LOS ANGELES -- Blake Griffin and the rest of the Los Angeles Clippers returned to their Playa Vista training facility together for the first time since April and greeted the newest member of the team, free agent Caron Butler, who is back in familiar territory.
The nine-year veteran signed a three-year, $24 million contract on Friday, the first day that teams were allowed to sign free agents.
His arrival gives the Clippers a much-needed boost at the small forward position, where they got less than adequate production last season from inexperienced youngsters Al-Farouq Aminu and Ryan Gomes.
"We thought Caron would be a great fit for us, from the perfect positional need, and from a character and leadership standpoint. That's what these young guys need," general manager and vice president of basketball operations Neil Olshey said following the team's workout.
The opening of camp did not come without some troublesome news. Backup guard Eric Bledsoe, who turned 22 Friday, underwent surgery on his right knee in Birmingham, Ala. on Oct. 7. The team could not announce it while the lockout was going on.
Butler, a two-time All-Star with Washington, spent last season with the champion Dallas Mavericks, averaging 15 points and 30 minutes while shooting 45 percent from the field and 43.1 percent from 3-point range.
But he was limited to just 29 games after rupturing a tendon in his right knee on New Year's Day at Milwaukee. He was the Mavs' second-leading scorer at the time of his injury, and his teammates dedicated their postseason to him while he continued his rehab from surgery.
Butler, who turns 32 in March, will be playing for his sixth NBA club. He is the latest addition to an eclectic and nostalgic list of recycled ex-Lakers who went on to play for L.A.'s other team -- among them Norm Nixon, Jamaal Wilkes, Mike Smrek, Tony Brown, Sean Rooks, Glen Rice, Doug Christie, Von Wafer, Smush Parker, Ruben Patterson, Kareem Rush and Brian Cook.
"It feels good being back in L.A., just because of the town and the fact that there's so much going on out here. But it just feels good being back on the court and playing competitive basketball against professionals," Butler said. "It was a humbling experience last year with the injury and everything, so getting back on the court is special."
The Miami Heat tabbed Butler with the 10th overall pick in the 2002 draft, and he spent his first two NBA seasons there before joining the Lakers with Lamar Odom in a blockbuster deal that brought Shaquille O'Neal to Miami.
The Clippers will play a pair of preseason games against the Lakers next week before opening on Christmas night, on the road against the Golden State Warriors. The last lockout-shortened season was 1988-89, when the schedule was pared to 50 games and the Clippers started out 0-17 under new coach Chris Ford before finishing 9-41.
"I'm very relieved," Griffin said about the end of the 149-day lockout. "Obviously we didn't want to be locked out. We wanted to play. So to be back out there was great. But at the same time, we've got a lot of work to catch up on and a lot of ground to cover.
"The toughest part is the quick turnaround (into the regular season), and not having a lot of time to prepare before they actually count. But the only good thing about it is that every team has to do the same thing. So we're not in a position that anybody else isn't."
The Clippers open their home schedule on Dec. 30 against the Chicago Bulls, with whom Butler spoke on Monday before committing to owner Donald Sterling's team. So instead of teaming up with the NBA's reigning MVP (Derrick Rose), Butler will be fast-breaking with last season's rookie of the year (Griffin) and taking cues from former Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro.
The Clippers, who are still under the $58 million salary cap limit, have made the playoffs only four times in their 27 seasons since moving from San Diego to Los Angeles, and just once in the past 14 years. They staggered through an injury-riddled 2010-11 season, Del Negro's first with the organization, and reached the 50-loss mark for the fourth straight time.
But Griffin, Eric Gordon, Mo Williams and DeAndre Jordan -- and now Butler -- comprise an energetic and athletic nucleus of talent that gives this beleaguered franchise a legitimate reason to expect better days ahead.
"I want to go to the playoffs and compete, and I wouldn't have come here if I didn't think this team had a realistic shot of playing winning basketball," Butler said. "We've got a great young nucleus with and a mix of veteran guys, and we're going to compete and continue to get better and better night in and night out."
That will depend on whether everyone stays healthy -- particularly enigmatic center Chris Kaman, who is in the final season of a five-year, $52.5 million contract extension he signed in October 2006.
"He had injuries last year, and you can't get production when he's on the sidelines," Del Negro said. "So he needs to be on the court and play well for us -- play big and be a great complement to Blake and the rest of the guys. Eric Gordon also missed a lot last year and he's coming back healthy. So just having those two guys healthy is an advantage in itself."
The Clippers also announced the signings of two second-round draft picks, University of Georgia teammates Trey Thompkins (forward) and Travis Leslie (guard). They also signed free agents Blake Ahearn, Courtney Fortson, Marcus Hubbard, Adam Koch and Renaldo Major to complete their training camp roster.