Among the Clippers, a sense of normality has returned.
Lower expectations are back.
Unlike a year ago, when they'd added a proven point guard to a promising young nucleus, there was little talk this fall of the Clippers reaching the playoffs. Instead, they spoke of "getting some wins" and "turning things around."
Sure, they took a step in the right direction over the summer, lavishing big free-agent contracts on franchise cornerstones Elton Brand and Corey Maggette, a practice they'd not previously followed under owner Donald Sterling, and spending $10 million over four years on new Coach Mike Dunleavy.
But only the Clippers, it seems, would view so positively a summer during which they also lost six players through free agency, among them three starters.
Yes, the Clippers also took steps backward, letting Michael Olowokandi, Lamar Odom and Andre Miller walk away without getting compensation and leaving holes at center and point guard they haven't yet figured out how to fill.
And the Clippers weren't mere steps from the playoffs last spring. They were miles out, their 27-55 record leaving them 13th among 14 Western Conference teams, 17 games behind the eighth-place Phoenix Suns.
So Dunleavy, the Clipper skipper, has set his sights accordingly as the club prepares to open the season against the Seattle SuperSonics on Thursday night -- Thursday morning in Los Angeles -- at Saitama, Japan.
He hasn't come right out and said it, nor is he expected to, but this is a rebuilding season, one in a seemingly never-ending Clipper series.
"If we can get to where we're playing meaningful games in April," the coach says, eyeing the distant homestretch, "it will be a successful season."
In other words, if the Clippers haven't been eliminated from playoff contention before winter turns to spring and daylight saving time returns anew, high-fives and chest bumps all around.
"And if we make it," he adds, "it's going to be a great season."
By "it," he means the playoffs.
To even put themselves in contention, the young Clippers will have to make up with enthusiasm and defensive aggressiveness what they lack in experience, offensive firepower and overall talent.
"The only way this year's [Clipper] team beats last year's team," Dunleavy says, "is by playing harder."
Not only are Olowokandi, Odom and Miller gone, but so are long-range shooter Eric Piatkowski and veteran big men Sean Rooks and Cherokee Parks. Also, the Clippers bid too low on free-agent point guard Gilbert Arenas, a Van Nuys Grant High grad who could have shored up one of their most glaring weaknesses, although it was a stunning reversal that they had bid at all.
Miller, who signed with the Denver Nuggets, never really panned out in his one season at the Clipper point, but in his place were left only Keyon Dooling and Marko Jaric, who between them have started only 14 NBA games.
Dunleavy has showed so little confidence in them that he has talked of filling the vital role of playmaker "by committee," depending on the opponent.
He may do the same at center, where Olowokandi left a hole after five seasons as a Clipper starter, bolting for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
First-round draft pick Chris Kaman has showed promise and clearly is the Clippers' center of the future, but the 7-footer from Central Michigan is expected to be up and down as a rookie while making the quantum leap from the midlevel Mid-American Conference to the NBA.
Predrag Drobnjak, a two-year veteran acquired last month in a trade with the SuperSonics, has never been more than a middling inside presence and was not as consistent during the exhibition season as the Clippers had hoped.
Meanwhile, undersized Melvin Ely is a power forward occasionally moonlighting as a center, 7-1 Wang Zhizhi prefers the perimeter to the paint and Olden Polynice, out of the league the last two seasons, will be 39 next month.
"I just have the guys I have," Dunleavy says. "If everybody looked at it and said, 'Hey, there was more talent here last year,' maybe that's right. I don't know. But this is the group that I have. I've got to make something out of this group."
With only shooting guard Quentin Richardson and forwards Brand and Maggette locked into starting positions, the former Laker coach plans to use a nine- or 10-man rotation in deploying an up-tempo style stressing defensive pressure.
"We've got a group of guys that are pretty close in ability at times," he says. "It's just a matter of seeing who's playing the best at any given time."
Maggette, retained by the Clippers when they matched the six-year, $42-million offer sheet he signed with the Utah Jazz, has raised his scoring average every season, up to 16.8 last season. He looks like a wise investment, even if some believe that retaining Odom, who left for the Miami Heat, would have been the better move, considering Odom's all-round skills, if not his questionable character.