environment was.’’
Olshey, by the way, is not your conventional general manager. He was an actor — actually auditioning for a role in “General Hospital’’ — and a high school basketball coach and then began coordinating predraft camps. He was hired by previous GM Mike Dunleavy as director of player development and moved up to GM when Dunleavy was fired.
Olshey doesn’t appear daunted by competing with the Lakers, who have a lock on the city and its fan base. Clippers fans are a close bunch, seemingly gluttons for punishment, but their persistence is paying off with the team’s improvement.
“We’ve had recent success long enough now that every NBA team has been through here, they see the commitment with the best practice facility in the league, they play in Staples Center,’’ said Olshey. “They’ve seen the financial commitments we’ve made to players.’’
When Griffin was forced to miss his rookie season because of right knee surgery, it seemed he was a victim of the Clipper curse that had struck Danny Manning and Shaun Livingston. Griffin never bought into such rhetoric, though. He rehabilitated his knee and is now taking his frustration out on any big man in the vicinity.
He and Gordon are potential All-Stars, while Baron Davis and Chris Kaman are established standouts trying to resuscitate their careers.
Olshey said he has modeled his approach after Portland, which drafted well, signed a couple of key free agents, and would be a contender if not for mass injuries.
“[Former general manager] Kevin Pritchard was the first guy to have the guts to say we may lose for a little while and we may take our lumps but in the long run this is what we’re going to build around and they are going to grow together,’’ Olshey said. “That’s what it’s really about as far as the youth.
“I think we have the right model, which is we don’t completely have to blow this up to get where we need to get to on a three-to-five-year plan.’’
Until then, fans can be captivated by Griffin, who has the Rookie of the Year award locked up and will bring more attention to the Clippers when he participates in the dunk contest next month at Staples Center.
The organization’s foremost responsibility in the next few years is to see that Griffin becomes that franchise-defining player.
It shouldn’t be difficult. Griffin is a tireless worker and already an accomplished scorer and rebounder (21.7 points, 12.7 rebounds). And he cares little about the Clippers’ past.
“The beauty of Blake Griffin is with all of his commitments, nothing gets in the way of basketball,’’ Olshey said. “There is no priority in his life that takes precedence over basketball.
“That’s what makes him special. Everything he bases his decisions on is, ‘How is this going to affect me as a basketball player first?’ Nothing takes a back seat to his development.’’
Bradley and Gaddy played together since the first grade in Tacoma, Wash., and were considered one of the nation’s top backcourts as juniors at Bellarmine Prep School there.
They were expected to become the top senior tandem in the nation, but Bradley transferred to Findlay Prep in Las Vegas. The two have kept in touch, and Bradley offered encouragement this past week when he heard the news.
“It’s been tough for him,’’ said Bradley. “Me and Abdul have been playing basketball together for it seems like forever.’’
Major injuries can be psychological barriers for younger players, and Bradley experienced his when he needed a bone chip removed from his left ankle after twisting it during a pre-draft workout.
“I had my first injury where I messed up my ankle,’’ Bradley said. “And it’s his first one. It’s going to be tough for him, just like it was tough for me. He won’t be able to walk after he has his surgery and be able to do things he’s used to doing every single day.
“It’s going to be tough for him, but I’m here for him.’’
Bradley had NBA aspirations at Bellarmine and decided that Findlay, filled with Division 1 NCAA prospects, was a better option.
He and Gaddy intended to play at the same college, but Gaddy originally committed to Lute Olson at Arizona, a place Bradley did not want to go. Bradley, seeking the most efficient route to the NBA, committed to Texas, while Gaddy changed his mind and opted to stay home at Washington.
“We got to the point where we knew we weren’t going to the same school,’’ said Bradley, “and we wished the best for each other.’’
Bradley is quickly gathering war stories as he shares a locker room with Kevin Garnett, Shaquille O’Neal, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen. And he relays those experiences to Gaddy, who in turn tells Bradley about the college life he’s missing out on.
The two friends have taken different basketball paths, but Bradley was one of the first to hear from Gaddy following the injury.
