Whoever made this schedule sure had it out for the Clippers. In the first six weeks, the Clippers have played Portland (who they’ll play again on Sunday), Dallas, Oklahoma City, Denver (who they’ll play again on Friday), New Orleans twice, Phoenix (who the never beat), Utah twice (who they really never beat) and, after tonight, the Spurs for the third time (who they really, really never beat). It’s like the schedule makers picked out all the veteran teams with systems that are soundly in place that could really expose the Clippers (Utah, San Antonio, Phoenix), and dared the Clippers to win some games. Not surprisingly, the Clippers are off to a 3-15 start. But at some point, if the Clippers ever want to be ‘good,’ they have to learn to beat good teams, play through tough schedules and win. They excuse themselves from good play because of a tough schedule.
It’s like the Bulls this year. They have always been decimated by the Circus Road Trip since the departure of Jordan, but it wasn’t specifically because of the grueling tests of the trip. It was because the team hasn’t been good since Jordan left. Until this year’s team. Now, Derrick Rose looks transformed, Joakim Noah pulls down a Rodman-esque 13.2 rebounds a game and Luol Deng is in the midst of not just redeeming himself for his past mediocrity, but vastly outperforming anything he’s ever done. It’s no surprise why the Bulls finally got through that Circus Trip. They are just better.
Hopefully, the same thing will be said for the Clippers. While they are again getting off to a poor start, if they were a better team they wouldn’t be in this hole. Even a good team would struggle with this schedule, but they would survive. That’s the difference, the Clippers don’t have the unity to survive. And that unity, something that they’ve shown hints of (the two game winning ‘streak’ against New Orleans and Sacto, plus the almost come back against the Suns), will be tested from within as well as by the Spurs tonight.
Rumor has it that Baron will play. Maybe. And yet in his absence the team has developed the closest thing to an identity that they’ve had in a while. It’s the young guys show and they are in it together. Eric Gordon, as Alex Siskin wrote, is having a great year and he’s playing so well with Blake Griffin (great post on Griffin at FreeDarko). Will Baron be able to take the backseat to Gordon? While there have been times when he has played up to his ego, his ego has always suggested one of dominance. Is his ego strong and malleable enough to continue to let Gordon run the show? Even more, will he hinder the development of Eric Bledsoe? It’s clear that he’s in an awkward situation and for once, even being Good Baron might not be enough. He’s going to have to be a role player. At best the third option. Before the season, I believed (or at least pretended to see) a Baron that could envision his exit. There is the light at the end of the tunnel for him, and that light is his career’s death. I thought that the trip Africa and his subsequent letter through Ramona Shelburne showed signs of maturity and awareness. Problem is, Baron is clever in the most insidious of ways. He knows how to say the things that will shed the responsibility from himself. Because it’s true, saying the right things does mean something, but not if you routinely revert back to your problematic nature. He still has a chance to see this, but I can’t help but think he never will if he didn’t before this season, this one of so much nascent hope.
If there has been anything that VDN has done superbly this season, it’s been to hold Baron accountable. When Boom Dizzle showed up to camp with too much boom, VDN made sure that he didn’t get a free pass. When Baron’s treatment and rehab continued to linger, VDN didn’t pass it off as bad luck with injuries as he so easily could have. VDN is holding Baron accountable, which, for some reason, makes me believe that he’ll be able to control this Baron situation however it may turnout. Whether that be Baron becoming a viable piece of the team (not so likely) or being shunned (slightly more likely).
As for tonight though, Baron’s return, if he has to guard Tony Parker, could be a major reason the Clippers lose. While Bledsoe has tapered off in his offensive production of late, the opposing point guards (with exception of Deron Williams) have struggled against him. It’s because of Bledsoe’s strength, quickness and his aggression. He gets into passing lanes, annoys big men when he goes around screens and just causes havoc on the floor. Baron, with his withering knees, won’t be able to do that. You’ve seen Jason Kidd try to guard quick PGs, it’s ugly. Same thing will happen with Baron.
So tonight, more than just a game of keys like “guard the three,” “Play a tough third quarter,” “Keep Blake going in the second half,” “Eric Gordon, please find your 3 point shot,” “For the love of god, will the Clippers just space the floor,” “rotate on D” and “will there be help for Gordon and Blake?” It will be about the team’s identity. How will Baron alter it. Because it’s not going to be the same. I know that Chris Kaman (who’s out tonight) has the observational capability to see that he’s coming back into a different team, so I’m not too worried about Kaman. But does Baron have that same perception? How will it affect the Clippers tonight? More importantly, how will it affect the Clippers’ tomorrow?
(Non-required Clippers related reading: a complete breakdown of Staples, Clipper Style)
(Non-required non-Clippers reading: Wright Thompson’s piece on Post-LeBron Cleveland is more than worth the time)