Care for a dose of optimism? Charlie Widdoes explains why even after another loss, the future is looking bright in Clipperland.
Some people like to say there is no such thing as a moral victory in professional sports, and while those people are welcome to their opinions, I respectfully disagree with them. There are plenty of positives that can come from losses, even blowout ones like the Clippers’ in New Orleans. In fact, even in losing by 19, along with the news that Chris Kaman will likely miss three weeks, it appears that the Clippers’ development is going almost exactly as planned. You see, at this stage, there is a distinct advantage to seeing certain players play a certain way, regardless of outcome. And that is to say nothing of the actual benefit of losing, but more on that in a bit.
The first time I ever had the privilege of writing for ClipperBlog was last season after a loss to the Bobcats. The Clippers, who were also playing without Eric Gordon on that night, played uninspired basketball against a playoff-bound Charlotte team and saw their record fall to 25 and 41. The season was further along, but the current development timeline of the franchise had only begun to take shape. The point then, as it is now, related to the direction of the team. The bulk of the minutes in that game went to guys who had no place in the team’s future. Tonight, thanks to injuries and foul trouble, we got to see what every Clippers fan should hope to see, short of winning, of course: core players seizing opportunities to show they belong.
Overshadowed by the magic that has been Eric Bledsoe’s improbably immediate emergence have been the subtle indications of Al-Farouq Aminu’s potential. The eighth pick in the draft has played limited minutes behind Ryan Gomes before tonight, but exploded to lead all scorers with 20 points on 7 of 10 shooting, with eight rebounds in nearly 30 minutes. Make no mistake, this is a big deal for a player that most expected to struggle offensively, at least initially. His energy was the primary factor in the Clippers’ repeated comeback attempts, and another indication that there is, indeed, a culture of hard work that is building with the core pieces.
Bledsoe had an “off” night that consisted of eight assists, six points and six boards. To be clear, the youngest player on the court played the most minutes (38) of any player on either team, and that came against arguably the best point guard in the game, Chris Paul. He combined with Aminu to commit nine turnovers, but the fact that those two warranted primary roles on offense should be pretty encouraging.
In direct contrast to the promising youngsters came another regrettable performance from the team’s two least effective rotation members, Rasual Butler and Baron Davis. But despite their continued struggles, the Clippers as a team can actually benefit. Butler, who shot 4 for 12, 2 of 7 from three, and finished with a +/- of -26 (!) continues to show that he has no place in the rotation of a team that wants to play smart, efficient basketball. Baron played only 10 sloppy minutes coming back from his knee injury, and looks nowhere near the level of an NBA point guard. In playing so poorly, the two are helping the team make the transition to the young guys. And as it turns out, they wouldn’t appear to be sacrificing quality in the short term in favor of obvious long-term upside.
The obvious goal of this year’s Clippers was and is to build a team around Eric Gordon, Blake Griffin and Chris Kaman that could contend for a playoff spot if the all the pieces fell in place. A brutal early season schedule has tempered those expectations, but also provided the revelation that the best hopes for the team may hinge on different pieces than the ones they initially thought. Aminu and Bledsoe are here to stay, and that is a very good thing. Even with health from Gordon and Griffin and some combination of DeAndre Jordan and Kaman, they might not be able to find many, if any, more wins than last season. But they will be better than last year. And they will be better next year. We know this, because they have better players, with far more upside, and the extremely useful knowledge of who does not belong.
My favorite football team is the Pittsburgh Steelers, and their coach, Mike Tomlin, likes to classify “winning football” as playing “above the line.” On the Steelers, practically every player who gets on the field – or dresses, for that matter – plays “above the line” most of the time. That is not the case yet for the Clippers, but it’s getting there, and the distinction between those who do and don’t is becoming very clear, even in a losing season. How the Steelers built, and how the Clippers will continue to build, is through the draft. The draft pick they get in this year’s draft will be a reflection of their record, designed to give the teams that need the most help the best shot at great players in the draft. We know the model for this franchise, and we know that sometimes a 20-win leap is simply a matter of finding the right pieces and building the right culture. To me, that looks a lot like what they are doing.