New-look Clippers at a crossroads to see if they are still a top team in West

For six years, the Clippers stood among the best of the NBA, a team listed in the company of the championship contenders despite their constant playoff failures.

They are no longer seen in the same light.

As the Clippers prepare to launch their 2017-18 season, they now are regarded as a team at the crossroads.

No one is picking them to finish in the top four in the uber-competitive Western Conference, which was something the Clippers had accomplished the last six seasons.

Presumably, the Clippers still are a playoff team, even if they have nine new players and have lost stalwarts Chris Paul, J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford.

“I don’t think I give a crap one way or the other,” an emphatic Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “I’m being very honest. I didn’t give a crap last year, the year before that, the year before that. At the end of the day, it’s all talk to me. It’s always been all talk. The season will tell you exactly who you are, not an article before the season.”

The Clippers had a 51-31 record last season, tying them with the Utah Jazz for fourth best in the West.

The Clippers had the fourth-best record (53-29) in the West in 2015-16, tied for the second-best (56-26) in ’14-’15, were third (57-25) in ’13-’14, tied for fourth (56-26) in ’12-’13 and tied for third (41-25 in the shortened locked-out season) in ’11-’12.

Never during that span did the Clippers get past the second round of the playoffs. In fact, they lost in the first round in their last two postseason appearances.

So with the West being so loaded, the Clippers maintain that their realistic goal remains making the playoffs.

“I don’t see any other goal,” Blake Griffin said. “Obviously it’s to win a championship, but every team starts out the beginning of the year saying, ‘We want to win a championship.’ But you’ve got to have a goal of getting into the playoffs first.”

Truthfully, the road to the playoffs for the Clippers became arduous after disgruntled point guard Paul forced his way to the Houston Rockets through a trade, shooting sensation Redick went to the Philadelphia 76ers as a free agent and sixth-man savant Crawford landed with the Minnesota Timberwolves as a free agent.

“We did lose a lot,” guard Austin Rivers said. “When you lose a player like Chris, people are going to write you off. So I think that’s another advantage we have. We have a chip on our shoulder, you know what I mean?

“Nobody is talking about us. People are talking about the Rockets, the Thunder, the Spurs, the Warriors, and nobody is saying nothing about the Clippers anymore. We’ve got to look at that as kind of like a motivation factor and a slap in the face to us.”

All the changes seemingly have the Clippers in a transition period.

Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams, part of the contingent that came from Houston in the Paul trade, are key to the makeover.

Small forward Danilo Gallinari was acquired in a three-team, sign-and-trade deal from Denver. Milos Teodosic is a 30-year-old rookie joining the Clippers after playing 10 years in Europe.

“I wouldn’t really call it a transitional season,” Griffin said. “We have good players. To me, transition makes it seem like it’s a rebuilding year or something like that. We’d be rebuilding if we had done something. We really haven’t done anything over the past five, six years. It’s a different team, a different look. But I don’t know about transitional.”

Austin Rivers added more of his take.

“We don’t feel like we’ve slumped off at all,” he said. “We feel like we’re deeper than we were last year, if anything. We feel like we’ll be in the same seed, that same range, going back to the playoffs.”

The defending champion Golden State Warriors still are the lords of the NBA, and it starts and stops there in Doc Rivers’ eyes.

The Rockets, Thunder, Spurs, Timberwolves, Nuggets and Jazz are just like the Clippers.

At least that’s how Rivers sees things.

“I think everybody is an underdog,” Rivers said. “Golden State is the best team and everybody else is trying to catch Golden State. Until I get a news bulletin that says they’re not the best team, I think we’re all underdogs and we’ll all in for the fight.

“I think everybody has accepted the challenge. The problem is so have they. So, it should be a great season for fans, for sure. There is a lot of good basketball, probably too much good basketball in the West, as far as I’m concerned, but there’s a lot of good basketball.”

The Clippers will start their journey Thursday night against the Lakers at Staples Center.

And the Clippers know, “It ain’t going to be easy,” as Beverley said.

“That’s one thing I know for a fact,” he said. “But, we’re close. Close to what? I don’t know yet. But, we’re close.

“In this league, if you play hard every night, you put yourself in position to win a lot of basketball games. And from my experience, the past six years, the team that plays the hardest is always the toughest team to play against. They might not do everything the right way, but at the end of the day, if you’ve got more ‘Ws’ than you’ve got ‘Ls,’ you put yourself in position to be one of the top teams in the NBA — whatever that top might be. That top might be top four. That top might be top six. You don’t know right now.”

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