After what seems like the longest basketball offseason in history, the NBA starts its regular season on Tuesday. It’s about time. On Wednesday, the Clips open up against Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge and Greg Oden’s surgically repaired knees and I can’t wait to see how this whole basketball season unfolds.
Like normal, the experts aren’t picking the Clippers to finish very well. An ESPN panel voted the Clips to finish 3rd in the Pacific and 12th in the conference, not very inspiring numbers. None of this is surprising after watching the Clippers lose 7 of 8 games in the preseason, but there is plenty of reason for excitement in Clipper Nation: the Clippers Organization finally has a positive culture change with Neil Olshey new tenure and Mike Dunleavy’s absence being large contributors; Eric Gordon is surging from an offseason playing with the FIBA Championship Team; the majority of the starting unit has one more year to cohere; the team isn’t suffering from any major injuries; and Vegas has the Clippers’ odds at 38.5 wins for the season, 9.5 more wins that they finished with last year.
Oh, and there’s Blake Griffin.
Before spending the summer on the “inside” writing for the Clippers I had my own ideas as to how the working environment would be. I imagined an accepted air of resignation and a begrudging camaraderie pervading the atmosphere, mixed with a latent distaste for the Lakers. I mean the Clippers have only had one winning season in the last 18 years, 2 winning seasons in their tenure in Los Angeles and 6 in their 40 year history. They’ve only made the playoffs 7 times, once in the last 13 years. If there is any tradition with the Clippers it’s consistent mediocrity. And you’d think that would infiltrate everyone in the organization, from President Andy Roeser and GM Neil Olshey all the way down through the players, scouts, the web team and to the sales team.
But such was not the case (other than the anti-Laker sentiment, my old boss, Jeff, talked about being tormented in his Staples Center office in May and June, especially during the Laker games). It wasn’t even clichéd “cautious optimism” but full-fledged, “we can do this” optimism. Frankly, I was shocked, there weren’t even traces of humorous fatalism. I thought that this could have been a madness, but it was based on rational thought processes.
Not only was Blake in the process of getting cleared, but the team was rid of Dunleavy. While Olshey may feel like a puppet-leader in the chasm-sized void of a fallen dictator, he’s making very real strides to change the culture. It’s a very clear purpose to make the team centered around hard-working, honest and selfless players. True, it makes it easier to follow that ethos when you luck into drafting Blake Griffin, but at least this Clipper regime recognizes what they have.
The first moves of the Clippers were to draft Al-Farouq Aminu, Willie Warren and trade picks to get Eric Bledsoe. On top of showing immense talent, each of these players is humble and hard working, central tenets to the Clippers new attitude. Yes, they are raw, but one of the realistic approaches that the Clippers Organization has is that this is a team that is in development (that would have changed if they signed LeBron, but…) and it can’t be forced.
Signing Vinny Del Negro may not have been the sexiest coaching pick (John Hollinger calling him a “retread”) but there was reason. In the two years with the Bulls, he kept the team motivated (great for Baron) and they exceeded expectations in their first year (if not their second). VDN has been known to develop young talent which is key to a team like the Clippers that are laden with rookies (Blake, Farouq, Bledsoe, Warren) as well as other young players like Eric Gordon and DeAndre. He took a Bulls team that was young and fragile and made sure they developed throughout the course of the year, peaking in April. Doesn’t that sound like the best thing for the Clippers, to keep the player motivated and develop the players so that they are peaking in April? Sounds good to me.
All good in theory. Now it’s time for the execution.
Vinny, while known for being a motivational coach, has struggled with playcalling. I can specifically recall a moment in the Mexico City preseason game. The Clippers and the Spurs decided that they wanted to play the preseason game for real and it came down to the final possessions for each team. Spurs Coach Manu Ginobili (yes, that’s right) called a play that gave unheralded Eric Neal a wide open three which he buried. On the other end? Vinny drew up a play for Kaman that didn’t even lead to a shot. I know there were only 1.5 seconds, but is it really the best idea to have your center 20 feet from the basket doing pump fakes?
