Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and the rest of the Los Angeles Clippers are embracing increased expectations this season, another sign of a deep cultural shift in an organization that hasn't experienced back-to-back playoff berths in nearly 20 years.
The optimism is due in part to last season's success and the attitude of veterans Paul and Chauncey Billups, who have instilled a drive and a belief that was often lacking during the years when the Clippers were the laughingstock of the NBA.
Now they've assembled a deep roster of veterans to surround All-Stars Paul and Griffin, who are expected to play key roles in the team's success.
"We're up there with anybody," Griffin said. "We can play with anybody. With our talent and depth, we can go toe-to-toe with whoever it is."
The Clippers open the season at home on Oct. 31 against Memphis. Nine of their first 15 games are at Staples Center, including one against the Lakers on Nov. 2, which should offer an early gauge of where the Clippers stand.
Injuries, however, are already a factor, making it a challenge for third-year coach Vinny Del Negro to build cohesion.
Paul is still getting acclimated to playing with a small splint on his surgically repaired right thumb that will remain on until he's given the go-ahead to remove it. Billups continues recovering from surgery to repair a torn left Achilles tendon, and isn't expected back until sometime in November.
Paul and Billups played 15 games as the Clippers' backcourt duo last season, helping the team to key wins over the Heat, Lakers, Nuggets, Jazz, Grizzlies and Magic. The Clippers were 11-4 when both of them started.
"The depth we have now gives me a little sense of relief to take my time," said Billups, who recently turned 36.
Reserves Lamar Odom and Grant Hill, both added in the offseason, have been limited by bone bruises in their knees. Odom and new addition Jamal Crawford give the Clippers two former Sixth Man of the Year winners off the bench.
"Usually there's a lot of young guys," Paul said. "I'm excited about having guys that just know how to play, that are battle-tested and understand the process of a season."
Crawford chose the Clippers over the likes of Minnesota and Philadelphia after being lured by phone calls from Paul and Griffin.
"Everybody is so close, and when you care about somebody off the court you'll run through a wall for them," he said.
Ronny Turiaf is excited to be back in Los Angeles, where he once came off the Lakers' bench.
"Everybody wants to rally around Clipper Nation," he said. "Everywhere I walk in LA I feel this unbelievable love from the fans that gives me a boost of energy."
Griffin is fully recovered from left knee surgery in July, and spent time during the summer working with a shooting coach, who also helped DeAndre Jordan. It appears to be paying off, with Jordan producing double-double efforts in preseason games.
"We're going to have a really good year," Jordan said.
Last season, the Clippers were 40-26, including 24-9 at home, where they averaged a franchise-best 19,219 fans and had 33 sellouts. It was their first winning record since 2005-06, and their first playoff appearance since then. They beat Memphis in seven games in the first round, and then got swept by San Antonio in the Western Conference semifinals.
Now they're seeking a return trip to the playoffs for the first time in consecutive years since 1991-92 and 1992-93.
"It's much better having the expectations high," Del Negro said.
During the summer, Paul exercised his player option for this season while Griffin signed a five-year contract extension worth up to $95 million.
In addition to Odom, Crawford, and Hill, the Clippers added veterans Matt Barnes, Ryan Hollins and Turiaf. Odom, Barnes and Turiaf are former Lakers, while Odom and Barnes are back for their second stints with the Clippers.
"We could bring five guys off of our bench that could be starters," Paul said. "That's what you see with the teams that advance and go deep into the playoffs, their bench is usually deep. Not every night is Blake going to be able to score 29 points. The bench is something that you count on for the long season."
Shooting guard Willie Green is one of seven new players on the roster, but he played with Paul in New Orleans two years ago and they are good friends.
"When you really have that team chemistry and that team camaraderie, it really makes you fight harder," Paul said.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.