Diamond Head loomed in the background and Kalakaua Avenue bustled Thursday afternoon as the Clippers loaded into outrigger canoes, paddled away from Waikiki’s famed shoreline and began to race.
Players raised their arms, as if on a roller coaster, as boats rose and fell over the breakers. Eventually they turned around and returned to the beach as tourists gawked at the sight of 7-footers paddling furiously.
The event had nothing to do with basketball. Just as the players’ dinner Tuesday at the restaurant Stripsteak, atop a sprawling mall near the team’s waterfront hotel, wasn’t arranged with an eye on foiling a Golden State pick-and-roll in crunch time.
Instead, such moments during the team’s six-day stay in Hawaii have everything to do with building trust — a most valuable commodity players and coaches believe could pay dividends on the court long after they depart paradise and encounter the reality of the NBA’s brutally tough Western Conference.
“We’re in a beautiful place and we’re together,” coach Doc Rivers said. “It forces you to be together and kind of grow as a group. A lot of teams, the biggest advantage they have over us is they’ve been together, so we have to force it and get our team together, growing together. Coming to Hawaii helps that.”
Training camp could have been held at the team’s Playa Vista facility, which has every amenity players, coaches or front-office staffers could want and is situated close to their homes.
That convenience also makes it an unattractive.
“If we do it in Los Angeles, everybody goes to training camp and goes home,” guard Avery Bradley said. “This gives us an opportunity to do team events together, spend time together, eat together, a lot of things you usually wouldn’t do if we were back in Los Angeles.”
Eleven of the 20 players in camp weren’t with the team during the preseason one year ago and two others, Patrick Beverley and Danilo Gallinari, barely played with teammates last season due to injuries. Locker room dynamics don’t concern Rivers — “I don’t think we have any attitude problems or anything like that” — but injuries, trades and free agency have assembled a group that entered this week fairly unfamiliar with one another.
“To be able to be in a different-type atmosphere and as a team be able to be here with each other and lock in, that’s what training camp is about,” forward Tobias Harris said. “We spend a lot of time together.”
Rivers, a self-described “recluse” on the road who likes to watch film in his hotel room, has instead taken small groups of players to dinner since arriving. Harris and Boban Marjanovic rode ATVs in a valley billed as the backdrop to "Jurassic Park" as part of an ESPN segment. With nowhere really to go Friday afternoon, several Clippers lingered after practice to eat pizza and talk shop in small groups. They included second-year guard Sindarius Thornwell, who called the atmosphere a refuge following the death of his father on Sept. 18.
“A big help,” he said.
The point: Binding together a roster that, while deep, has no singular star.
“When (expletive) gets real we going to have to depend on each other,” said Beverley, who has used the time to learn how each teammate prefers to communicate. “And the more you’re around each other the more you can trust one another.”
Rivers said he believes the NBA got it right by cutting the number of preseason games. He played in eight, on top of nearly one month of training camp, as a rookie with the Atlanta Hawks in 1983. The Clippers will play five beginning with Sunday’s exhibition against the Sydney Kings at the University of Hawaii, but that comes with a tradeoff.
The regular season begins just 23 days after camp opened. That feels rushed, Rivers said, while Harris loves the shortened preseason.
“Back in the day it was like training camp, two-a-days for like a whole month, I believe,” he said. “The game has done changed.”
Everyone agrees that Hawaii is an ideal location. This is the second consecutive year the team has held its camp here, helped by a partnership with the state’s tourism arm. It's a far cry from the “little family motel on the side of the road” in Yuma, Ariz., where the Clippers stayed while preparing for the 1980 preseason, recalled broadcaster Ralph Lawler, who is preparing to call his 40th and final season with the franchise. Beverley once attended a camp with the Miami Heat, held at a military base, that was “hard as hell.” Rivers remembers the brutal heat and workload of his rookie camp, held at Florida State University. Plus, he had to share his room.
Center Marcin Gortat would have spent training camp in Virginia with the Washington Wizards until a summer trade shipped him west. The trade came months after guard John Wall took a rift with Gortat — over a perceived slight in a tweet — public. Gortat said he left on good terms with Wall, but was especially complimentary this week of his new locker room’s “beautiful chemistry."
And in a beautiful place, no less.