PLAYA VISTA, Calif. - Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul is considered one of the best point guards in basketball and his numbers through the first nine seasons of his career are on par with Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas but the one blemish on his resume is postseason success.
Going into his tenth season in the NBA, Paul has yet to make it past the second round of the playoffs and understands it will become the focus of his career if that doesn't change, especially this season with the Clippers coming in as one of the favorites to win the championship.
"It's the truth, it doesn't matter if it's fair or not," Paul said. "That's a huge deal, especially to me and us as a team. This year it's about the process. It would be nice if we could start the playoffs tomorrow but we have a lot of work to do before that. I understand last year we had a great opportunity and Game 5 [of the Western Conference semifinals] was horrible and it's no secret why we lost Game 5 but this year gives us an opportunity to get right back there. They say history tends to repeat itself but this is one of those where we hope it doesn't."
Paul isn't the only player on the Clippers who has failed to make it out of the second round. The same goes for Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, the other two captains on the team, as well as most of the roster. In fact, only two players on the roster (Glen "Big Baby" Davis and Jordan Farmar) have championship rings.
"It shouldn't be focused on just one person," Griffin said. "One guy can't win or lose on his own. It's not fair to put any type of blame on anyone. We were all out there playing and we all made mistakes and we all did things we wish we could change. It's not whether it's fair or not, it is what it is. It is a reality: we haven't gotten past the second round. We can't hang our heads and feel sorry. We have to take that responsibility as a team."
After winning 57 games last season, a franchise record, and winning the Pacific Division for the second straight season, the Clippers come into this season as one of the favorites to come out of the West along with the defending champion San Antonio Spurs and the Oklahoma City Thunder. It's a position Doc Rivers likes for his team but one that he admits they were in last season without taking advantage of.
"I don't know about put up or shut up or whatever but we're serious about winning," Rivers said. "So is Oklahoma and so is Golden State and the Spurs. We have our goal, that's for sure. Our goal is the same as last year to be honest. We know what we want to do so we're going to go after it."
The Clippers' playoff run last year was overshadowed by then owner Donald Sterling's racist rant and subsequent lifetime ban from the NBA. It was the focus of every press conference the team did during the postseason. Rivers and many players were concerned the controversy would drag into this season, forcing them to make a decision on their future, but those concerns went away when the Clippers were sold to former Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer for $2 billion last month.
"What's nice is that other than today and probably each first game in a different city, we're going to talk about basketball and that's going to be really nice," Rivers said. "Last year it was strange playoffs when there were very few basketball questions. I don't think I've ever encountered a playoffs like that. For three or four games there was not one basketball question so it will be nice for all of us to focus on being basketball players and I can focus on being a basketball coach."
Not only was the ownership of the team stabilized but Ballmer gave Rivers a new contract that will keep him with the team as the head coach and president of basketball operations through the end of the 2018-19 season. Rivers initially had signed a three-year deal, admitting he had reservations about committing long term to Sterling.
"Mr. Ballmer said, 'Doc I want to give you more years and I said OK,'" Rivers said. "When I signed here I didn't want to do more than three years for a lot of reasons that I don't think we need to go into but there were reasons for that. Now with the new ownership you just felt like that's something you want to be a part of and he wanted that as well so we did it."
Rivers' new deal and Ballmer's presence with the team hasn't gone unnoticed by the players.
"We're excited, very excited," Griffin said. "I think Mr. Ballmer and all the new changes have been positive and given us a new life. We're excited just to start this training camp and hit the ground running."
The Clippers will fly to Las Vegas on Monday for the first week of training camp before returning to Los Angeles where they will open up the preseason Oct. 7 against the Golden State Warriors. Rivers addressed the team before they departed for Las Vegas and stressed the importance of focusing on the positive after the all the negative that engulfed the team at the end of last season.
"Mental toughness is one of the things I always thought I was strong in but I worked on that this summer," Paul said. "You can always get better at different things. Last year we learned as a team what the process was and this year we're going to have to fall in love with the process. The ugly days and the grind of it, that's where you come together as a team. We've been around longer enough that we have to lead like that. Doc talked to us about not having any bad days. We learned last year and we need to move forward."