Sugarcoating a 1-10 start, when the Clippers have just lost two at home to the Detroit Pistons and the New Jersey Nets, is beyond impossible, it’s pointless. This Clippers team finds itself not so much in a hole attempting to make the playoffs, but with a fantastic start in the year to land another top draft pick. This start is so bad, that the only one worse in recent Clipper history, is the 0-17 start they had in the 1998-1999 season. While it’s great to have hope for this team, and you should for the future, it shouldn’t be used as a delusional mechanism to overlook their current large flaws. Instead of vaguely imagining of a time at a non-specific future point where the Clippers are magically better, they need to keep their hope alive, this hope being a belief that they are good players, and then get to work on fixing their problems. These dreams of the Clippers being a very good team are very real and very worthwhile, but there is a lot of work to be done between now and then. The resiliency needed to get there has to be shown now and not just in terms of effort but in execution.
The Clippers play the Timberwolves in Minnesota today. A team that, until about a week ago, was known more for it’s charismatically bad GM than it was for any of its players. The team was off to one of the worst starts in the NBA, being so statistically bad that John Hollinger joked that the Wolves “were so far behind the other 29 teams that I was going to have to rank them behind a few Big Ten squads.”
The Clippers are about that bad. They’re offensive efficiency hangs at a lowly 96.4, bad enough for 29th out of 30 teams. Their defensive efficiency is only slightly better, ranking in 28th with a 108.8 DEF EFF. They are shooting 3.5 percent worse from the field than their opponents, 12 percent worse from three (12! 29.8 percent to 41.8 percent), 7 percent worse from the free throw line (anchored by Blake’s 56 percent because of the amount of his attemtps and to a smaller degree Aminu’s 60 percent, DeAndre’s 44 and Rasual’s 70 percent). They have turned the ball over 32 more times than their opponents while dishing out 47 fewer assists. They have 19 fewer blocks. The only thing that really stands out as a statistical positive is the rebounding. The Clips have out-rebounded their opponents by 9, less than one board a game, based on their good offensive rebounding.
The offensive efficiency is so low because they initiate their offense so late in the clock, poorly space and rotate, and when they get stuck they just stand around and hope that Eric Gordon or Blake Griffin bails them out. Only because they are standing in place, sometimes in clumps, the defense can sag off of them and double team Blake in the post and hedge and play good help D on Gordon. The addition of Aminu’s and Bledsoe’s outside shooting has been a revelation, especially since the Clippers haven’t been getting great shooting from Gomes and, outside of a couple great shots, from Rasual either, but all of those players need to be more active off the ball. There needs to be more cuts to the basket. I mean, it’s a simple rule, if there is no one between you and the basket, go to the basket. That will start to develop some flow and, even if they don’t get the ball, give some spacing to Gordon on the perimeter and Blake down low.
On defense, that same stagnation affects the team only it manifests itself initially as poor communication and then porous help D. D.J. Foster likes to call them “zombie closeouts” but it’s more than that, there isn’t the constant communication there to make the players aware of a screen. The players often aren’t even giving each other the opportunity to play good defense. So when an opponent runs a Clipper through a screen there is either no call out or it’s not heard so before the help defender even has a chance to step up on the man, the opponent has made his way to the rim for an annoyingly easy 2 points. It’s like since they are playing man on man defense, they have to defend all by themselves, and I like the responsibility, but that’s not how NBA Basketball works. There is a level of infantile self-absorption on the team. It’s not because they aren’t “good” (maybe in Cook and Collins’ case it is) but it’s because they are so new to this team/NBA. They haven’t been inculcated to keep their heads up and watch out for picks, cutters, etc. like the Spurs/Lakers/Celtics have. They haven’t broken out of their small world as a basketball player. There are even moments where they may do something well, like make a good pass and then because they are so pleased with themselves, they lose themselves in the moment and make a mistake. A good example of this is when Bledsoe, in the Spurs game, dumps it off to Gordon who attacks the rim for the slam over Tim Duncan. Quite impressive. But in Bledsoe’s pleasure, he finds himself forgetting to cover the leaking Manu Ginobili who gets an outlet pass and an easy lay up.
The good news is that these signs, along with the turnovers, free throw shooting and poor field goal percentage are correctable dysfunctions of a young team. But they can’t sit back on the hope that they will simply one day be better. There needs to be the understanding that this takes time to develop. Even though they are going to have yet another losing season, it’s important to keep their wits about them so that they do develop in the future years. This is the most important job of Vinny Del Negro. In his past two years, he was able to motivate his teams for the entire year, despite the Bulls playing terribly during certain parts of the year. Motivation will definitely serve the Clippers well as there will be other teams that will not be motivated and they’ll be able to capitalize on that for some effort wins. But if the team wants to grow, and VDN wants to grow as a coach, there is going to have to be some semblance of unity on this team. I am not a coach (duh!), so I don’t know what the exact tactics are that increase cohesion (team bowling nights, team dinners, one on one stuff, team retreats, passing the ball) but that has to be the evolution of VDN if he wants to keep this job for the long haul. Up until this point, a lot of his moxie has stemmed from the Bulls’ team development. But even that team never looked that coherent. They were over-reliant on the pick and roll, which is understandable when you look at that roster, but VDN needs to develop himself.
