New LA Clippers Face Same Old Pressures and Expectations

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterSeptember 30, 2015

PLAYA VISTA, CA - SEPTEMBER 25:  Chris Paul #3, Paul Pierce #34, DeAndre Jordan #6, J.J. Redick #4 Blake Griffin #32 and Doc Rivers of the Los Angeles Clippers pose for a portrait during media day at the Los Angeles Clippers Training Center on September 25, 2015 in Playa Vista, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2015 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

The more things change, the more they stay the same for the Los Angeles Clippers.

Of the 17 players wearing the team's new threads in training camp, 10 are fresh faces—as Clippers, that is. Pablo Prigioni, 38, and Paul Pierce, 37, are the fifth- and ninth-oldest players in the NBA, respectively. Nikoloz Tskitishvili might as well be that seasoned, after spending close to a decade overseas between stints in the Association.

For the work he and his front office put in to beef up L.A.'s roster, Doc Rivers, once derided for his curious personnel moves, has seemingly earned his stripes as a general manager.

There have even been shifts among the incumbents—some subtle, some not.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

At Clippers media day, Chris Paul, a stern leader since his arrival in L.A. in 2011, provided more levity than usual. Blake Griffin, often quieter despite what his comedic TV persona would suggest, took control of the conversation at times without prompting. All the while, it was DeAndre Jordan, previously the third wheel of L.A.'s Big Three, who fielded the lion's share of questions during his time on the dais, following a summer unwittingly spent in the headlines.

But for all of those changes, the Clippers still face the same hump they've failed to conquer, with Sisyphean consistency, since their recent era of prosperity began nearly four years ago.

"None of us have won a championship," Paul said while sharing the stage with Griffin and Jordan, "so [the lesson from not winning a championship] is probably about the same thing every year. But you just continue to learn."

The Clippers have learned quite a bit about themselves since Rivers left Boston for L.A. in June 2013. In their first postseason foray under Rivers, they gave away a crucial Game 5 in Oklahoma City before falling short to the Thunder in six. This past spring, the Clippers squandered a 3-1 series edge against the Houston Rockets after blowing a 19-point third-quarter lead in Game 6.

Thus, the strongest campaigns in franchise history will be remembered not for win totals approaching 60 but for the playoff collapses that followed.

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

From the ashes of those teams, though, could soon rise an even stronger outfit, one better equipped—in terms of talent, experience, determination and general constitution—to finally hang a banner of its own at Staples Center.

"I think anything worth having is worth working for," said Jamal Crawford. "We went through two devastating losses in the playoffs the last two years, but I think once we get to where we want to go, it’ll be that much sweeter because of what we went through.

"It definitely bothered all of us for the first few weeks [of the summer]. Then after that, you have to kind of get out of that depression and keep in the back of your mind how you can improve and get better, but know that you don’t want to experience that again," he continued.

That bitter taste could serve the Clippers' returnees well. The core of this club (i.e. Paul, Griffin and Jordan) is preparing for its fifth season together. Crawford survived a summer of trade rumors, like this from Frank Isola of the New York Daily News, to see his fourth in a Clippers uniform. J.J. Redick will be suiting up for his third.

DeAndre Jordan (left) and Chris Paul
DeAndre Jordan (left) and Chris PaulMichael Bernstein/Getty Images

In today's NBA, that kind of continuity is increasingly rare, given the frequency and fluidity of player movement. It can also be problematic if the team in question, such as the Clippers, fails to take that all-important next step time and again.

Losing leads to frustration, which, in turn, strains relationships. And if a particular group of players keeps coming up short, those whose jobs are on the line (i.e. coaches and front-office personnel) often have no choice but to shake up the roster.

Rivers went to great lengths to remodel his team this summer, despite the Clippers' lack of flexibility on the market. He kept the core intact while reloading with versatile veterans on the periphery.

"We’re deep. We’re multi-positional," said Rivers. "That was the goal going into the summer. It’s a good collection of guys. Now we just have to figure it out, figure out how we’re going to use it all."

They'll soon see how all those players, old and new, fit together both on and off the floor. Everyone in the organization stressed, contrary to rumors reported by Bill Reiter of Fox Sports, that things are hunky-dory behind closed doors.

"I think for us, it’s about continuing to build our team, our trust, and making sure that everybody in our locker room is on the same page and ignoring outside voices," said Paul.

Added Rivers: "I just think we’re in a good place as a group."

