This piece is from Breene Murphy, Clipperblog’s newest contributor:
Baron Davis sat on the training table adjacent to the practice court, one knee pulled into his chest, watching draft prospects run through drills and scrimmages the first time I saw him up close, at the Clippers Training Facility. His beard shorn, he looked in shape, nowhere near the 260 pounds he’s recently been rumored to weigh. He pitted himself in the midst of a few other players, Mardy Collins and Craig Smith, with scouting coordinator Jason Piombetti. Baron didn’t smile much and his eyes very rarely left the court, watching the young players jostle and compete for their futures. I’m sure in some ways, Baron envied those players, the way that people would talk about their potential, the word still being used in a positive way.
Baron is not old. Steve Nash is five years older, Jason Kidd, six. Between the two of them, they have played either their best basketball in that time span (Nash) or they have led teams with a remodeled and intelligent game (Kidd). While there is not plenty of it, time still remains for Baron.
Even as recently as two years ago, it seemed that Baron’s career trajectory was ripe for his destined ascent. The transformation of the Golden State Warriors into a legitimate playoff team was next to impossible, but with the anarchic Don Nelson, Baron found his own order.
It’s been much documented, but the Warriors hadn’t made it to the playoffs prior to Baron’s arrival since the Run-TMC days. More years than not, they squandered opportunities, suffered injuries and lacked chemistry. In his first season and a half the team didn’t play even .500 ball, but Baron had the swagger to believe that the team could turn into a contender. He had the emotional capacity to let the good feelings override what the mind would have said was impossible. Nellieball took off again, with Baron, Captain Jack and Monta Ellis as the centerpieces of the team. They were a team that had the single-mindedness to ignore the naysayers and play antithetical basketball. Despite his normal bad habits like statistically poor three- point shooting, it appeared there were no limits on what he was allowed to do, what any of them were allowed to do on offense. They beat opponents with copious amounts of offense. Reminiscing about those games, a fan has to remember the smiles, the raucous crowds in Oakland, and the general “We Believe” sentiment.
Even though they missed the playoffs his last season in Golden State, making the Warriors relevant must have made him feel invincible. And that invincibility may have made Baron reevaluate his standing. Since he was, again, famous, he could focus on greatness. But the Warriors didn’t have the low-post presence, or the defensive focus to be truly great.
The Clippers, then, posed the greatest opportunity for him. Not only was he going to return home and be in the spotlight of Hollywood, he was going to have the opportunity to resurrect a Clipper team that was only two years removed from an impressive playoff run centered around his buddy Elton Brand. Brand provided the 20-10 big man that would, hypothetically, mesh perfectly with his brash, physical play. Even recovering from the injury, it would have been hard for him to not imagine running high screen and rolls with a 2006 vintage Brand. Cut from the top, go straight to the hole. Get double teamed, and deliver a no-look bounce pass for a Brand dunk. The defense cuts off their options, spot up 15 footers. And when the momentum was in their favor and the Clippers had the lead, Baron would use EB as a screen, then drill that heart-crushingly long three that he loves so much. The fans would adore him and the media would surround him, trying to capture his magnetism like solar panels capture the power of the sun. It would be his universe.
Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. Even though Brand’s flight to Philadelphia now looks like a god send (can you imagine that contract, no Blake Griffin, and no cap space?), it adversely affected Baron’s emotional state. That same emotional override that allowed him to overcome so much in Golden State reversed effect in his first year in Los Angeles. He came into the season overweight, lethargic. He missed 20 percent of the year and when he did play, he played poorly. He looked jilted, heartbroken. I don’t think Dunleavy’s highly structured system did anything to help Baron. His invincibility was shattered. The Clippers only won 19 games. He did not turn into his hometown’s savior.
But luck changed when the Clippers drafted Blake Griffin. It’s impossible to look at Griffin’s highlights from Oklahoma and not see someone special. Combined with the lackluster year that Elton Brand had, and the potential that Blake continued to show in Summer League and preseason, it stirred Baron to get in fantastic shape last season. He would do this, he could still run a team, run that pick and roll. Even with Dunleavy’s system, ample opportunity existed for enormous improvement. He may have had to tether his potential to Blake, but being a rookie, Blake wouldn’t hamper his legacy. Hell, they would be a dynamic pair: the wily vet showing the young gun the ropes, running those same pick and rolls that Baron probably first imagined with Elton, but better. They would be more athletic, have more flash, more swagger.
But then for the second time in 18 months, the Clippers suffered a huge loss at power forward. Now it was Blake Griffin blowing out his knee cap in the last game of the pre-season with the impact unfolding in such a slow, agonizing way (the misdiagnosis, the bi-weekly crushing injury reports, the seemingly inevitable/ cursed season ending injury).
For those of you that are Clippers fans reading this, I’m sorry if I’m bringing up old wounds. I truly am. I don’t mean for us to relive these moments, but I think it gives context for that day that Baron sat on the training table and watched the prospects scrimmage. Also, I am hopeful.
While he was sitting on that training table, I believe I saw a man that was worn from losing, but contemplative. Thoughtful. Which is the break that he needs to get away from this careening career arc, fraught with negative emotion. One of the perils of athletics is that it becomes such a concentrated part of a player’s life that there are times when it’s hard to differentiate between professional accomplishment and personal worth. I don’t think it’s too hard to see that it happens on both sides, the player and the fans. Every All-Star game, every All-NBA team, every MVP, every playoff appearance, every series win, every championship is a validation.
Baron must understand that he will not have the career that he set out to have, that he had the potential to have. I’m sure he imagined that by the time he was 31-years old, he would have more than two All-Star appearances and one Third Team All-NBA award, as well as more championships and playoff appearances. Maybe it’s Steve Lavin’s underachieving sheen that rubbed off on him in his lone year at UCLA. However, I think now he’s smart enough to know that he can re-invent himself.
The Clippers again have the feel of a team about to turn it around. Kaman’s coming off an All-Star season, Blake Griffin is healthy, Eric Gordon is stealing the show from everyone on Team USA not named Kevin Durant, DeAndre Jordan is one more year improved, Aminu/Bledsoe/Warren represent a bumper crop of Clipper talent, and the coaching staff, Del Negro and Iavaroni, stylistically match Baron and the team.
Baron knows this. These positives must be re-energizing him. But what makes me most hopeful is his trip to Africa, an experience he felt so strongly about that he noted it earlier this Summer in a letter to all free agents. What I hope he gets, and he has professed to understand, is the perspective of it all. I’m sure in his travels through extreme poverty, he was able to see kids laughing amongst the bleakness of their life and people treating each other with the kindness and sincerity that should be merited to anyone, regardless of accomplishment. I hope that Baron comes to realize that the fictive career he hasn’t had shouldn’t be the barometer of how he will act and work. That was apparent in his letter to the free agents. And that headiness is what the team will need from its steward, both in age and position.