“I can help him out, tell him about the league,’’ Bradley said. “He just keeps me updated and I try to motivate him, things like that. We’re still real close.’’
Then after two wins, they lost by 19 at home to the struggling Grizzlies.
It was so embarrassing that Memphis players were sizing up poster dunks in the fourth quarter. That doesn’t happen at Staples Center — unless you’re Blake Griffin — at least, not until this year.
The Lakers are in a midseason slump. They are bored. They are aging. And some on the roster are basking in the glory of back-to-back titles, still buzzed from last year’s Game 7 win over the Celtics.
Ron Artest is having a poor season, shooting less than 40 percent and clashing with coach Phil Jackson out of frustration.
Their biggest offseason acquisition, Steve Blake, who was supposed to stabilize the point guard position, has a 1.6-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio and is shooting better from 3-point range than 2-point range.
And, as usual, Andrew Bynum is taking a portion of the season off to recover from knee surgery. (There goes that assertion that Bynum is a franchise-caliber center).
Kobe Bryant, the lone Laker who has the passion to beat every opponent into submission, is frustrated.
“There was a lot of stuff, a lot of things boiled up,’’ Jackson said. “I thought our team handled it OK. I’m not happy the way we played [against Memphis]. We’re starting to be a little more unified as a group.’’
After the loss to the Grizzlies, the Lakers had little trouble with Detroit, then picked up a confidence-boosting win at Phoenix, but neither team is expected to make the playoffs.
The naysayers are getting louder in Los Angeles, accusing the team of being soft and disoriented.
“It’s LA, that always happens,’’ Bryant said. “It all depends on how we use it. Before the [Detroit] game, I told the guys, ‘Listen how everybody’s talking about you. Embrace this. This is LA. It comes with the territory of being back-to-back champs. You have to use it as fuel and motivation, because the thing that matters the most are the people that are in this huddle in here, not what’s going on outside.’ ’’
Bryant is the unquestioned leader, but you have to wonder how long his message will be effective. It has to be exhausting to always be the motivator — unlike in Boston, where the standout players take turns in the role.
The Lakers won’t have much time to test their newfound chemistry before the competition gets tougher. Games with the Knicks, Thunder, Mavericks, Spurs, and Celtics precede a brutal seven-game Eastern trip in February.
The Lakers should be their usual formidable selves come April, but what’s a Phil Jackson team without some January drama?
Layups The Nuggets will spend the next six weeks trying to trade Carmelo Anthony, because it’s apparent he’s not coming back and they just suffered discouraging back-to-back road losses to the Clippers and Kings. In their current state, the Nuggets aren’t going to compete for the Western Conference title, and Anthony is not budging on his request to be traded. The Knicks and Nets are the only teams with a legitimate chance of landing him, but Denver wants to make sure it doesn’t take a major step back by losing a superstar the way Cleveland did. Since beginning the season 7-9, the Cavaliers are a stunning 1-19 and are a mess. Coach Byron Scott has attempted to instill discipline, but with an aging roster and a bunch of guys who expected to compete for a title with LeBron James, it’s a poisonous atmosphere. Denver general manager Masai Ujiri has tried to persuade Anthony to stay (it hasn’t worked); he doesn’t want his first major move to be trading a franchise player. But he might have no choice . . . The waiving of Damien Wilkins was an unpopular move in Atlanta because he is the nephew of Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins. Wilkins called playing with the Hawks a dream, but general manager Rick Sund decided to cut him loose, though he may consider offering a 10-day contract. Frugal teams such as the Hawks and Clippers released players before the deadline for contracts to be guaranteed but will consider re-signing them to a 10-day contract. Jarron Collins signed a 10-day deal shortly after being waived by the Clippers, and Wilkins is hoping to do the same thing in Atlanta once he clears waivers . . . Don’t be surprised if coach Flip Saunders’s stay in Washington is brief. The Wizards were 0-17 on the road entering last night’s game in Charlotte. This is a team that was considered a playoff contender.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.