“Just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse,” as one of us ClipperBloggers put it, after the latest Donald Sterling story. The Clippers were already well into a frustrating first half of December, putting together a string of pretty good winless basketball. That’s one of the problems of being a hopeful, young team trying to get by on energy and raw talent: it ebbs and flows. You can play the Lakers tough and lose by one. You can play the Grizzlies not quite so tough, turn the ball over a million times, and lose by one. You can cut the turnovers against the Magic and forget how to make shots in the first quarter, almost come all the way back, and lose to a good team that happens to be struggling. In the end, you’re 5 and 21, and if winning makes everything better, losing happens to make everything worse. Enter Donald Sterling, prince of ownership darkness.
So yeah, things are pretty bad in Clipper Nation right now, with a fair amount of natural citizen unrest and despair. One part of the puzzle that commentators seem to be figuring out is that there are no winners in a grudge match between Donald Sterling and Baron Davis. It has been interesting to watch the polarized responses from the citizens. Just about everybody has ample disdain for Sterling, but Baron Davis isn’t winning popularity contests. The struggles of Davis have been sufficiently disappointing that a number of fans find themselves supporting Sterling, which is no easy trick when you think about it. Perhaps it’s worth noting that Clipper fans and the few outsiders who follow the team enough to know what’s going on seem to need a scapegoat for the constant dysfunction. It’s always someone’s fault. Sterling has always been available, and Davis is off to a strong start in his third year as a lightning rod for negativity. But weren’t we still kicking Mike Dunleavy around at this time last year? Wasn’t the departure of Dunleavy and the belated arrival of Blake Griffin supposed to make things better?
But just in case anybody still cares–and for some reason we always do, hanging on through thick and thin—let’s be clear about what the biggest problem has been this season: an injured Chris Kaman. I mentioned in mid-November how Kaman’s untimely injury in game 8 was a critical blow to hopes that the team would find any sort of even keel. That was after Eric Bledsoe showed that he would be a more than adequate replacement for a subpar Baron Davis, as the Clips were winding up the extra-thorny early season schedule. Kaman of course had been surprisingly funky in those first tough seven games, failing to find his shooting stroke after looking great throughout the preseason, and coming off an All-Star year. Losing Kaman for the winnable games in late November got the Clips to their 1-13 start, which is when Blake Griffin quit messing around and found his star status with a monster game in a loss against the Knicks.
That brought on the amusing first part of the U23 epoch, when Griffin and Gordon played like All-Stars, and the team managed to win a few games. Kaman was on the verge of coming back. At that point, as they won 3 out of 5 just before going into the gruesome recent stretch, the Clippers looked to be gelling and playing good basketball. They encountered quite a bit of adversity on the road against Denver and Portland, then came home and took care of Sacramento. Once past that pesky Laker game, the upcoming stretch looked manageable.
With the frustrating defeats continuing and the loss column racheted up to 21 already, the consensus is that the Clippers are missing a third scorer. Gordon and Griffin have grown into a consistently potent duo. Baron Davis is back, still trying to get it together, and the coaching staff is trying to find the right mixture of Baron/Bledsoe, along with Aminu/Gomes/Butler. Randy Foye is even coming back, all but forgotten, and Sterling never even knew who he was in the first place. All the same, the Clippers will remain bottom dwellers, losing on the road and to mediocre teams, perhaps showing some spunk against better teams. And it will be that way until Chris Kaman can play again.
Kaman figures to be back towards the end of the early January homestand, ten games from now, more or less. Out of the first 35 games, he will have played (and played poorly, mind you, with his bad start) in less than 10, and the Clippers will have less than ten wins. Kaman will have to rally to play in 50 games this season.
And this is a disaster. More than anything else, it is responsible for the fact that it will take a great post-All Star break run for the Clippers to win more than 25 games. And let’s not forget the spring ritual that we know all too well, the fine art of tanking. At a certain point winning becomes counter-productive, as going from less than twenty wins to almost thirty in the last 15-20 games can make a huge difference in the draft. The fact that we’re already considering our worst memories in mid-December shows what a debacle the season has already become.
It’s not as if Kaman is such an amazing or fantastic player. But he happens to be critical to the fortune and success of this particular Clipper roster. Without him in the lineup, winnable games become a struggle, and without the edge of a Kaman-Griffin-Jordan rotation, the team is learning how to lose, battling just to reach the final minute, rather than figuring out how to hold onto leads and having the depth to do so. In a developmental, transitional season with a thin margin for success, saying that Chris Kaman would play less than 60 games, and maybe even a much smaller number than that, it would obviously turn ugly. And it already has.