The Clippers play host to the Oklahoma City Thunder, a team whose plan the Clips would love to follow. Draft a couple blue chip prospects (Durant/Westbrook or Griffin/Gordon), fill the team in with talented young role players (Ibaka, Harden, Maynor or Jordan/Aminu/Bledsoe), value highly the chemistry of the team, don’t overspend on veteran players, rid the team of bad contracts and stock up on draft picks. For continued development, stay wise with picks and vets, and let the team grow.
Although, as smooth as the Thunder’s rise to success has seemed, let’s not forget that they had their struggles, too. When they were supposed to take off in their second year, they limped out the gate to a 1 and 12 start, fired P.J. Carlesimo and continued to flounder under Scotty Brooks (winning only two more of their next 19 games), and even had paradoxical questions to deal with like whether the Thunder were better off without Kevin Durant on the floor. Even when they improved, they had to deal with the underwhelming Jeff Green (6 rebounds per game as a power forward?), whether or not the once sure thing James Harden would develop into a solid rotation player and the fact that they had very little size or intimidation.
And that’s all after they had won 50 games and made the playoffs. No matter how talented a good team is, there will always be questions.
The Clippers have a ton of their own (what to do at small forward? Will Aminu develop into the future small forward? Will Mo Williams mesh with the team? How will their team defense improve or their individual defense? What to do with Kaman and DeAndre? Should they keep both, trade one?), but the essential foundation is there. They have two blue chip players to build around and from the looks of it, they are showing the patience necessary to do so. The most rushed move they’ve done was to get rid of Baron Davis while they could. The Clippers might have been able to unload Baron after the end of the year and get back more, but even the concession of the pick is understandable considering the financial repercussions.
The great news is that the Clippers team has won more this year than either of Kevin Durant’s early teams (whether they were the Sonics or the Thunder). The Clips have already suffered that horrible opening, this years 1-13 start, and have righted themselves earlier than the Thunder team. But that doesn’t guarantee that the Clippers will have more or even as much success.
Oklahoma made plenty of smart plays after they began to shine, from getting a young coach that could connect with the team and get Kevin Durant to improve his defense. They finagled the extension with Nick Collison by front loading his contract so that they would have room for the extensions of other players on the team. The Thunder snuck away good players (like Maynor) from teams that needed cap relief and took advantage of teams that were looking towards the future while ridding themselves of their own problems (like the Celtics trade with Kendrick Perkins for Jeff Green).
Beyond just improving the team’s defense, cutting down turnovers and keeping them healthy, the Clipper front office has a huge workload. There is an adage insisting on the ephemerality of both success and failure. Just because the Clippers have, finally, begun to assemble a good team doesn’t guarantee it. They need to watch how hard and smart the Thunder work at every level, and then emulate that ethic. And though that doesn’t guarantee success, that ideology will give the Clippers the best chance.
Keys to the Game
- Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Both players are MVP caliber and so far the Clippers have been able to hold them in check. In the two previous meetings, Durant averaged 18.5 points on 31 percent shooting while Westbrook averaged 14.5 points on 29 percent shooting. No matter how good the Clipper defense is on those two, the probability that they play around those numbers is unlikely. That will be the goal, but anything below their averages of 22 points on 44 percent shooting for Westbrook and 27.8 points on 46 percent shooting for Durant will be considered a success.
- Big game for the Clipper bigs. The Thunder have one of the better interior defenses with Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka, both are athletic and capable of blocking shots and limiting the points in the paint. One on one, Blake can take either of these players, however, the Clippers are potentially without Kaman, so the pair of Perk and Ibaka might be able to swarm Blake, making for a rough offensive night. Blake has been very efficient against the Thunder (23 points on 59 percent shooting) but both games were before Perkins joined the Thunder lineup. He’ll need some help from DeAndre or Kaman (if he plays) to give him the spacing to operate down low.
- Mo Williams. Mo started to find some rhythm against the Suns, dished out a couple assists (even to Eric Gordon), but found himself in early foul trouble due to some silly fouls. Mo needs to keep himself in the game, maintain that rhythm because in the last few games, VDN has been putting Foye in to run the offense, which is a significant downgrade at the point.
Chris Kaman: viral illness, questionable
Thunder: none reported