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

That doesn't mean these Clippers haven't had their ups and downs in the locker room, along with those they've experienced on the court. But the core of this club has been together for too long, with too much at stake, to let little squabbles and mistakes sink yet another promising season.

"As a team, as a player, you don’t know how many opportunities you have to win championships," Redick said. "You don’t know how long your window is open. To have those chances squandered essentially is very frustrating."

Those familiar frustrations figure to fuel the same fire that's been lit under this squad since the end of the last lockout. So does the scare of seeing Jordan nearly join the Dallas Mavericks, before the then-26-year-old changed his mind during the league-mandated moratorium.

"I don’t think we take anything for granted," Griffin insisted. "We all understand that we’re in a great position. I’m in a great position to be able to play with guys like these two."

Not to mention all of the other skilled veterans due to fill Doc's depth chart.

"This is clearly the most talent that we’ve had since I’ve been here," said Rivers. "I don’t even think it’s close."

There's plenty of work to do between now and opening night on Oct. 28—not to mention before mid-June—for Rivers and company to turn their impressive ingredients into a dish befitting Larry O'Brien.

PLAYA VISTA, CA - SEPTEMBER 25:  Chris Paul #3, Blake Griffin #32 and DeAndre Jordan #6 of the Los Angeles Clippers talk to the media during media day at the Los Angeles Clippers Training Center on September 25, 2015 in Playa Vista, California. NOTE TO US
Michael Bernstein/Getty Images

Rivers expects Jordan to occupy an even bigger role this season next to Paul and Griffin. Pierce, Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith are all capable playmakers now squeezed next to others of that ilk, including Crawford and Austin Rivers. How will one ball and a limited supply of playing time keep all of those guys happy and humming along?

Answered Doc, "They’ll figure it out, or we won’t be any good."

Yet to be determined, too, is what this team's overarching identity will be. Strategically speaking, there will always be plenty of pick-and-roll in L.A.'s diet so long as Paul, Griffin and Jordan are around to feed it.

Defense will need to be the cream to the Clippers' bread and butter if they're to dig deep into the postseason calendar. To their credit, the Clippers were a top-10 outfit on that end after the All-Star break last season, per NBA.com.

A newfound emphasis on versatility and small ball, with Smith sliding to the 5 in certain lineups, could tilt the balance between scoreboard-busting offense and shutdown defense. How the Clippers' situation on the wing shakes out—with Pierce, Stephenson and Wesley Johnson all in the mix for major minutes—will shape the team's style from moment to moment, quarter to quarter and game to game.

But, in Rivers' mind, it'll be up to the players to determine their identity as a unit through a monthlong preseason and a grueling 82-game schedule to follow.

"I think the team tells you that more than the coach," said Rivers.

PLAYA VISTA, CA - SEPTEMBER 25:  Paul Pierce #34 and Doc Rivers of the Los Angeles Clippers pose for a portrait during media day at the Los Angeles Clippers Training Center on September 25, 2015 in Playa Vista, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly ack
Michael Bernstein/Getty Images

The same goes for the collective personality of this group. Matt Barnes, once the backbone of L.A.'s heel-heavy bunch, will now bring his brand of bellicosity to bear on the Memphis Grizzlies

The Clippers, though, won't be without capable replacements. Pierce, in particular, could help the team hang on to its mean streak, if not enhance it.

"Sometimes, some teams just need a personality adjustment," he explained. "I can help in that department. I think the guys we picked up can really help in that department. I think to win in this league, you’ve got to have a certain nastiness to you, a certain attitude."

The Clippers will need all the nastiness they can muster if they're to survive the scrum out West. Each of their tormentors from the past four seasons (i.e. the San Antonio Spurs, Memphis Grizzlies, Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets) has improved itself as much as, if not more than, the Clippers have since the end of last season.

Meanwhile, the Golden State Warriors, the most recent champions and L.A.'s archnemeses, could be even better in 2015-16 as their young players continue to grow, both individually and collectively, in year two under head coach Steve Kerr.

In the big picture, many of the questions facing the Clippers are the same ones that have plagued them for some time.

Can Paul finally lead a team to the conference finals? Are Griffin and Jordan ready to dominate consistently on both ends? Who's holding the fort on the wing? How will their second unit function, beyond Crawford's isos? Does Rivers have what it takes to lead the league's traditionally least successful franchise to the very top of the mountain?

The Clippers are equipped to come up with better answers this time around. Whether they do will determine how much this team is able to break from its recent failures and bring home the only hardware that matters.

All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.