Clippers build unmatched locker room

LOS ANGELES -- Chauncey Billups stood on the Los Angeles Clippers' practice floor Monday afternoon, smiling at how much had changed over the past seven months.

Back in December, when the New York Knicks waived Billups under the NBA’s amnesty clause, he was furious that the Clippers had claimed him. He wanted to decide where he would finish his career and the Clippers were probably the last team he wanted to be on after everything he had heard about the organization during his 15-year career.

“All I knew before I came in through amnesty was the reputation that the Clippers once had,” Billups said. “It was something that I didn’t really want to be a part of at the time. But me being here, being able to meet the people here and seeing how they do business here and how they treat the players and how the team is received in the public here, it’s just different.”

Last week, Billups, who had the opportunity to sign elsewhere as a free agent, decided to re-sign with the Clippers. It is the continuation of a surprising trend that started a year ago when Caron Butler left the Dallas Mavericks following their championship run as a free agent to sign with the Clippers, Chris Paul opted into another year on his deal in order to be traded to the Clippers and Blake Griffin re-upped with the team for the next five years.

This offseason, Lamar Odom sang the praises of the franchise after being traded back to the Clippers, the team that drafted him in 1999, Jamal Crawford signed as a free agent despite having no shortage of other suitors and in perhaps the most surprising move, Grant Hill spurned interest from the Los Angeles Lakers (and his friend Steve Nash) and the New York Knicks to join the Clippers on Tuesday.

Suddenly, the Clippers have become a destination franchise and in the process have built one of the deepest, most talented teams in the league going into next season.

“It’s two whole different worlds in not a lot of time,” Billups said. “I see something special with what we have.”

Not only have the Clippers built a talented team, but their locker room, which two seasons ago was filled with young, inexperienced players, is now probably unmatched character-wise, offering the perfect mix of veteran leadership and youthful athleticism.

While Odom is in the midst of repairing his fractured image following a forgettable stint in Dallas last season, he was still the heart and soul of the Lakers when they won back-to-back championships in 2009 and 2010. He was the player in the center of the huddle before games as the entire team circled around him and jumped around. He was so integral to the team’s success that Phil Jackson personally lobbied Lakers owner Jerry Buss to re-sign him when it looked like he would let him walk.

No one knows Odom’s leadership skills better than Billups, who saw it firsthand during the 2010 FIBA World Championships in Turkey when Billups and Odom co-captained a young Team USA to the gold medal.

"I'm very excited about getting Lamar here,” Billups said. “I had a chance to play with him a couple of years ago in the World Championships, and have a greater appreciation for him as a teammate, a leader and a veteran. What he can bring will really help this team.”

Billups’ leadership skills were on full display with the Clippers last season as he was a coach on the floor before being forced to be a coach on the sideline after rupturing his Achilles tendon. He was such an instrumental figure in the Clippers’ locker room that the team continued to hang his uniform up before every game, home and away, in his absence and each player on the team called him regularly for advice.

In fact, when Griffin was forced to miss the Olympics this summer following knee surgery on Monday, one of the first players he called was Billups, who was also forced to miss the Summer Games following his injury.

Add to the mix Butler and now Hill, two of the most respected players in the league with war stories on and off the court that are unmatched, and it would be hard to find another locker room in the NBA you’d rather be a part of.

"I think we got better on the court and off the court as well,” Billups said. “I'm excited about the moves."