A minor thing, but more concerning to me will be the evolution of the offense. Everyone knows (and hates) Baron’s love of the chucker three, it’s unbelievably maddening. Some have said it evolved from a lack of trust in teammates or his desire for heroic moments. Whatever it is, how is that going to mesh with VDN and Marc Iavaroni’s propensity to run high screen rolls with Baron and, presumably, either Griffin or Kaman? Past iterations of this have included Derrick Rose turning the corner of a Joakim Noah pick and bolting for the rim, Derrick Rose nipping his defender at a Brad Miller pick to drop it back for an open look, and all the magic Steve Nash and Amar’e had in Phoenix, which did include the occasional Steve Nash three as he bent right around Amar’e on the arc.
Which brings me to my point, there will be threes for Baron to take in this new system, and it will be a struggle for him to constantly resist temptation. The good news is that no matter what, they shouldn’t be the typical stop and pop threes from 29 feet that make coaches/teammates/fans tear out their hair. Also, he will be working with Blake Griffin and Chris Kaman, two very viable offensive weapons. I think he’ll have to be careful when it’s DeAndre Jordan because DeAndre doesn’t have the outside skills to check defenders’ integrity. But there will be shooters like Rasual, Gomes and Eric Gordon on the outside no matter what.
All of this action will of course open up shots for Eric Gordon. After his play in the World Championships (listen to Eric talk about the season), Eric has become a not so sleeping sleeper. What confounds me about this is both the underappreciation of what he showed in FIBA contrasted with the unrealistic expectations. I was reading Sports Illustrated, you know, brushing up on my Clippers knowledge and I came across a scouting report for the Clippers and one of the mentions was that the scout thought that Eric should come off the bench and share ball handling duties with Baron. Idea being that Baron and Gordon could both score 20+ points in this way because both need the rock. I’m not sure if I completely agree with that dynamic. If anything, the FIBA Championships solidified the question as to whether Eric could operate off the ball. He was frequently spotting up for threes off of kick outs. Yes, I’d like to see him work on moving without the ball a little more, but he does a fine job at getting open as it stands now. And when he does get crowded he uses that jolting first step to get by his defender. He doesn’t strike me as a guy that always needs the basketball in his hands the way that both LeBron and Wade do, one of my favorite things about him is his beautiful shot that conjures up the line from one of my favorite corny basketball movies, Pistol: Birth of a Legend, which is “Fingerpad control, backspin follow through.” His shot is made for open looks, which makes him a deadly weapon when Baron kicks it out to him after ditching his defender on a Blake Griffin screen.
That said, Eric hasn’t transformed into a superstar over the course of the offseason. His handle and court vision are okay but not great, so when he drives into the lane and is presented with an obstacle, like a giant glowering center, he frequently gets stuck and makes an poor bail-out pass. He’s going to be better this year, I’m confident, but if you’re expecting him to go from 16.9 points to 25 points a game, that’s unrealistic. My guess is that his numbers go up only slightly, to around 18-19 points because even with his growth, there is the addition of Blake Griffin to the offense that already included Baron Davis and All Star Chris Kaman.
With the portent of an increase in Gordon’s production and Blake’s integration into the offense it will be interesting to see how the 2009-2010 All Star Chris Kaman reacts. On the glass, I think he’ll see a slight dip in rebounds but not much because he pulled down so many last year alongside Marcus Camby that it would be unlikely if he saw a huge spike down. Good rebounders have a way of getting rebounds no matter what, and while Kaman isn’t an elite rebounder, he’s at least a very good one. Offensively, if there is any indication from the preseason, he’ll still be the top option in the half court sets. He looks a bit fitter and it’s always reassuring to see the big man healthy because he’s one of the best low post players in the league, which adds a unique dimension to any team. Honestly, how many good low post players are there? Chris Kaman, Pau Gasol, Zach Randolph, Tim Duncan, Andrew Bynum, Al Jefferson, Carlos Boozer, Brook Lopez, maybe DeMarcus Cousins fit the bill but that’s about all and that’s being generous. Because Blake will probably get so many of his points from a glory garbageman role (tip-ins, putbacks, alley-oops, fast-break points), I think that Kaman’s offensive production will remain around where it was last year in the high teens. Since Blake needs to be guarded, Kaman’s production may even see a spike because teams last year had Marcus Camby (for a while) and DeAndre Jordan to sag off of for a while.
