Whew. That was rough. After a monster 9 game schedule to open the season, capped by a winless 4 game road trip, the Clippers come back to Staples tonight. The combined record of the 8 teams they played (they played the Spurs twice) is 44-19. Yes, they all got to play the disjoint Clippers early in the year. But even if you take out the games played against the Clippers that bring up their winning percentages, the teams are 36-18. That’s a .666 winning percentage and that, my friends, is incredibly good.
To give you some perspective, the only teams that had a better winning percentage than that last year were the Cleveland Cavaliers, Orlando Magic, Dallas Mavericks and the Los Angeles Lakers. In either conference, a .666 winning percentage would have been good enough for a 3 seed. And that’s the average of what the Clippers have been facing. It’s been tough.
The Clips couldn’t have been expected to win that many of their first nine games. They are a very young team going against good teams and good teams with whom they have a terrible past (Utah and San Antonio). Because they were forced to play up to their competition (they kept it close against Portland, won against OKC, close in the Denver, almost won in Utah, decent showing in New Orleans and San Antonio), this team may be further along than they would have been had they played an easier schedule.
Now. The schedule changes. In the next five games the Clippers will face the Detroit Pistons, New Jersey Nets, Minnesota Timberwolves, Indiana Pacers and the New York Knicks. Their combined record? 13-26. It’s time for the Clippers to win some games.
The Clippers get to face a rebuilding Detroit team that is floundering. Not that it should surprise anyone. As soon as they signed Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva to far too large contracts (Gordon: 5 years $55 million; Villanueva 5 years, $35 million), most knew that GM Joe Dumars had lost some of his championship wisdom that created the 2004 NBA Championship team. After all, this was $90 million spent on quality bench players. Yes, that’s right. Bench players.
That’s not to say that the Pistons don’t have talent on their team. But they seem poorly pieced together. Gordon, Tayshaun Prince, Rip Hamilton, Austin Daye, Will Bynum and Rodney Stuckey are all talented wing players from whom they still get plenty of production, but you should notice that the talent isn’t with the big men. They have Ben Wallace, Charlie Villanueva, Greg Monroe and Jason Maxiell. None are terrible and Monroe is a tricky passing young big that could be a good player, but for right now, Jason Maxiell is still trying to find his the potential he showed in 2008 and Ben Wallace is trying to figure out how he can be like he was in 2004. One is missing his prime and the other is way past it. And Charlie Villanueva is more famous for his tweets with Kevin Garnett than he is playing on the court.
While the Clippers would be much better off to have Kaman in the line up so that he and Blake could share the attention of Ben Wallace, they still are going to have opportunities in the paint. There are injury problems beyond Kaman. Baron is out, Foye too, and Gordon is questionable. However, this team has begun to play well enough that they should be able to beat teams like the Pistons. They won’t be ground down by systems (San Antonio) or overwhelming players (Chris Paul, Deron Williams). The Pistons have neither the grinding system like the Spurs nor do they have the superstar willpower to carry them over the top like the Trailblazers (Roy), Jazz (Deron), New Orleans (Chris Paul), Oklahoma City (Durant), Dallas (Dirk) and even Golden State to a lesser extent (Steph Curry and Monta Ellis).
A lot of this hinges on Eric Gordon playing. He’s been the one to balance out the offense with Blake Griffin. His 3 point shot hasn’t shown up yet, but that should be a matter of time. With the tenderness in his shoulder, he may shoot from the outside more so as to not draw contact.
Interesting tidbit: the best three point shooters on the team so far, the guys that the Clippers need to space the floor, have been Eric Bledsoe and Al-Farouq Aminu. Again, small sample size. But Farouq and Bledsoe are shooting .636 and .556 from three respectively. That’s considerably better than the next closest players on the team, Brian Cook and Rasual Butler, at .400 and .366. Will those numbers for Farouq and Bledsoe continue? No way. Aminu has taken only 11 threes and Bledsoe has taken 9, but they are making them and that’s what the Clippers have been looking to improve. That’s why Ryan Gomes was signed and why Rasual was re-signed.
Farouq and Bledsoe are making shots while contributing on defense as well. They have been the most active and the stats support it. They have the first and third highest totals on the team in steals, even though their minutes are drastically lower than the rest of the starters. And Bledsoe is third on the team in blocks. Yes, the Clippers 6’1” guard is 3rd on the team in blocks.
Because of the injuries and their good play, these two will see more playing time against the Pistons tonight and could be reasons, along with Blake Griffin returning to good form, that the Clippers right the ship and start winning again.
(Addendum: John Hollinger’s bit on Al-Farouq Aminu
Free Al-Farouq Aminu!
Aminu supposedly couldn’t shoot, but he’s made 7-of-11 on 3s in his young NBA career, and the 20-year-old rookie looks like he can be enough of a perimeter threat to complement fellow rook Blake Griffin as the Clips’ forwards of the future.
But we won’t know that unless Aminu plays more than 13 minutes a game. Given that the starting small forward spot is currently manned by the barely adequate Ryan Gomes, who is shooting 36.1 percent with an 8.26 PER, I don’t think it’s a big stretch for the Clips to plug in Aminu now and see how it works.
(Another addendum: I’ll be at the Daily Dime Live, chatting it up during the game, should you care to join)