One of the most over used adages when talking about a coach and his players is “they are buying into his system.” It’s tossed around, but Vinny needs to take that to heart. This is more than just motivating his players to play hard, which for the Clippers is no small feat, but he has to have a system where they can play hard and know what to do. As of right now, it doesn’t look like any of the players, outside of Eric Gordon, know what they are doing or where they should be going. Even Blake, as good as he is, hasn’t figured out his rotations. Bledsoe’s play has been laudatory, but even he outruns plays, over dribbles into trouble and gets caught cruising on defense. Vinny is the one that needs to step up to make sure that the players are aware, yes aware, so they can change it.
The Clippers aren’t going to win a lot of games this year. My prediction of 40-42 is out right laughable now. But I got caught up in what the Clippers can be in the future, which is a bright one.
And with the Timberwolves tonight, remember that things can change around really quickly. As terrible as Hollinger made them out to be in those first games, Kevin Love and Michael Beasley have played stellar in the last 5 game stretch. Love has notched a 20 point-20 rebound game and a 30-30 game (the first since Moses Malone in 1982) and Beasley has gone off for 42, 35, 25, and 28 points in his last four games. The Wolves have won two of those games and all of a sudden people are talking about them like there is hope. It’s not too much of a stretch to think that the Clippers could do that same thing. The Wolves team, as currently constructed, gives ample opportunity for the opposing teams to win because they play bad defense. Also, Rambis mysteriously only plays Love 31 minutes a game, not even due to foul trouble. That leaves 17 minutes for the Clippers not to have a rebounding monster on the floor and to let their own rebounding monster, Blake, go after it.
There is hope for this team, even if that hope has been reappropriated into meaning “having a good season,” and into meaning “they can develop into a good team eventually.” However dreary that may sound, it is still reason to watch because watching is the best part about this team. If you just look at the box scores you’re probably only going to get the dismal breakdown and not see the astounding plays that the team does make, even if it hasn’t been enough to win so far.
The Clippers have way more than a few things to key in on tonight, but I’ll stray away from the macro as a send off into this game’s specifics.
– Kevin Love v. Blake Griffin. Blake is way more athletic than Kevin Love, and that should help, but Kevin Love is a master of rebounds. The guy studies all the angles and knows where to be, knows his positioning. Even with his semi-perimeter game, he still has the second best rebound rate in the League. But Love is mediocre at best on defense and Blake should be able to get the shots he wants.
– Defending Michael Beasley: Beas has been going off lately and other than Gomes quasi-shutdown of Kevin Durant, the team has struggled to contain good small forwards. Aminu definitely has the length and athleticism to contain him, but it’s more than a one man job.
– Third quarters. The Clippers are starting to look better in this, but on the road, it could be more of a problem. The Wolves will have a home crowd behind them and it would be easy for the Clippers to slip into that malaise like they did in their 4 game road trip against Denver, Utah, New Orleans and San Antonio.
– Spacing. On offense the team has been stagnant and will sometimes bunch up in corners, on the perimeter allowing one defender to cheat away from his man. Keep up with the cuts to maintain spacing and an honest defense. The Wolves aren’t a good defensive team, the Clippers need to take advantage of that.
Addendum: David Thorpe’s nuggets of wisdom (and there may be more soon):
2. Blake Griffin, Clippers
The Clippers may be terrible, but they are young and exciting to watch. And Griffin, who I don’t think they use enough, is the centerpiece of that excitement. Still, he’s not a superhero yet — he needs a lot of work on his perimeter game.
4. Eric Bledsoe, Clippers
“The kid” is awfully good. That’s what I think every time I watch him almost make a poor decision before making the right one. He’s thinking the game so much better than he was during the summer. And his jets are at an elite level.
7. Al-Farouq Aminu, Clippers
Aminu has surged into the rotation, thanks to injuries and his shooting. While I’d rather see him play mostly the 4, where he’d certainly improve upon his middling offensive rebound rate and finish more shots inside, he’s been effective as mostly the small forward. The key is his 3-point shooting, where he’s made 10 of 19 shots.
(Note: I’m going to try to chat on Daily Dime Live tonight, but it will be in the second half only if I can make it.)