The Los Angeles Clippers get a head start on most of the rest of the league this season, opening training camp a few days early in order to prepare for / compensate for their exhibition trip to China. So while most of the league won't start practicing Tuesday, the Clippers were in the gym in Playa Vista going at it bright and early Saturday.
Now, it's not like the Clippers allow us to watch their practices; that's not what teams do. Towards the end of practice the doors are opened and about all the media gets to see is some wind down stretching and some free throws before some of the players and coach Vinny Del Negro are made available for questions. Then again, free throws are of particular interest with this team, but more on that later.
With 15 players on season contracts and five more in the gym on training camp contracts, the Clippers had 20 bodies to work with today, though not all of them are cleared for full contact yet. The first thing I noticed was the guys wearing blue (i.e. the unit working together as the starters in practice). There were eight players in blue at the end of practice: Chris Paul, Chauncey Billups, Eric Bledsoe, Jamal Crawford, Caron Butler, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Trey Thompkins. Now Thompkins may seem a bit out of place there, but bear in mind that he's not yet cleared for contact after suffering a bone bruise in Las Vegas at summer league. With Billups and Paul likewise restricted from full contact at this point, the five that were running together in contact scrimmages were Bledsoe, Crawford, Butler, Griffin and Jordan.
I asked Del Negro later if he was planning to start Crawford until Billups is back, or if he'd prefer to keep Crawford in his now familiar sixth man role, as VDN did with Mo Williams last year with Billups out. Recognizing that it's early and there's a lot of time left to decide, the coach said he could see either scenario -- he could start Crawford or Willie Green or possibly even Grant Hill or Matt Barnes. If I had to guess at this point (and I'm betting here that Billups will not be back to start the season) I'd say that Green will start at the two and Crawford will come off the bench, reprising the role that won him the NBA's Sixth Man Award three seasons ago in Atlanta.
During the extra free throw shooting, Griffin and Jordan headed to one of the hoops with new shooting coach Bob Thate. Griffin's form is markedly different with the visible hitch in his motion eliminated and much more arc on the ball. Of course, Griffin's biggest foul line issues were in his head last season, and he may still have some work to do there but getting the mechanics right is a good start.
Jordan's mechanics were never that bad -- he was just plain inaccurate. Thate has his weight back more and once again has him putting more air under the ball. He seemed very comfortable at the line and had a slew of swishes while I was watching.
The question of arc on a shot is one that physicists could debate endlessly. The higher trajectory gives the ball a bigger margin of error for getting through the hoop as it descends. However, the ball also has to cover more distance as it ascends and descends, which introduces more room for error on the journey. So is a longer journey to a bigger target better than a shorter journey to a smaller target or vice versa? Thate seems to be a fan of the bigger target.
Chris Paul said that Eric Bledsoe had been the best player on the court during informal off-season scrimmages. Bledsoe of course had a major impact in last year's playoffs after returning from knee surgery. Bledsoe will likely get plenty of opportunity to earn a major role in the rotation early in the season while Billups continues to heal and round into shape. On a team that now has a decidedly veteran air, particularly on the perimeter, Bledsoe may be a necessary injection of youth and athleticism in the backcourt.
The depth of the team is an ongoing theme. When asked what he noticed after his first practice Lamar Odom did not hesitate: "Depth." The veteran nature of the new faces may help them integrate quickly. Odom, Hill, Crawford, Green, Turiaf and Barnes have all been around the league for awhile and have all played for multiple teams. Odds are there aren't any plays in VDN's playbook they haven't seen before, and Odom said he felt comfortable on the floor with the likes of Hill, Barnes and Turiaf from the get-go (of course he played with Turiaf and Barnes with the Lakers, so that helps as well).