Speaking of DeAndre, he’s probably not going to develop into a great offensive force. He looks like he’s always hurrying for no reason, like he wants to catch the ball, do a spin move and dunk all at the same time but he hasn’t learned how to catch the ball then do a spin move then dunk. He’ll blow possessions just by bouncing balls off of his hands. And his free-throws? Ugh. Just ugh. He didn’t even shoot 40 percent last year. Not a good omen for those who were hoping that he’d extend his range and become a nice pick and pop option. But that doesn’t mean he’ll be an ineffective player. Marcus Camby, once loved by Clippers faithful, was never much of an offensive threat. And by that I mean that he was one of the least threatening offensive players in the game (a usage rate of just 12.8, just inside the top 300 for the NBA in 2009-2010). But Camby makes up for that low usage rate and low point totals because he is a great weakside defender, an elite rebounder and an above average passer. Other than passing, I think DeAndre could emulate that trajectory. And isn’t that worth something on the bench? I say yes. Especially on our bench.
You’ve probably read other season previews on the Clippers and the one thing that everyone seems to harp on is the belief that there isn’t much of a bench. I’m not going to go out and say that it’s a great bench, but when the rotations of the regular season are more restricted and the whole bench unit doesn’t play at once and lose giant leads (like in the preseason), I think this bench is positively average. You’ll have DeAndre, Craig Smith, Rasual Butler, Al-Farouq Aminu and Randy Foye as the players that will get the most burn from the bench (I don’t see Bledsoe, Warren, Collins, Cook getting much unless it’s a blowout or there are injuries). Yes, all at once that’s a pretty meager lineup, but the Clippers won’t be trotting them out all five at a time. While Foye has looked unspectacular in the preseason, I think he’ll find his groove in the regular season. That does not equate to him playing spectacularly, I see Foye as one of those game managers that you hear about in football, like David Garrard of the Jaguars. He’s not going to be great, but the team can still be effective with him in the game. Rasual isn’t thrilling, but he can knock down spot up threes and that definitely serves a function. Craig Smith will bully around for rebounds and sink a couple buckets. Al-Farouq definitely has the most upside but he’s young and he’s going to have some swings in production as raw rookies do. What’s going to be particularly tough will be Al-Farouq’s turnovers but that’s going to be endemic of the whole team.
Actually, With exception of Rasual Butler, who doesn’t turn the ball over much because so many of his possessions only include a shot and not a dribble, the entire team has problems with turning the ball over. And it will only be magnified by the inexperience of the team and the lack of repetitions they’ve had with one another. Those turnovers will lead to easy transition points for the opposing teams and, most likely, will cost the Clippers more than a few games.
Like all teams that aren’t title contenders, this team has lots of question makrs, but a solid foundation. They should improve dramatically on their record from last year (unless the basketball-reference.com simulation is right) and they’ll be really entertaining to watch. So what does that mean in terms of record? I said it early in the preseason that I thought the Clippers would finish with 40 wins and even though the preseason was a disaster from a win-loss standpoint, I’m going to keep it there. So my guess is the Clippers go 40-42 and finish 3rd in the Pacific Division and 11th in the Western Conference.
Not great, but a huge step up from all the other years and reason enough to get excited about basketball season.
If you need more motivation, Blake Griffin Highlights: