The anticipation of Blake Griffin's arrival to the Los Angeles Clippers after he was chosen as the first pick in the 2009 draft almost put the team on the same conversation level as the other NBA team that shares the same arena.
Almost, of course, is the key word. It will be many, many years, if ever, when the Clippers overtake the Lakers as the focal point of conversations in LA, but Griffin's arrival was immense.
Then came the season-ending injury in the preseason to his left knee. Once again, the Clippers became an afterthought.
On the surface, things aren't much different this season. The Lakers are waltzing their way through the schedule, seemingly the beast of the West once again, while the Clippers are collecting losses at breakneck speed.
But Griffin is a bright spot. Heading into last night's game against the 76ers at the Wells Fargo Center, the 21-year-old was posting impressive averages of 20.3 points and 11.9 rebounds, then contributed another 20 and 18, respectively, in the 105-91 loss to the Sixers.
"Blake is an aggressive player," Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. "He's a worker and a great kid and he's only going to improve as he learns the league and learns the personnel. Blake can handle the basketball, is a good passer. He's a very good rebounder, obviously. He's doing a nice job for us."
Griffin still is having trouble with the rigors of the NBA season, something that might even take a couple of years to get used to.
"The amount of games, playing so many games and every game you play is against the best players in the world, so you really don't get a break," he said when asked what is the toughest part of the NBA. Still, he had that one season to take it in from the sideline.
"I got to kind of see how it operates and how everything works," he said. "I went through training camp, went to all the home games so I kind of became comfortable with it. I'm continuing to try to learn and get better."
Sixers coach Doug Collins knows all about Griffin, who played for Jeff Capel at Oklahoma. Capel played with Collins' son, Chris, at Duke.
"I watched Blake when he had his great seasons there at Oklahoma, watched him go through his agony of his injuries and watched him work hard and bounce back," Collins said. "He's a spectacular athlete and magnificent basketball player."
Like Griffin, Collins suffered through injuries his rookie season after being chosen No. 1 overall by the Sixers in 1973. Collins found it to be a good learning situation.
"I was young and stupid, but I still benefited," Collins said of his rookie ordeal. "[Then-Sixers coach] Gene Shue was great with me. He said regardless of how great a player is, watch him play under pressure, and he'll always go to what he does best. So when I was watching Earl Monroe and Walt Frazier and Pete Maravich and all the great guards in the NBA, you try to watch what they do and try to pick it up so when you come back you can be better prepared to play against those guys."
His playing time has dropped so dramatically that, for Sixers forward Andres Nocioni, any playing time is welcomed. The reasoning, according to Collins, has nothing to do with Nocioni, but more to do with the good play of Thaddeus Young and the decision to give rookie Evan Turner playing time.
"I think the team is playing well, and we're winning games," Nocioni said. "You want to be in the rotation, but I'm not and it's all right for me. It's fine. I feel OK. I know what I've done before and I feel comfortable with myself. I've got to keep working, try to push myself and my teammates harder in practice and to stay in shape."
Collins said before the season he saw Nocioni being a 20-minute-a-game guy, and he was that for the first 15 games. Last night, he didn't see action for the third consecutive game. But, even in current circumstances, Nocioni remains the good soldier.
"We are almost in playoff [spot]," he said. "I think the confidence has gotten bigger since the beginning of the season, so I understand my situation, I understand the team's situation, so I'm OK." *