When the Minnesota Timberwolves were pursuing free agent J.J. Redick this summer, the then-Magic guard had a question for coach Rick Adelman: Would he start?
After seven years and nearly 600 made 3-pointers, Redick felt entitled to control his destiny to an extent. He had just been traded in-season to the Bucks, a listing team that sort-of-accidentally made the playoffs as the eighth seed, and he wanted to be sure his next situation was a beneficial one.
He had already swapped the warmth of Orlando for the cold of Wisconsin; he wasn’t about the be cold and come off the bench to boot. But when the Magic and Clippers started talking about a multi-team sign-and-trade, Redick never posed the question to Doc Rivers that he had to Adelman.
“I really didn’t care,” Redick told reporters early in training camp. “I just figured that if they were going to go after me in free agency, if they were going to make a trade like that, I was going to play. And that was what was important to me, not necessarily being penciled in as ‘the two-guard.’ It’s great if it happens. It’s great if that’s what it ends up being for the year. But that’s not a huge priority.”
Redick’s attitude captures why this year’s Clippers have to be taken seriously as Western Conference contenders. More than the addition of Rivers, more than the high hopes placed on DeAndre Jordan and almost as important as the re-signing of Chris Paul, the amount of depth and the unselfish ethos being expressed by the members of the team may be unprecedented in Clippers history.
From Redick and Darren Collison to Jared Dudley and Antawn Jamison, the Clippers are stacked with role players who are still pretty darn good, but who have relaxed their demands for playing time and money. Redick is Rivers’ new Ray Allen, moving without the ball and hitting unthinkable shots off screens with his uncanny balance. Collison is one of the league’s best backup scoring point guards. Dudley defends and hits 3-pointers, the two most important skills for a two-dimensional player to have. Jamison is still a tricky scorer at 37 years old, even if his defense is nonexistent.
When talk of the Clippers’ offseason improvements come up, additions like those are overlooked. Yes, Rivers brings legitimacy to the bench that Vinny Del Negro never could and Jordan is the single biggest factor in determining whether the Clippers are truly a contender for the league’s upper stratosphere with Miami, Oklahoma City and San Antonio. But the shift from strong team to world-beater does not happen on talent alone. It comes with a roster-wide acceptance of each person’s role.
For the Clippers, that acceptance stemmed from Paul’s signing. Without the best point guard and one of the best leaders in the NBA, none of those super-role players would have even taken the Clippers’ call. Rivers wouldn’t have gone unless he was sure Paul was staying. Dudley would have been perfectly happy to keep on losing in Phoenix, rather than relocate just to lose in L.A. Collison could have found some suitor willing to offer a starting spot to a durable point guard with career averages of 12.1 points and 5.2 assists per game. Redick would have found a way to stay content with Ricky Rubio flinging him behind-the-back passes and Kevin Love kicking it to him out of double-teams.
Just one season removed from the Lakers’ epic breakdown, everyone should be careful of calling a team a title contender simply because of its star-studded roster. Make no mistake, Paul is the catalyst, Rivers the fulcrum and Jordan the dice roll, but not even Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant could get a top-four seed dragging Robert Sacre up and down the court. More importantly than the personnel, the culture was not right. When Nash and Bryant got hurt, there seemed to be little confidence within the team that the next man up could do the job.
The Clippers are already instilling that confidence in each other, and the regular season has not even started. A rash of injuries this preseason to Blake Griffin, Matt Barnes and others has not done anything to shake the team’s confidence.
“If any coach expects everyone to be healthy through camp and is not prepared when you have injuries, then you’re going to have problems,” Rivers told reporters. “This is how the season is, too. In a perfect world, I would love for everybody to be healthy so we can get everything in. But we live in an imperfect world and so we have to make adjustments and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
For all the changes, the Clippers are still the Clippers. That cursed jersey has had a destructive effect on lots of good players and promising teams, so until the real games begin and they prove otherwise, the Clippers will and should be viewed with some skepticism.
Without question, though, they appear to be a serious player on paper for a spot in the conference finals. Rivers drew the headlines and Jordan is receiving the bulk of the attention, but for perhaps the first time in franchise history, the Clippers look and sound like a championship club. That started with Paul and has been continued by guys like Redick, who didn’t want to know what part they would play in the movement — they were just happy to have a part in it at all.