Last summer, after a dispiriting first year as a Clipper, a chastened Baron Davis sent a message out to fans promising them that he would do everything in his power to lead the Clippers out of the Western Division cellar. When camp opened, even some skeptics were grudgingly won over by Baron’s svelte physique and improved quickness. It seemed that Baron had backed up his words with action during the summer, determined to redeem himself and prove the naysayers wrong. And Clippers fans held out hope that the dominating point guard that almost single-handedly took apart the top ranked Dallas squad in the 06-07 Playoffs was back; angry, focused, and ready to lead his hometown team toward respectability.
The 09-10 NBA season started slowly for the Clippers, with four straight opening losses to playoffs bound team, followed by three straight wins against lottery teams. For the next few months, wins and losses would alternate in clumps, with the squad flirting with a .500 record, but never quite getting there. Then, to close out the old year and begin the new one, the team won four impressive games in a row against Philadelphia, Portland, the Lakers, and Miami. The team seemed to be coming together. Sports Illustrated even published an article about the new, closer relationship between Baron and Dunleavy, forged by their weekly lunches over the summer. Baron intimated that he got to know Dunleavy better over those lunches; that the coach surprised him by saying that he should consider a career as a coach after his playing days are done, and even trusted him enough to let him diagram plays in practice. The mutual respect that Baron hinted at was a surprise to some; that both men, who were stubborn and overly confident in their ways, were willing to accommodate one another, seemed to be a promising sign for the Clippers success.
Then the bottom fell out in Memphis. The water main broke in a game where the Clippers had a comfortable lead, as they had been doing in their four games winning streak. They lost that game and the news that Blake Griffin was done for the season threw the team into a tailspin. Dunleavy did not survive that road trip. By February, Kim Hughes had assumed the reins of the team and for whatever reasons; whether lack of pride, professionalism, effort, or leadership, the team lost and lost badly. The brief optimism and euphoria that Baron and Kaman had brought to the team before that Memphis game, when the squad was 1 game below .500 at 17 wins and 18 losses, was gone, buried under an avalanche of humiliating losses.
The off-season brought with it a new regime and a handful of rookies. The new Clippers ad campaign promised a “New Coach; New Attitude, New Energy; New Passion; New Players.” But one key player remained the same; Baron Davis, and with him goes the Clippers fortunes. Andrew Kamenetsky of ESPN LA has already written a pretty good article about Baron’s importance to the team, not only because he’s the team only capable starting point guard, but because he’s their only natural leader. What makes a player a leader is an elusive quality; it goes beyond talent, verbosity, and personality. There is a charisma that one must have—both on the court and inside the locker room—which Baron seems to possess when he is engaged. Whether he is engaged and focused on basketball at this point in his career is the crucial question.
Entering his tenth year in the league, moving into his 30s, Baron Davis’ fitness level entering camp this year is worse than last season. With his inconsistency and history of injuries, the Clippers organization and fans have valid reasons to worry. In an interview during the FIBA World Championship, Eric Gordon presaged Coach Del Negro’s comments this week, by saying of Baron that he is great when he is motivated, and it’s their job as his teammates to make sure that Baron stays motivated. This veiled criticism of Baron is probably a good sign that EJ is trying to be more assertive on a team lacking in leadership, even if goes against his nature. But the mantle of leadership this year probably still belongs to Baron by default.
Whatever the reasons for Del Negro’s soft public scolding of Baron’s lack of fitness, the new Clippers coach has laid down the gauntlet for his point guard. By publicly admonishing the team’s leader and its highest paid player, Del Negro has established his credentials with the rest of his young team. He is saying that no one will be shielded, and that everyone will be held accountable, from its tarnished star on down. The risk that Del Negro runs, of course, is that if the Clippers struggle out of the gate, especially if Baron struggles, the ire of Clippers fans and the local media will come down hard on Baron Davis. And then, the key relationship between the temperamental floor general and his new coach will be tested. Baron has played for some pretty decent coaches over the years—Paul Silas, Byron Scott, and Don Nelson—and he has feuded with almost every single one of them. Perhaps Baron’s relationship with Dunleavy never reached the point of mutual respect that he glowing spoke of in the last days of 2009. But if that grudging détente with the reserved Dunleavy has been replaced by the blunt, public assessment of Del Negro, how Baron Davis reacts to a new coach who is willing to throw him under the bus (no matter how softly) will be crucial to the team’s fortunes.
A few years ago, in that brief period of Clippers ascendance, when Sam Cassell first joined the squad in the 05-06 season, the aging Sam I Am was wise enough to call Elton Brand the team’s “horse.” Sam said that they would go as far as Brand was willing to carry them, and thereby, bestowed upon the almost colorless power forward, the mantle of team leader. Cassell not only gave the team confidence that year, he gave Elton Brand confidence to step up and hit the big shots in crucial situations. But the real leader on that team, the guy who rallied everyone, was Sam Cassell. A young Magic Johnson did a similar thing when he first joined the Lakers squad in 1979. Not wanting to usurp the spotlight from the taciturn, proud, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, he called the intimidating center, “Cap,” and gave Kareem all the deference befitting the team’s captain. Though, little by little, Magic’s ebullience and fierce determination slowly revealed him to be Showtime’s true spiritual leader.
Whether Baron has the temperament and wisdom to cede the spotlight and leadership mantle to the Clippers’ young guns of Gordon and Griffin remains to be seen. Baron’s best years are probably behind him, but no one, probably not even him, can imagine his current predicament when he agreed to return to Los Angeles three years ago. It is one thing to fail in a city far from home, but it must be excruciating to be jeered by local fans in front of your family and friends. Baron had once aspired to follow in Magic’s footsteps as prince of the city. That time and moment is probably past. But how he handles these final years of his career, how gracious he is in helping the Clippers crawl back toward respectability, will salvage his legacy in Los Angeles for a small group of ardent fans who still wish for a happy ending for his star-crossed career.