Clippers attempt to change culture
No more out-of-shape athletes coming to camp for new-look Los Angeles
PLAYA VISTA, Calif. -- There was a time, not so long ago actually, that the Los Angeles Clippers could only hope they'd see one of their top offseason acquisitions at media day on the eve of training camp.
That's right, hope.
I'd name the player, but frankly it wasn't just one guy that season who disappeared in the months after his introductory press conference only to lethargically resurface at media day and then proceed to miss large chunks of training camp with nagging injuries related to poor conditioning over the summer.
The point is, that year, and in many of their star-crossed years, the Clippers began the year at a deficit. Then-coach Mike Dunleavy would complain after practice, privately and publicly, about a lack of commitment and professionalism. Players would show up to training camp hoping to work into shape, instead of working into a rhythm as a team.
"That was always part of the issue, we'd spend so much time on things that had nothing to do with winning basketball games, that you were completely depleted when it came to game plan preparation, effort on the court and motivation, because all your time was spent managing issues," general manager Neil Olshey said on a recent morning at the team's training complex.
"I don't want to talk about individual players. But it permeated the entire culture when it was one or two guys [not showing up in shape], because then it's OK to not practice or it's OK not to win. Losing is acceptable all of a sudden."
It was, quite possibly, one of the most honest statements I've heard from a member of the Clippers organization. But maybe that kind of brutal honesty is exactly what the Clippers need if they are ever going to reshape the culture of losing that has hung over the franchise for too many years.
Olshey has been part of the Clippers' front office for seven years, but this is the first time he has been the man in the first pilot's chair.
This team is his creation. And he spoke candidly about his blueprints for the team and vision for the franchise in a wide-ranging interview with ESPNLosAngeles.com.
"Obviously we created all the cap room to go after a guy like LeBron [James]," Olshey said. "But our goal behind going after a guy like LeBron was to change the culture, and to change the culture by bringing in the right people.
"This is the byproduct of that. Instead of having to fight and scratch and claw to get guys here, where it used to be we'd have guys showing up for the first time on media day, these guys are here because they want to be here."
As Olshey spoke, nearly the entire Clippers roster was on the court warming up for the day's full-court pick-up game.
The only regular player who wasn't in attendance was shooting guard Eric Gordon, who was taking a break after winning a gold medal with Team USA at the FIBA World Championship in Turkey.
"Blake [Griffin] has been here the whole summer. The draft picks came right after [Tim] Grgurich's camp, Eric [Gordon] had another obligation with the U.S. team, BD's [Baron Davis] been here since the week before Labor Day, Randy Foye and Ryan Gomes came in from the East Coast. They could've waited until media day, but they knew the rest of the team was here and they wanted to come out early and be a part of it.
"So instead of spending training camp getting guys in the kind of shape they should've been in, these guys will all have banged out [coach Vinny Del Negro's] conditioning test before camp even starts. We start camp now and we're straight into basketball. We're not worrying about, Who is in shape? Who isn't? Who's late? Or who gets some nagging injury?
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"It's a long-term process, but I think we've started to create a culture of character and commitment, which is what Vinny and I have talked about since the interview process."
I've been around the Clippers regularly for the past four seasons and I've heard a number of optimistic sentiments in late September and early October that have faded by the holidays.
Is this year different? I have no idea and it's probably not wise to prognosticate any further than the start of training camp Sept. 28.
If God laughs at the plans of ordinary people, by now he's written a hit sitcom comedy on the Clippers.
I can only say what I observed the other day at the Clippers' training facility.
By 7:30 in the morning a half-dozen young players -- Griffin, first-round draft picks Al-Farouq Aminu and Eric Bledsoe, second-round pick Willie Warren, free-agent signee Marqus Blakely and third-year center DeAndre Jordan -- were all arriving for individual work with strength and conditioning coach Richard Williams.
Around 10 a.m., free agent point guard Earl Watson showed up to play in the pick-up game, which was being watched by the Clippers' brass and Jazz general manager Kevin O'Connor.
And all of this is voluntary.
"That's the way it's got to be when you have a young team like we have," Del Negro said. "I think it's important to get everybody together as soon as possible.
"It's the culture and atmosphere that I think is important, especially with some of the injuries we've had the last couple years. It really is just about putting your time in every day and being a professional."
Will it be enough to change a culture of losing that has hung over the franchise for three decades?
All I can tell you is what I observed the other day: A good start.
Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.