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PRO BASKETBALL / CLIPPERS PREVIEW

Clippers star-studded, but are they still star-crossed?

Clippers are justifiably optimistic about reaching NBA playoffs, but their history of bad injury luck (some would say 'curse') gives one pause. And, uh-oh, Blake Griffin's already hurt.

October 26, 2009|Lisa Dillman

Can you put bubble wrap on a franchise?

Or, at the very least, a protective seal around the No. 1 overall NBA draft choice, Blake Griffin, with a bright sticker reading, "Fragile, Handle With Care."

Meet the 2009-10 Clippers.

It's hard not to give in to the temptation to utter the word curse and think about one man named Danny Manning each time Griffin gets injured.

Optimism around the team's Playa Vista headquarters took a bit of a hit on Sunday, the air rushing out of a promising 6-2 preseason when Griffin didn't practice and had treatment afterward. He and his aching left knee are considered iffy for the season opener against the Lakers on Tuesday.

Best-case scenario: The swelling that Clippers Coach Mike Dunleavy described goes down, and the team doctor examines the knee Monday, clearing Griffin to play Tuesday. And all promptly get to work at erasing the strong memory of a 19-win season.

Worst-case scenario: Curse 1, Griffin 0. Meaning he's out for an extended period.

Whether this is Griffin's third injury or his second since being drafted by the Clippers in late June is debatable. This could easily be considered an extension of the second one because he aggravated the knee Friday when he came down after an explosive dunk late in the third quarter against New Orleans in the exhibition finale.

Griffin winced after the play -- a bookend to a stellar block at the other end of the court seconds earlier -- but he continued to play and did not receive treatment on the bench or leave to get any treatment in the locker room.

Dunleavy said he thought the team wouldn't know until Tuesday whether Griffin would play against the Lakers.

Not only have Griffin's numerous highlight-reel dunks in the exhibition season raised expectations and created that intangible known as buzz around the league, but the rookie forward has received rave reviews for his prodigious work ethic and ability from his teammates, coaches and even San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich, who called him "a monster."

In fact, Dunleavy sought to dial back the hype a bit Friday, hours before Griffin hurt his knee.

"He's not changing our culture," said Dunleavy, who is also the Clippers' general manager. "He's a terrific player. There's nothing about his game that I don't like. What's going to make us into a winning team is certainly his contribution, but there's also all the other guys we've had here that are healthy and are good payers.

"We're very fortunate to have Blake. I like his attitude, his mind-set, but I would not put that kind of pressure on him."

Dunleavy also rejects the notion that the Clippers' success will be inordinately dependent on the will and whim of Baron Davis.

Griffin may be the centerpiece of the team's marketing effort, and rightly so, but Davis was the marquee newcomer last season who arrived out of condition, and whose interest seemed to flicker in and out like a fading radio signal.

"It's not all on Baron's shoulders either," Dunleavy said. "We're good and we're deep, and I think we can survive any kind of normal injuries to any of our positions right now.

"We're more talented, deeper, more experienced, and preseason is preseason, it's not the regular season, but I think anybody who has seen us play . . . we look more like a team that has a chance to make the playoffs."

To that end, the Clippers have more veteran depth at point guard, adding Sebastian Telfair in a trade with Minnesota that also brought big-bodied forward Craig Smith. The Clippers later added swingman Rasual Butler from the Hornets, who were in a salary-shedding mode.

Of the Clippers' projected top nine players, four are newcomers. Other key holdovers include center Chris Kaman, who was limited to 31 games last season; Al Thornton, who is in a battle with Butler for the starting small forward spot; and second-year shooting guard Eric Gordon, a rare bright spot amid last season's malaise.

Also back for Year 2 with the Clippers is veteran Marcus Camby, who has been battling a sprained left ankle. He took part in halfcourt activity Sunday and could get some minutes in the opener.

Camby has been de facto mentor to the likes of Griffin, second-year center DeAndre Jordan and Gordon. He also loudly has been calling Griffin by his teammates' preferred nickname, "Amazin'."

"He doesn't have a choice," Camby said, laughing, when asked whether Griffin liked the nickname.

Indeed, the vibe has been vastly different in camp this fall.

"I don't know if I can put a letter grade on it," Thornton said. "But it's 10 times better than last year. It's got a ways to go in certain areas, but it's almost there."

Not to be forgotten is the addition to the coaching staff of the respected John Lucas. Lucas has been hard at work on the body and mind of Davis, crawling into the head of the often challenging point guard.

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