LOS ANGELES -- This was supposed to be the summer where Chris Paul and Blake Griffin took their relationship on the court to the next level.
It was supposed to be a time where a lockout-shortened season together, devoid of a training camp and ample practices, blossomed into something far more refined across the pond in London.
Those dreams, as many dreams do, died in Las Vegas last month and now the Los Angeles Clippers must hope something greater didn’t perish with it as well.
The central theme of nearly every news conference and interview Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro did last season was that “you can’t cheat the process.” His point was the Clippers were a collection of mostly new players, thrown together less than a month before the season without any significant practice time, and to expect them to suddenly play as if they’d been playing together forever would be, well, cheating the process.
Part of that process, perhaps, was getting swept out of the second round of the playoffs by a far more experienced San Antonio Spurs team, with a core group that has been playing together for a decade.
The next step of that process, however, was going to be the summer Griffin and Paul were supposed to have with Team USA. They were going to train in Las Vegas; play exhibition games in Washington, Manchester and Barcelona; and bring home the gold medal from London.
Those plans, at least for Griffin, were derailed when he suffered a medial meniscus tear in his left knee during a scrimmage at Team USA training camp that required arthroscopic surgery. After being selected to be on the team, Griffin was forced to sit out and watch the games from home.
Paul injured his right thumb during the first practice at Team USA training camp but decided to play through injury during the Olympics anyway. He underwent successful surgery Tuesday to repair a torn ligament in his right thumb.
While Griffin is expected to be back for the start of training camp in October, Paul’s injury is expected to sideline him until the team’s season opener on Oct. 31 against the Memphis Grizzlies.
To make matters worse, Chauncey Billups, who is still recovering from the torn Achilles tendon he suffered in February, isn’t expected to return to the court until November, while Lamar Odom, who hasn’t played in an NBA game since April 7, has been spending most of the summer trying to get back into basketball shape. Both Billups and Odom were also on the Team USA roster before having to pull their names from consideration.
So, if you’re keeping track at home, the Clippers’ starting backcourt of Paul and Billups will miss all of training camp and the preseason while Griffin and Odom will be brought along slowly once camp begins. That’s four of their top six players who could have been working together this summer but might not all see the court at the same time until November.
In many ways the Clippers are right back to where they were a year ago, trying to cheat the process once the season starts after being deprived of a summer together.
Much like relationships, there is no better way to fast-forward on-court chemistry than an extended trip overseas. As much as international basketball has been a thorn in the sides of some NBA team owners, there’s no question it has helped players and tandems on the rise take that next step.
Look at Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook after their run during the 2010 FIBA World Championship. They went from future stars and being eliminated in the first round of the playoffs to All-Stars and in the Western Conference finals. Other players on that team enjoyed success following their time in Istanbul. Derrick Rose went on to win the NBA MVP and lead the Chicago Bulls to the best record in the league, Kevin Love averaged over 20 points and 15 rebounds and was named to his first All-Star team, and Odom won the NBA Sixth Man of the Year award.
For those players, their summer experience was, as Del Negro says, “part of the process.” It’s a process that Griffin was not able to experience and one that Paul was not able to experience with Griffin, and now it will be eight weeks before they can get back on the court together.
As important as the process might be, it will be up to Griffin, Paul, Billups and the six new additions to the team to once again speed up that process when the season begins and perhaps even cheat the process altogether if they want to get past the second round of the playoffs next year.