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MARK HEISLER / ON THE NBA

Clippers embark on yet another new cultural mission

As always, they begin training camp looking to change the traditional losing atmosphere. First-year Coach Vinny Del Negro's first official act is to call out star point guard Baron Davis for his less-than-optimal conditioning.

September 27, 2010|Mark Heisler

In news their fans have waited their whole lives for, the Clippers changed cultures Monday.

No, not that culture.

Ownership remains in the, uh, experienced hands of Donald T. Sterling.

This was at the player level, where, of course, the Clippers change cultures frequently . . . usually for the worse.

Instead of the usual happy talk, the Clippers began their No More Mr. Nice Guy Era with new Coach Vinny Del Negro noting Baron Davis wasn't in shape to practice.

Del Negro phrased it ever so politely and Davis accepted it ever so graciously.

Nevertheless, who bothers to point out his veteran point guard isn't in top shape and will practice on a limited basis?

The Lakers are pooh-poohing losing Kobe Bryant for much of the preseason, and Andrew Bynum until November, after both postponed surgery to go to the World Cup in South Africa.

Eschewing eye rolls, Coach Phil Jackson said it was as much his idea.

Of course, Jackson doesn't have a program to salvage.

The Clippers are like a locomotive that ran off the tracks years ago and now has to be pulled out of the bottom of a swamp.

So, yes, they were due for a culture change at several levels.

"I know and he knows how important [Davis] is to the team, but he has to be ready to play and play the right way and be in shape," Del Negro said.

"And he's ready to do that, but talking about it and getting it done are two different things. . . .

"He knows he's not there right now. Nor are most of the guys in the condition I'd like them to be."

It was like being in the French Foreign Legion and having your epaulets torn off, gently.

In keeping with the military comedy tone, Davis took it like a reprimand for missing a spot when he shined his boots.

After a sunny forecast ("It's going to be a different year, a focused year, a year with high-level energy from a team standpoint"), Davis acknowledged that he, personally, isn't at peak energy and focus.

"From the [up-tempo] way we want to play and the way Coach wants to play, I think that there's a little bit more to go," he said.

"Just trying to be in the best shape I can possibly be in is the most important thing, especially recovering from nicks and injuries, things like that."

Davis had all summer to go that little bit, but Baron has two kinds of off-seasons: those in which he devotes himself to conditioning and the other eight or nine.

If this was Del Negro's debut, the decision to lob this shot across Davis' bow was organizational, after two years of former coach Mike Dunleavy's soft line in public.

Not that it resulted in a warm, fuzzy relationship between Davis and Dunleavy.

Nor did Davis come close to being the Baron of old.

In Davis' Clippers debut in 2008-09, the team started terribly (15-43) and finished even worse (4-20).

They were 21-28 when Dunleavy resigned as coach last season. With management eager to see how they reacted to a new voice, they skipped the traditional honeymoon, going 8-25 for Kim Hughes.

Nevertheless, there's only one Clipper who can knit together this talented (no, really) young team: Davis.

Sportswriters generally used "complex" when they mean "lowlife, who just won a game, or says he'll mend his ways."

Davis really is complex: not only gifted as a basketball player but smart, engaging, with wide-ranging interests — like the movie biz, where he's popular and connected — and a heart he wears on his sleeve where his old neighborhood is concerned.

He also clashed with, or tuned out, coach after coach before peaking under Golden State's Don Nelson, who just turned him loose.

The structured Dunleavy wasn't an easy fit, the more so after Elton Brand, who recruited Davis, abandoned him for Philadelphia.

Now h-e-r-e-s Vinny, who's a lot more like Dunleavy than Nelson.

On the other hand, it's two seasons and two coaches later and Davis is 31, looking at the ruin of his career track.

"I feel the time is now," Davis said. "I want it. I want to be back at the level that I was when I came here. I want to get to that level here.

"I feel like there's a lot to improve on, not just in my game, but the hunger and the drive and the passion and wanting to do it is definitely there."

What could go wrong now?

Oh yeah, all the stuff that went wrong before.

Nevertheless, hope stills springs eternal, or, at least, once more for Davis.

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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