LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Emotionally battered after a racism scandal that left their previous owner Donald Sterling with a life ban, the Los Angeles Clippers can now script a fresh chapter as they aim to enhance their championship credentials.
With former Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer now in charge and shrewd head coach Doc Rivers back at the helm, the franchise will strive to go at least one better after being ousted in the second round of the playoffs last season.
The Clippers have never reached a conference final despite advancing to the postseason 10 times but, with All-Stars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin established as team leaders, they are now viewed by many as genuine contenders for the NBA championship.
For Rivers, who joined the Clippers in mid-2013 after nine mainly successful years as coach of the Boston Celtics, improved defense will be a top priority for his team this season.
“When you’re a high-scoring offensive team, you always fall back on, ‘Well, we’ll get a basket instead of getting a stop,’ and I’ve always thought you can do both pretty good,” Rivers said.
“Even our Boston teams, we didn’t score a lot, but if you looked at our offensive efficiency numbers, we were in the top five. So it’s proven you can do both.”
Renowned for their fan-pleasing, ‘Lob City’ offense, the Clippers led the league in scoring last season as Rivers guided them to the best record in franchise history, at 57-25, and a second straight Pacific Division title.
They went on to beat the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the playoffs before losing to the Oklahoma City Thunder and Paul knows they will need to beef up their defense if they want to go deeper into the postseason.
”I‘m hoping that we play defense a lot better,“ said the inspirational point guard, a seven-time All-Star. ”We’re trying to be a unique team that defends very well and plays at a very nice pace, up-tempo.
”That’s not something that usually goes together like that, so we’re trying to put all the pieces together and trying to keep that continuity going with both units.
“It’s an unbelievable combination if you can do both, and we’re going to try to be that team.”
Heading into their 2014-15 campaign, the Clippers will be looking to Paul and Griffin, athletic center DeAndre Jordan, the NBA’s reigning Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford and newly acquired reserve Spencer Hawes to spearhead their challenge.
Last season, the Clippers were beaten 4-2 by the Thunder in the Western Conference semi-finals, their playoff run ending just weeks after racist comments made by Sterling surfaced, sparking public outrage and causing team sponsors to quit.
Following protracted legal wrangling, a California appeals court rejected Sterling’s last-ditch attempt to block the sale of the Clippers to Ballmer for a record $2 billion, and the 58-year-old tech billionaire took over as the new owner in August.
Ballmer, known for his high-energy approach to life and his enthusiasm for pick-up basketball while at Microsoft, has made no secret of his desire to see the Clippers go as deep as possible into the postseason.
”We want to play in April, in May, in June,“ Ballmer smiled. ”You’ve got to make sure everybody’s pushing and pushing to get better and improve every day.
“If we do that with the talent we have in place, with a little bit of good luck, we’re going to be the last guys playing.”
Editing by Frank Pingue