Clipper fans are used to being hopeful in the midst of dysfunctional and desperate situations. We all knew that his would be a tough season, with some promising young players on the roster along with Chris Kaman and Baron Davis, while the gaping hole at small forward wasn’t filled by some free agent savior, and instead seemed to be solved on the cheap. All of that, a new coach and system, and a challenging early season schedule plus some classic untimely Clipper injuries, adds up to the poorest start in recent memory in Clipperdom. And that’s saying something, of course.
But it feels different, right? The losses are still hard to take, each as they come, but somehow the majority of them seem to speak towards better days ahead. The Clippers seem to keep turning corners and making incremental progress, only to find that they still have to go further to get victories.
Obviously the rise of Blake Griffin is the primary factor in this odd scenario of promising defeatism. Griffin didn’t rip up the league in his first ten games, but he seems to be settling in and getting comfortable at an extremely high level of excellence and productivity of late. He’s doing more than hustling, rebounding, and dunking, and the more refined elements of his skill set are starting to show themselves. He’s establishing his moves and following them up with countermoves. He’s finding all sorts of ways to make plays, he’s getting position, he’s going to the line and hitting more free throws. Since his gaudy breakout game against the Knicks he’s averaging over 30 points and 15 rebounds, and a 20-10 effort will seem like an off-night at this point. The main thing is that it’s really fun to watch him play, and it’s really interesting to study his progress. Yes, winning games would be nice. But at the same time it’s easy to see that Griffin cares more about winning than padding his stats. It’s hard not to think that the winning won’t come eventually, that the Clippers won’t get some good momentum going as Griffin gets more help and continues his strong effort. If it happens, Griffin will have earned it, and gotten there the hard way.
The question that I have is whether Griffin’s rise came because he, along with Eric Gordon, has clearly been the leader of the Clipper U23 team. Would he be this aggressive, forceful, and accomplished if Kaman hadn’t gotten hurt, if the Clippers weren’t forced to play an entire starting lineup that would still have college eligibility? What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and all of the Clipper setbacks have accelerated the progress of the young players on the team, even if their record is abysmal.
The list of accomplishments continues to grow, and Griffin’s excellence is just the latest addition. It began with Eric Bledsoe establishing himself as a viable NBA point guard. Next, and most important, was Eric Gordon stepping into a firm leadership role. The third beat was Al-Farouq Aminu entering the starting lineup. And then, over the last seven games, as the U23 team piled up losses, we get the latest installment: Eric Gordon and Blake Griffin playing at All-Star level.
So who knows what would have happened if Kaman hadn’t gone down. The Clippers might have won a few games in the easier part of their schedule; they might be a little bit closer to .500. But now the Clippers will be a different team than the one that Kaman played on in the first nine games. Now this is Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon’s team. They will show up, they will play hard, they can almost win games on their own, getting a little help, especially on defense. Kaman doesn’t need to be a primary scoring option, along with Gordon; he can simply be complementary.
The Clippers have become a handful even without Kaman and Davis. Griffin and Gordon are so productive and so hard to stop, that it’s a fascinating prospect to see what will happen when Kaman returns to the mix, especially if he can hit his shots with the regularity he showed in the preseason and last year. The interesting thing is that the Clippers could roll along through the season starting the U23 team, get better and win their small share of games, and play at around the level that the team has over the past few seasons. But it’s not going to be like that. The addition of Kaman to the current mix should make them much more competitive. Griffin and the others will continue to improve, and the schedule will turn their way. They should win some games. They should be better. We’ll see if it happens.
And then there’s the Baron Davis situation. Again, the Clippers don’t really need him to return. My guess is that Baron Davis isn’t a guy who likes to be forgotten, to be an afterthought. At the beginning of the season the Clippers were relying on him to provide leadership, experience, and a spark, and he wasn’t ready. So what happens now, or whenever he is ready to go? And what will his addition do to this team, playing this way, at this level? There’s really no way to tell. But it should be fun to watch. Having low expectations and losing hope is pretty standard for Clipper fans, but this season the entertainment and intrigue seem to be at an especially high level.