At one time, it was an integral part of the Baron Davis persona. See how he lifted up his jersey and mean mugged around the court in that video? How he made the crowd go crazy? Had that extra lean in his step? That’s swagger right there. Hell, even the announcer caught some swagger by osmosis and defiantly asked viewers “Do you believe NOW?” and then proceeded to trash talk AK47 by telling him “Put THAT on your flat-top!” What a completely surreal moment; the ragtag Warriors winning a big playoff game, led by Baron Davis.
When Baron signed as a free agent last year, that memory was fresh in most Clippers fans minds. He was brought on to revitalize a seemingly stagnant and somewhat boring team with plays like the one shown above. The optimism around the signing was overwhelming. Boom Dizzle, he of incredible swag, was coming to lead the Clippers back to the playoffs.
Well, we all know what happened next. Brand skipped town, B-Diddy went J-Craig, and fans suffered through one of the worst seasons in recent memory. There were no baseline jams, no mean mugging, jersey popping or shoulder brushing. Just losses. Baron endured endless scrutiny, taking the brunt of the blame for the unfulfilled expectations that came with his large contract. Even though Baron was statistically a good distributor (7.7 APG), it was his lack of aggressiveness and propensity to fire up contested threes that drove fans nuts. Although Baron was a former Slam Dunk Contest participant, he finished with only three dunks all year. Matt Bonner, an Arnovitz favorite, unbelievably managed to dunk more times than Baron last year.
Fast forward to this year. Thanks largely to some lottery magic, the optimism is back again this summer and new hopes and expectations have been placed on broader shoulders. If things go as planned, Blake Griffin will eventually become one of the leaders of this team. Griffin may appear to be the best suited to lead right now because of his outstanding work ethic and charisma, but that just isn’t the way the NBA works. Back in 2004, a delusional Ricky Davis said, “I thought LeBron James was just going to be another addition to help me score”. While this quote was (hopefully) in jest, it’s probably not far off from the veteran mentality around the league. 20 year old players, no matter how talented, don’t just take over a locker room instantly. They have to pay their dues first.
So who is the leader of this club? All things considered, it has to be Baron. Playing point guard requires some leadership qualities in itself, but when you’re also the most talented, most accomplished, and highest paid player on the team, it requires buckets of it. The point guard is the literal and figurative head of the team, but in many ways also the heart of it. If you need an example, look down the hall at Derek Fisher. Yes, Phil manages the egos, and Kobe may talk the most (ok, he definitely talks the most) but it’s Fisher who is the guy that sets the example for the non-ridiculously talented on how you’re supposed to play and the level of intensity that is needed on a nightly basis. Kobe yaps, Phil zens, and Fisher “does”, and that’s the formula. It’s simple, and it works.
Of course, for the Clippers, it’s never that simple, and much more is required to have a mentally stable team. The stigma that surrounds the Clippers can easily take on a life of its own if it goes unchecked. Last year it went unchecked, and the Clippers were mentally and emotionally beat in many games before the tip. This year’s Clippers squad looks better on paper and in theory, as they have some lunch-pail type players (Camby, Gordon, Griffin) and no real malcontents (although Ricky Davis still lurks). Missing, however, is a leader with irrefutable, visible confidence. Simply put, the Clippers need the Baron Davis in that video.
Some leaders prefer to lead vocally, while others lead by example. Sam Cassell just happened to do both, which is part of what made him so great. Andre Miller happened to do neither, which is what made him, uh, not so great. Based on Baron’s recent past, we know he is capable of leading…but is he willing? The immediate future seems to depend on that.