MIAMI -- For most teams, seeing all the players on your roster wearing their uniforms and going through practice is commonplace. For the Los Angeles Clippers, it’s a sight they hadn’t seen until Thursday afternoon at the AmericanAirlines Arena.
“It’s kind of weird to have everybody out there,” said Blake Griffin, who practiced for the first time Thursday since missing the past two games with a strained hamstring. “It’s nice to have a full team. It’ll be nicer to run out [of] the locker room and do layups and you don’t have to get a layup every 10 seconds.”
Griffin was only half-joking about the layups. After all, the Clippers only suited up nine players Wednesday night when they beat the Orlando Magic, 86-76. It was a small enough number that Lamar Odom asked his eight teammates in uniform to join him at midcourt for the pregame handshake with officials normally reserved for team captains.
But it looks like the Clippers’ entire roster will be fully healthy this week for the first time this season. Griffin returned to practice along with Chris Paul, Chauncey Billups and Jamal Crawford, and all four could be in uniform for Friday’s game against the Miami Heat.
“It took all the way until February,” Billups said as he soaked his feet in ice after practice. “That’s crazy, but it felt good for everybody to be out there and competing and getting those juices going against one another. That was fun. I loved it.”
The question now is how good can this Clippers team be at full strength? Without Billups and Grant Hill for much of the first half of the season, the Clippers jumped out to a 32-9 record, which was tied for the best record in the NBA.
After injuries to Paul, Griffin and Crawford, the Clippers lost 7 of 9 games and looked to be slipping back to the pack. But if the Clippers can finish their road trip with wins over Miami, New York and Philadelphia -- and, more importantly, return to Los Angeles at full strength -- they might be ready to reclaim their spot atop the NBA. Or at the very least be back in that conversation.
“I think we all kind of know how good we could be,” Billups said. “We also know we have to be a little lucky with our health. We know for the potential of the team it will be good to get guys finally out there on the court and start working towards that goal.”
The biggest difference when the Clippers are at full strength is their starting backcourt will once again consist of Paul and Billups, who teamed up for the first time last year when the Clippers were considered championship contenders before Billups was lost for the season last February with a ruptured Achilles tendon. Since then, Billups and Paul have played only three games together, and have actually spent more time together on the bench, wearing suits and critiquing games from a distance.
“It’s been miserable, to be honest with you, to have him over there with me,” Billups said of the 12 games this season he has sat next to Paul on the bench for games. “Unfortunately, I’ve gotten used to being over there alone, but it’s given us a chance to watch the game from a different perspective together. We’re over there watching the game together and I’m telling him what I see and he’s telling me what he sees, and we talk to each other and we just see the game differently. It’s given us a chance to take that step back together.”
When Paul and Billups return, it will also allow Eric Bledsoe to take a step back after filling in as a starter and going 6-6 so far in place of Paul. Bledsoe has played well -- albeit inconsistently -- in Paul’s absence, averaging about 15 points and 5 assists, but is clearly not ready to be a full-time starter quite yet. Like most 23-year-old point guards, he has good days and bad days, which is fine -- but not for a team trying to win a championship.
“He’s done great,” Billups said of Bledsoe. “He’s had some games where he hasn’t produced great numbers, but that’s going to happen with a young guy who’s in a tough situation. His good days are going to far overlook his subpar days. Once he starts to minimize those subpar days, he’s going to be ready.”
Bledsoe will have no problem going back to the second unit and being the point guard of “A Tribe Called Bench." The biggest adjustment will be for Willie Green, who will likely go from being a starter all season to being inactive, as he was during Billups’ three games this season. Ryan Hollins, who had 13 points and 8 rebounds on Wednesday in Orlando, will also likely not see much time at the end of the bench.
“For the most part, most of our guys have played together,” Griffin said. “Chauncey is the type of player where it’s not going to take him much to really jell, and for us to understand what he’s about. He makes the game easy on the rest of us, but a month from now we can’t be adjusting because we haven’t had everybody. It should move a lot faster than that.”
As Griffin sat courtside at the end of the practice and watched the Clippers go through a scrimmage, a smile crept over his face as he finally watched the entire team come together for the first time.
“I was sitting there watching when they went five-on-five and it was kind of nice,” Griffin said. “You got Chauncey Billups, Chris Paul, Jamal Crawford, Caron Butler and DJ [DeAndre Jordan] out there, and that’s just one starting group. It’s what we’ve talked about from the beginning. It’s refreshing and I guess relaxing to have all those guys out there.”