Can Davis lead the Clippers?
LOS ANGELES -- Baron Davis sits in front of his locker, soaking his feet in a bucket of ice and looking at the crowd across the room. Hidden behind the mass of reporters and cameramen is Blake Griffin.
The scene actually makes Davis smile as he watches Griffin being asked about the prospect of the Clippers finally changing their losing ways.
Two years ago, it was Davis who was the center of attention. Two years ago, he was the Clippers' prized addition, the one who would turn around the team's fortunes.
Back then, Davis expected to join Elton Brand in rekindling the playoff magic the Clippers had experienced two years earlier when they fell one win short of reaching the Western Conference finals. But Brand ended up signing with the Philadelphia 76ers and Davis wound up on a team that seemed directionless.
His frustration off the court with management and the coaching staff showed in his performance on the court. Davis' first two campaigns with the Clippers have resulted in two of his worst seasons as a professional.
"To come here in the prime of your career and not have the results I was used to having in my previous years was very frustrating for me," Davis said. "It was really discouraging. It was something I had to work out from a mental aspect and stay as focused as I possibly could on getting the team better, and it just never seemed to turn around."
Davis went from being one of the top point guards in the NBA and a playoff catalyst for the upstart Golden State Warriors to a player who was viewed as disengaged and often unproductive on the Clippers. This was far from the storybook script he had in mind when he returned home to Los Angeles two years ago after signing a five-year $65 million contract.
"It comes down to how committed he is to his teammates and how much he believes in them," said Clippers GM Neil Olshey, who has known Davis for 15 years. "He had a group in Golden State he didn't believe in at the beginning, they made some changes, and he really bought into that group of guys and he took over. I'm not so sure he was totally invested in our roster composition the past two years because it wasn't what he anticipated having with him when he came here. It was an adjustment phase."
In the early going this season, Davis seems to be more committed to his Clippers team than he was the past two years. His relationship with Vinny Del Negro, who he actually played against as a rookie, is light years ahead of the one he had with former coach Mike Dunleavy, and Davis is more engaged with his teammates. His old locker, which was once separated from the rest of the team, is now in the mix with the rest of his teammates.
"It's a different atmosphere and system and team, and it feels like more of a family atmosphere; the way an NBA franchise should be with the players, coaches and management working together," Davis said. "We're all in the same boat looking to accomplish the same things."
That may be the case, but so far this season, the results for the 0-3 Clippers are the same as they ever were. For all the talk of Blake Griffin's debut and the maturation of Eric Gordon, the Clippers are going to need Davis, 31, to rekindle the magic he had when he was with the Warriors if they are to have any hope of the postseason.
Davis didn't score until midway through the third quarter of the Clippers' 99-83 loss to the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday. He finished with 9 points on 2-of-9 shooting, hitting 1-of-6 from beyond the arc. The poor performance has been on par with how he has performed so far this season, and he's not alone as he looks around the locker room.
"I think as a collective unit, if we're going to be the team that we want to be, we have to collectively mature," Davis said. "We have to mature as a team. It's not on one person. Right now, it's a test to our character and how fast we can grow. Our game plan works. What we're being taught in practice works. We just have to mature. Talent is good to have, but it can also be a scary thing. We have to have the brains with it. Once we're able to do that and understand that this is a mental game as much as it is physical game, then we'll start to run off wins."
Davis wasn't alone in his assessment of the team. Gordon, who has become more outspoken since returning from his gold-medal run with Team USA this summer, sounded even more disgusted with the way the Clippers have played through the first three games of the season.
"It's very frustrating to be where we are right now," he said. "We could beat these teams we're playing against, but we're beating ourselves. I know how to win. This summer taught me how to win. We have so much talent on this team, but we need to be smarter. We beat ourselves in every game. I felt Portland was the only game where we all worked hard as a team. We can beat these teams we're playing but we're playing terrible."
As much potential as Gordon and Griffin have shown, the key to the Clippers' unlocking their potential may ultimately lie with Davis' ability to dig deep, and to lead. And with the Clippers playing five games against playoff teams in seven days this week, it will need to happen sooner rather than later.
"Baron's frustrated, like everybody, but no one is going to feel sorry for you in this league," Del Negro said. "You have to find a way to handle the adversity and find a way to get better from film, practice and having the right work ethic. Baron wants to do his part in there, but right now he's not playing at the level we want him to and he knows that and that's the frustration. I expect him to grind it out and he's got to be one of our catalysts."
Before Davis left Staples Center on Sunday, he knocked on Del Negro's office door to chat with his head coach. When Del Negro opened it up he smiled and told Davis to come in. "I'm just trying to figure out the world," he said.
Considering the history of the team Del Negro coaches, that may actually be an easier task for him than figuring out how to finally make the Clippers a winner.
Arash Markazi is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ArashMarkazi