For years, Los Angeles has been the most popular place for NBA players to spend their offseasons. The beach. The weather. The top-flight training. The celebrity scene. The marketing and entertainment opportunities. The women.
Basketball, of course, has also been a big part of the L.A. experience—but until recently, there was something missing for NBA players to help them really prepare for the fall. Pickup games and street-ball tournaments, such as the popular local Drew League, never could simulate in-season preparation and competition.
That all started to change in the summer of 2011, thanks to the Clippers.
While the Lakers were still adamant about restricting their practice facility to their own personnel, the Clippers began to allow other current or former NBA players to use their 42,500-square-foot practice center within the Playa Vista community.
Then, during his first offseason since joining the Clippers in December 2011, star point guard Chris Paul further popularized the pickup games. He placed phone calls to his player friends to organize consistent all-NBA runs featuring more stars.
It didn't take long for word to go around the league that the Clippers' practice facility was the place to be in the summer.
"It kind of spread like wildfire," Clippers forward Matt Barnes told Bleacher Report. "I really think from the Clippers' standpoint, it was to kind of keep their guys there all the time, so they don't really have to go out and search for a run. They also wanted to make the runs more competitive.
"It's really kind of like an All-Star Game. Every star you name has been through there at one point and played. They're real competitive games. It's definitely the best pickup in the summer anywhere you can find."
This summer, the building saw its biggest crowd yet—sometimes featuring more than 30 players, more than half having to wait to play because there were only two full courts. In addition to the Clippers players, including Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Darren Collison, a lot of the who's who in the league competed with and against each other on a daily or weekly basis at different points from late June to mid-September.
The A-listers among current players were LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and David Lee. Others included Gilbert Arenas, Trevor Ariza, Steve Blake, Rasual Butler, Josh Childress, Baron Davis, DeMar DeRozan, Xavier Henry, Kris Humphries, Richard Jefferson, Tyronn Lue, Corey Maggette, Andre Miller, Cuttino Mobley, Metta World Peace, Jerry Stackhouse, Dorell Wright and Nick Young.
"It's really just getting that competition," Barnes said. "It's hard to kind of simulate in the offseason getting a real run, but any time you're playing with some of the bigger players in the world, that's going to really help your game."
Humphries chimed in on how being matched up with Griffin, Lee and Jordan helped his performance.
"(Griffin) is a player that can do multiple things on the floor—he's strong, he can jump, he can move," Humphries said. "So it was great to match up with him, and we had some good matchups. I also played with guys like DeAndre Jordan—other terrific shot-blockers. It just helps your game because where I'm from in Minnesota, you'll never have that many guys on the floor. We were running on two courts, sometimes 30 NBA players in the gym. To be able to have that kind of competition is great."
After the Clippers got their morning workout in from 9 to 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday, other players would start showing up around 11 a.m., getting buzzed in through the security entrance. Five-on-five play would then go from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
For every game, the players picked their own teams—most of the Clippers would be together—and they called their own fouls, with the clock running continuously.
But a different scoring format implemented by one of the Clippers assistant coaches this summer. Every game went up to seven—each basket, including a three-pointer, was one point—and whichever player scored the last point had to then make a free throw. If he missed, his team would get the ball back with its score again at six.
According to some of the participants, Griffin, Jordan, DeRozan and Lou Amundson had the best dunks of the summer, but former Clipper Bobby Brown said Harden had the "nastiest one."
You're probably wondering if there was any trash talking.
"Oh yeah," Barnes said. "But nothing ever escalates. It's good, physical basketball." In fact, afterwards, some of the guys would grab lunch together.
Beyond the all-NBA competition in Clippers land, players flock to the practice facility for its private nature; no fans or player reps are allowed inside. In fact, the Clippers wouldn't comment for this story. Barnes said the only person he saw gain special clearance was newly established sports agent and hip-hop mogul Jay-Z, who also took some shots with the fellas.
The players also gravitate toward the practice facility because they're able to keep their body in check like it's the actual season. Not only is the team's training staff on hand to help with lifting, stretching, massaging and other treatment, but all of the players have full access to the $50 million center's amenities—including a players lounge, a training and media room, an extensive hydrotherapy area, state-of-the-art cardiovascular and weight training equipment and a 2,600-square-foot athletic training and strength-conditioning room.
"It's closed doors, (and) it's a nice location. The gym is also like brand new; it has everything," said Brown, who's close buddies with Paul and Davis.
"The facility is real nice—breakfast, cold pool, hot tub, you can get taped, Gatorade machine, everything. Why not play pickup in an NBA practice gym against NBA players? Assistant coaches from a lot of teams were in there watching their players play and also looking at free agents. So you could probably go in there and get a (training)-camp invite off of that."
Speaking of coaches, the facility also boasts a popular summer clinic for team management "to educate them on making the game better," according to agent Warren LeGarie, who represents many sideline bosses in the NBA. This summer, Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, Gregg Popovich, Doc Rivers, Frank Vogel and new Brooklyn Nets coach Jason Kidd were among those in attendance.
"It was Tim Grgurich predominantly who started the clinic," longtime NBA assistant Phil Weber said. "Rick Carlisle was a major supporter, as was agent Warren LeGarie. They have been doing it for the last four years (at the facility).
"Overall, (the Clippers) have done a good job creating an attractive destination in the summer. The weather and social situation enhance it all. They have come a long way, and all this has begun to change the perception of the organization."
Who would've thought the Clippers, who didn't have their own practice facility until 2008, would now be the epicenter of NBA summer development for both players and coaches? When many of them take the court soon, they'll all be reminded and connected to the unique opportunity they had this offseason.