Every team talks about winning every game, but teams without a hope never seem to play quite as hard as they did in the beginning of the year. The lack of motivation is easy to understand, players have had their carrot taken away from them, but a systemic motivation to play worse exists as well. Bad play results in a higher draft pick, a new player more likely to improve the franchise. The record of the Clippers would suggest that this be a relevant strategy, but the Clippers traded away their unprotected first round pick this year so the long term improvement of the franchise turns to the habit of winning.
Rumblings around the franchise have already turned to next season. They expect this team to compete not just for a playoff spot, but in the playoffs themselves. Getting to the playoffs alone will not suffice, the team needs to win. Which is a long way from where they are now, losing all but 5 games on the road this year. They need to learn to win, and with Eric Gordon returning, the balance in the Clippers identity returns.
For the first time since January, Eric Gordon will return to the Clippers active roster. Much has changed in 18 games since his injury, the Clippers no longer have a chance at the playoffs. Even if the Clippers won every single game left on the schedule, they would still only finish with 42 wins. Baron Davis has left, leaving Mo Williams to run the point in his stead and the Clippers have reverted back to their November buzz when they were a surprisingly fun team to watch for being so terrible. Winning no longer seems like an expectation.
The Clippers’ woes in Gordon’s absence stem from more than Gordon providing outside shooting. Yes, having a player knock down perimeter shots dramatically improves the Clippers, but Gordon’s tough defense combined with his relentlessly calm demeanor establishes a tone for the Clipper. Blake is the exuberance and the momentum, but no one on the Clippers can non-chalantly halt the opponent’s momentum like Gordon.
With Gordon playing, the Clippers have the first healthy roster of the entire season, something that hasn’t happened at all this year. Even when Baron played at the beginning of the season, his knee and his weight were still a problem. Now, though, the Clippers have the opportunity to really gel.
The issue with this reliance on health, and the Clippers have been so lucky that Blake hasn’t missed a game the entire year, is that there is a laziness on drawn-up offense. So many plays revolve around clear outs for Blake on the short wing or in the post, maybe a high pick and roll, which is fine when the talent of the team is healthy. Eric Gordon is exceptional in the pick and roll. But the issue in reality revolves around the regularity of injuries. No team in the league endures an entire season without having some injury to a key player, and VDN needs to develop himself as well. Portland lost Brandon Roy and Greg Oden and still managed to improve on the year. That’s what the Clippers need to figure out, not only how to play well when healthy, but how to win when things aren’t quite right. They need to start it now.
Keys to the Game
– Kevin Martin. In the last game, Rand Foye held Mini-Mart to 8 points on 3 for 11 shooting. Martin is an extremely efficient scorer, he’s 13th in PER at 22.87 and he has a 61.3 true shooting percentage. He can most definitely score. If Gordon and Foye can hold the awkwardly efficient Martin to the same numbers, the Clippers have a great chance of winning.
– Blake Griffin v. Chuck Hayes. Hayes is the shortest center in the league, but his lack of stature doesn’t hurt his game because he’s not reliant on shot blocking. He uses his quick feet to stay in front of opposing bigs and his strong lower body to keep defenders from getting to their favorite spots. In the two match-ups this season, Hayes has held Blake Griffin to a lowly 36.1 percent shooting, almost 15 percentage points lower than his season average (50.9 percent). To be effective, the Clippers can’t just give Blake the ball on the low block (unless he’s being guarded by Luis Scola). They need to create movement, with pick and rolls, pin downs and passes in transition to allow Blake to be especially effective.
– Rebound. The last match-up saw the Clippers outrebounded by the Rockets (50 to 44) and that’s been a trend of late. The Clippers at one point owned the best rebound rate in the entire NBA and while they’re still in the top five (51.4 percent) they have had a notable slide in just the last few weeks, strange because Eric Gordon has been the main absence lately and he’s an average rebounder at best.
Eric Gordon: wrist, probable
Yao Ming: foot, out