By David Moore, USA TODAY Sports Views 6479

LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Clippers were so good during the regular season last year — 56-26, the best record in franchise history — the thinking was they might finally be ready for a long playoff run. 

But they weren't, and the ending felt so abrupt to Clippers owner Donald Sterling that he fired coach Vinny Del Negro and opened up his notoriously tight purse strings to hire Doc Rivers, an NBA championship coach with the Boston Celtics. So there is no mistaking how the Clippers will be judged this season.

"We'll be judged by how we do in the playoffs," veteran sixth man Jamal Crawford says.

RIVERS: Already stoking rivalry with Lakers

RING TIME: Who needs one most this year?

A first-round loss, like the one last season to the Memphis Grizzlies, will be considered a failure. So might a second-round loss.

The hype is loud for a team with two perennial All-Stars — point guard Chris Paul and power forward Blake Griffin — along with a title-winning coach and a deep and talented roster.

Rivers and the Clippers aren't backing away from it.

"I always thought I'd rather be with a group with high expectations," the 52-year-old coach says. "Are we ready for that? I don't know yet. That's what this journey will be about. I think we are. I think we have a chance to do something. That excites me. If we can look at what's on paper and get that on the floor and keep it healthy, I think we can be a special team. That excites me."

CENTER OF ATTENTION: Rivers has high hopes for Jordan

POWER RANKINGS: Clippers come in flying high right away

What needs to be changed from Del Negro's regime?

Rivers wants to shore up the transition defense, guard the three-point line better and turn underachieving 6-11 center DeAndre Jordan into a candidate for defensive player of the year.

But there is a bigger goal, Rivers says. "Become a team," he says. "I was a player. I was in locker rooms, and I understand that part of it. I know how important the locker room is. That's something we need to improve here — our locker room.

"We just need to grow as a group. We have to embrace 'heart' all the time. That's an area we need to be strongest in. Instead of splintering when things go wrong, we need to pull together."

Putting "Clippers" and "championship" into the same sentence once was ludicrous. But it looks like there is title potential in the other team in Los Angeles — one that has played in the shadow of the Lakers since it arrived from San Diego in 1984.

"This is the most excited I've ever been," says Griffin, entering his fourth season with career averages of 20.4 points and 10.4 rebounds. Is it too much to call the Clippers an elite NBA team?

Rivers is likely to answer that in the affirmative. One of the first meetings he had with Paul was to tell the 28-year-old six-time All-Star, according to Paul, "You're nothing. You haven't accomplished anything in this league."

Added Paul, "He's right."

Griffin says Rivers is the right man to keep them grounded amid lofty fan expectations.

"We've made strides, but we haven't won a championship," Griffin says. "We really haven't accomplished anything yet. We don't feel like we've arrived or put ourselves into that category until we've won a championship."

Paul is somewhat on the spot. Despite his personal accolades, he has never been past the second round of the playoffs, though he's viewed as a leader on and off the court. He is surrounded with probably the most talented roster he's played on and is playing for a coach with a winning pedigree.

What difference will Rivers make?

"We don't know yet," Paul says. "But we're excited for the future. We've all sat down with him individually during the summer. Now we'll find out as a team what he wants from us. One thing you'll hear from us is that it's all about the process, all about building.

"We know he's not going to baby us. He'll treat us like men."

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damianRivers is likely to be particularly in the ears of Jordan, an impressive physical player who in five seasons has consistently averaged single digits in points and rebounds and has had trouble staying on the court because of foul trouble, terrible free throw shooting and plain old coach's decisions.

Rivers announced at the Clippers media day what he expects of Jordan. "He should be all-defense," Rivers said. "He should be a candidate for defensive player of the year. We need him to be the captain of our defense. If he does that job, I'm not too concerned about anything else. I'm trying to narrow his focus, make it easier on him."

Rivers wants Jordan on the court more often and particularly in the fourth quarter, despite his free throw problems.

"I'm not going to get lost in that," Rivers says. "How many titles did Shaq win? What did Bill Russell shoot from the line? It's an issue, but I tend to want to stay big."

However, Rivers is excited about a roster that presents the opportunity to play a small lineup. Newcomers include guards J.J. Redick and Darren Collison and forwards Jared Dudley and Antawn Jamison.

"This is the first time I can really go small," Rivers says. "It's probably the most versatile team I've had in that way."

Going small might be appealing. But winning big, especially now with Rivers on board, is the Clippers' plan.