Clippers return focus to team post-Sterling

Beth Harris - The Philippine Star

LOS ANGELES -- Doc Rivers loves nothing more than talking basketball. And with the scandal involving former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling beginning to fade into the background, Rivers welcomes returning the focus squarely to the team and its performance.

''We're going to talk about basketball and that's very nice,'' he said Monday. ''Last season during the playoffs there were very few questions about basketball.''

The courtroom drama over the team's ownership subsided earlier this summer, with Sterling ousted after 33 years after being banned for life by the NBA for racist remarks, and Steve Ballmer plunking down a record $2 billion to buy the franchise.

''It's been a long summer,'' guard Chris Paul said. ''A lot of interesting things happened.''

Fellow All-Star Blake Griffin added, ''All the new changes have been positive and given us new life.''

Already different is Rivers' burgeoning relationship with ownership. He almost never spoke to Sterling. In contrast, he chats frequently by phone with Ballmer, the former Microsoft CEO who lives in Seattle.

''It's been really good,'' Rivers said. ''He's given me a lot of room. He's allowed us to do basically anything we wanted within reason.''

Rivers hired three new assistants: former NBA head coaches Mike Woodson and Lawrence Frank, and 15-year league veteran Sam Cassell.

Ballmer's first big move, giving Rivers a five-year contract extension through the 2018-19 season, was a hit with the players.

''It's stability moving forward,'' Griffin said. ''It shows he's committed to making the right moves to try to win a championship. That was a very smart move on his part.''

Ballmer made a quick first impression on 7-footer DeAndre Jordan.

''The first time I met him he bought me dinner, so I liked him a lot,'' he joked.

The Clippers open training camp in Las Vegas on Tuesday knowing more of what to expect from Rivers' system than they did a year ago when he was new.

''It'll be a more productive training camp,'' said Paul, who enters his fourth season together with Griffin and Jordan, the team's Big Three who set the tone on and off the court. ''Doc talked to us about let's not have any bad days.''

The Clippers had the best record in franchise history at 57-25 and won a second straight Pacific Division title last season. But they again failed to get past the second round of the playoffs, losing to Oklahoma City as the Sterling controversy exploded near the start of the playoffs.

Rivers credited his team for not using it as an excuse for why it lost.

''Our guys did a great job not being part of the story,'' he said.

Rivers was a stabilizing force for the franchise during the upheaval created by Sterling, who prolonged the ownership battle with a series of court filings before a judge upheld the team's sale to Ballmer.

''We're a resilient group,'' said Jamal Crawford, who won the league's Sixth Man of the Year award last season. ''We showed a lot of character and heart.''

Jordan insisted the team didn't need discord to rally around each other.

''We've always been close,'' he said. ''We were as tight as we were today three years ago.''

Despite the off-court tumult, the Clippers kept their core group together, including Matt Barnes, recent first-time father J.J. Redick, and Glen Davis. They added 7-footer Spencer Hawes to complement Jordan, re-signed Hedo Turkoglu and replaced the departed Darren Collison with another former UCLA star, Jordan Farmar.

''We have a real opportunity to do something special,'' said Farmar, who left the downtrodden Lakers.

Barnes, who turns 35 in March, is especially eager to atone for the last couple of early playoff exits. He reports to camp at 210 pounds, a number he hasn't seen since high school.

Barnes said Sterling had the team heading in the right direction the last three years, presumably with Rivers' hiring and the addition of Paul. But he credits Ballmer's arrival as rejuvenating for the team and the city.

''His face gets all red and his hands get all sweaty,'' Barnes said. ''You don't see that every day. I love that and it gives me chills to think about it.

''It's our time to shine.''

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