Chris Kaman has seen and done quite a bit in his eight years as a Clipper. In an organization noted for its instability, there has been no one as consistently present during the good times and bad, and it’s not even close. Five whole seasons before Eric Gordon and DeAndre Jordan joined the fray in 2008, Kaman came into the league as the 6th pick in one of the greatest drafts in NBA history. Since then, he has alternately dominated and confounded, lived up to his draft position and warranted trade speculation. He battled inconsistency early in his career and injuries more recently, and after this season in which he played in 32 games—just 15 of which were starts—he finds himself as a former All-Star with an uncertain future.
Aside from Blake Griffin’s debut and Gordon’s momentum coming off his summer with Team U.S.A., perhaps no other Clipper garnered as much anticipation than Kaman. He got to camp looking fit and nimble, playing in the preseason like he was prepared to build on his success in 2010 and team with Griffin to form a dangerous front line duo. At that point, you could probably have even expected more scoring from Kaman than Griffin with Blake’s offensive game still yet to be seen in an NBA game.
But the team was 1-7 to before Kaman was injured, and his absent scoring touch was one of many contributing factors in those early season losses. He opened the season with eight points against Portland on 4 for 18 shooting in 35 minutes. In the next two games, 18- and 16-point losses at Golden State and at home against Dallas, he shot 5 for 14 and 5 for 15, respectively, and a familiar Kaman Funk was officially underway. The Clippers needed Kaman to produce, and other than his perfomances against Sacramento (9 for 17, 18 points) and Utah (9 for 16, 23 points), which both resulted in losses, he just wasn’t giving the team much. Paradoxically, one of his worst games of the season, in which he scored four points on nine shots in over 23 minutes against Oklahoma City, was the team’s only win in its first 14 games.
Like the team, any momentum built up in the offseason had quickly dissipated for Kaman two weeks into the season.
By the time he returned a month later, he did so off the bench, behind Jordan, who had taken his place in the starting lineup. Despite Jordan’s overall improvement over the course of the season, he didn’t take advantage of that month (5.3 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1 blocked shot per game in Kaman’s absence) and Kaman could have easily regained his starting position. Kaman even looked like his shot had returned, making 4 of 5 shots in his first game back against Denver. However, Kaman tweaked his foot against Portland and discovered that his ankle injury was more than a sprain, as initially thought, but rather a bone bruise that would cost him another two months.
When he returned in February and settled into the lineup, he performed as you’d expect from a healthy, All-Star 7-footer off the bench – he was dangerous. But Jordan had made marked improvement in January (8.4 points on 65.4 percent shooting, 9.7 rebounds, 2.6 blocks in 31.2 minutes), and he was a large part of the Clipper’s best stretch of basketball all season—they won 14 of 21 between December 17 and January 31—despite the fact that the Clippers swooned when they went out on the road in February. Once Kaman got healthy and started playing over 20 minutes a game around February 23, the team benefitted from the scoring he added off the bench. He wound up averaging 17 points and 10 rebounds a game per 36 minutes on the season, impressive given how he started. He regained his shooting stroke and was actually more efficient from his favorite spots. For the year, he shot 49% from 10-15 feet and 44% from 16-23, on par with guys like: Amar’e Staudemire, LaMarcus Aldridge, Carmelo Anthony and Zach Randolph (from Hoopdata).
When Jordan couldn’t play towards the end of the season, Kaman started seven games. He played well, averaging 16 points and nine rebounds as a starter and shooting over 50% from the floor. As the two centers rotated starts down the stretch, it became clear that they are both starting centers and that has become an issue. In an interview with Hoopsworld about his situation with Jordan and his future with the team, Kaman said:
“I don’t know, it’s something I’m going to have to think about this summer and something I’m gonna go over and think about because, you know, I think DeAndre’s a good player and he does a good job for us, and I think I’ve proven myself in this league. I mean, this is my eighth year and I just want to continue to improve on my game and I think sometimes it’s hard for both of us to get the best out of what we can do when we’re splittin’ time. We’ll see how it goes, a lot can happen this summer.”
How does he fit?
While both had success as the starter, they also did so almost entirely independently from each other and, looking back, it’s hard to ignore the possibility that one of them was probably auditioning for other teams. Considering their difference in age and cost, you’d have to assume that’s Kaman, who will be 29 and due about $12 million next year. The team has been open about its intentions to sign DeAndre to an extension when the new CBA takes effect, and, considering his comments, it’s hard to imagine Kaman signing up for a role that might entail coming off the bench. That is, if the Clippers would even be open to keeping him long-term, which is no guarantee given his injury history. Kaman has missed 133 games over the past four years (50 this year) and his the uncertainty of his health in the future as the Clippers confront the decision of if and when and for what to trade their longest-tenured player.
Former GM and coach Mike Dunleavy would be the first to tell you that his main objective with the Clippers was acquiring good basketball players first and then figuring out how to make them fit. His moves demonstrated a belief that to win, you need to have more talent, and that talent could overcome a lack of traditional balance or cohesion if given enough time to work together. We saw this when he signed Baron Davis, the point guard whose preferred playing style and personality appeared to be in direct conflict with his new coach. We saw it again when he acquired Marcus Camby and even more so with Zach Randolph later in the 2008 season. With an offensive philosophy that aimed to identify and exploit matchups, he felt that having three starting-caliber big men or two guys on the floor that needed to dominate the ball would ultimately work out if he could get his players to buy in to the team concept. It worked in 2006, so you couldn’t blame Clipper fans for being optimistic about a potentially overpowering front line and some incredibly talented pieces coming together, even if in an unconventional way.
Over those next few years, it became apparent that something was missing in execution of this philosophy. It may have simply been health that eluded them, but as disappointing seasons mounted and they lucked into the privilege of drafting their own superstar to build around, the organization under Olshey understandably shifted its efforts to assemble a roster that fit together on the court and would build strong chemistry off it.
While it would stand to reason that Kaman’s game and experience would help a team built around such young players win, that may not actually be the case. The numbers just don’t show the team playing very well with him in the lineup. According to 82games.com, the vast majority of the Clippers successful five-man units have DeAndre, not Kaman, at center.
Kaman’s shooting ability would suggest that he’s an ideal post partner for Griffin, but he also still has a tendency to be indecisive with the ball and his turnover rate is not much better than Jordan’s. While his skill set fits in theory, it’s conceivable that the Clippers decide to shop him for the elusive small forward they have been seeking or some combination of assets. If the Clippers could use Kaman to address their enduring search for a small forward and/or pick up a first round pick, they’d have to strongly consider doing it.
The Celtics were able to get Jeff Green and a first-round pick (the Clippers’ 2012 first-rounder) for Kendrick Perkins – another center with injury concerns and an expiring contract — at the trade deadline, and while many question the wisdom of that move, it’s important to remember that Boston had no one near Jordan’s level to replace him. Putting all the factors together – Kaman’s injury history, the contract situation, the fit of Jordan, both on the court and off – and the question of the Clippers trading Kaman might center more around when, and not if.