Before they could make the roughly hourlong drive to Irvine for training camp, the Clippers were dragged back to a certain midsummer’s night in Houston.
It was a place they would rather leave behind after having repeatedly addressed DeAndre Jordan’s free agency flip-flop that ultimately kept him with the only NBA team he has known, but they had no choice except to go there one more time Friday at the team’s Playa Vista practice facility because of the line of questioning during media day.
At one point during a break in the queries, forward Blake Griffin unleashed an unprompted 90-second monologue about the overblown nature of reports about tension among his teammates. He undoubtedly wanted it to serve as the final word on the matter.
“Hopefully we can put that a little bit to rest,” Griffin said of the Clippers’ converging upon Jordan’s home the night he formally backed out of a commitment to the Dallas Mavericks to sign with the Clippers, “because I think we’re all kind of tired of talking about it and we’re ready to get back to basketball and not talking about our travel this summer.”
The basketball side of things has never looked better for a franchise still trying to advance past the second round of the playoffs for the first time. Doc Rivers managed to stockpile champagne on a beer budget this summer, bringing in 10-time All-Star Paul Pierce along with veteran forward Josh Smith and lockdown defender Lance Stephenson.
“This is clearly the most talent that we’ve had since I’ve been here, and I don’t even think it’s close,” said Rivers, the coach and president of basketball operations who is entering his third season with the team. “We’re deep, we’re multi-positional . . . now we just have to figure it out, figure out how we’re going to use it all.”
Rivers said at least three players could fill the starting small forward spot — presumably Wesley Johnson and Stephenson in addition to Pierce — and he envisioned devising a maintenance plan for Pierce, who has logged 50,446 NBA minutes (including playoffs) and will turn 38 next month.
Pierce said he would agree to any role that would help the Clippers win a title, giving them something to hang inside Staples Center besides player pictures that cover the Lakers’ championship banners.
“The idea is to get through the season injury-free and hopefully be fresh for the playoffs come April, May, possibly June,” said Pierce, adding that he would probably retire should he collect another championship to go with the one he won with Rivers and the Boston Celtics in 2008.
Lack of bodies should not be an issue for a team that goes at least three deep at every position and features several multi-position players. Rivers said he intended to use small-ball lineups with Pierce or Johnson at power forward and Smith at center. And the coach described the glut of ballhandlers on a second unit that could feature Austin Rivers, Jamal Crawford and Stephenson as a bonus instead of a hindrance.
“If we can get that right,” Doc Rivers, “I wouldn’t want to guard that group.”
The Clippers’ reserves may have found a nickname when Smith dubbed them the “Bench Mob,” though he conceded something more creative could come along. Several other teams, including the Lakers, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards have all used the same nickname in recent years.
The battle for the last roster spot became more muddled Friday when the Clippers signed former UCLA forward Luc Mbah a Moute to a contract for training camp, giving him an opportunity to beat out Chuck Hayes and former lottery pick Nikoloz Tskitishvili.
It will be a busy few weeks for the Clippers, who start training camp Saturday at UC Irvine, followed by their exhibition opener Oct. 2 at Staples Center and a trip to China for two preseason games shortly thereafter.
They will play the Mavericks in their home opener on Oct. 29, giving Jordan a tuneup for what awaits in his first game in Dallas on Nov. 11 against the team he spurned.
“It will be like any other road game,” Jordan deadpanned before acknowledging he expected lots of boos.
There could also be some more verbal jousting between Doc Rivers and Dallas owner Mark Cuban, who recently said Rivers’ professional life would have been over had Jordan signed with the Mavericks.
“That’s a shame,” Rivers joked Friday.
Did the coach have a Plan B had Jordan left the Clippers?
“No, I would’ve quit,” Rivers deadpanned.
Rivers said he intended to get Jordan more involved with the Clippers’ offense because it would improve the team. As for the festering feud between Rivers and Cuban, the coach said the duo wasn’t doing the NBA any favors.
“Mark’s an owner, I’m a coach,” Rivers said. “Unless we’re going to play one on one or something or get in a cage match, which you guys can all sponsor — I’m good with either one of those — I don’t think it really matters. I think more him talking and me talking, and we’re both wasting time.”