For the Clippers, life without offensive options is starting to take its toll. Clipperblog missed the weekend's action, but is catching up on some game tape and doesn't see a whole lot of stuff here that would suggest things will get better next week.
There's a moment early in Saturday night's game against New Orleans after Kaman heads to the bench with his second foul that encapsulates just how undeniably screwed the Clippers are in their current predicament. Cassell tries to work a two-man game for Tim Thomas off the left block. Mobley is set up on the right side perimeter. Cassell gets it into Thomas in the post against Mo Peterson - a man three inches shorter than Thomas. Thomas immediately - and literally - punches the ball back toward Cassell. After Thomas reposts, Sam gets it back to him. Even though Stojakovic and West are giving Mobley all kinds of room on the perimeter, Sam never really looks for Cat. Thomas backs Peterson down with a right-handed dribble, but never leverages any advantage against Peterson. Once Chris Paul drops down to double-team him, Thomas kicks it back out to Cassell. West comes up to challenge Cassell, but Sam puts an easy ball-fake on the big man. Unfortunately, once Sam darts into the paint, the entire Hornets' defense pounces on him. Peterson easily strips the ball as Sam elevates and the court mics - better than ever this season, have you noticed? - pick up a desperate grunt from Sam that makes the playback even more excruciating to watch the second time.
The larger issue is this [forgetting Brand, Maggette, Knight, and Thornton's iffyness]: Six minutes into the game, the Clippers have their primary offensive weapon on the bench. They're running a two man game between their 47-year-old PG [his ballsy 26 point, 0 assist abbreviated performance in PHX notwithstanding] and a PF without a post game. The potential weak side scorer - gritty as he might be -- has a right adductor composed of Hubba Bubba. They could use their dynamic rookie scorer, except that he has a bum ankle that doesn't allow him to play more than 20 minutes a game right now. After that, there isn't anywhere else to look, which explains the drop to 22nd in offensive team efficiency.
It's very likely that the 2007-2008 Los Angeles Clippers won't again sit over .500, which is why I think it's healthier to write off the W-L column and, instead, view the season as a series of initiatives - which, I realize, reeks of HR/goofy-crackpot-self-empowerment speak. Just bear with me here. I'm not suggesting that you give up on the Clippers, or lose faith or engage in fair-weather fandom. It's merely a question of the best way to gauge success in a season like this one.
Here are two leading indicators I'll look at:
- Kaman's Defense: Chris is already a premier shot blocker, but that doesn't necessarily make him a brutish post defender [no more than a high SPG number makes a guy a great backcourt defender]. Earlier in his career, Chris was slow to recover on ball screens up top, and Dunleavy's affinity for traps didn't help matters. In the long run, there might have been an unintended benefit to this - Chris' sense of place on the defensive end is a lot more acute. He's more aware of precisely when he should give up on a trap and return to the block. He anticipates when an offense is going to run a screen at him and he uses his agility to avert it. So, in general, Chris has a much stronger instinct as to where he's supposed to be at a given instant. At times, though, Chris has a tendency to play the ball instead of playing the body. It happened Friday night against Stoudemire and a few weeks ago against Ilgauskas. Chris [a] has such a preternatural hunger to block the shot and [b] and is so determined not to get into the foul trouble, that he's forgetting that he has all the tools he needs to be a great down-low defender: size, a shot-blockers' timing, quick feet, and agility. As with everything else that surrounds Chris - the outstanding variable is his head.
- Thornton's Pro Game: We've seen that he has serious range from the floor - and he isn't afraid to chuck it up from beyond. We knew he had the hops to create - and we've already seen him fool some legitimate NBA defenders. What we haven't determined is the extent to which Al Thornton can work within the confines of an NBA offense. Every time Florida State came downcourt, Thornton touched the ball within ten seconds - and the understanding was that he'd be the last one to do so. But other than a couple of iso sets, there won't be a lot of stuff initially designed for Thornton in the Clippers playbook. He'll need to figure out where to be to collect the ball as Kaman kicks it out of the post; he'll need to learn how to navigate the baseline behind the post play to free himself up; Thornton would be well-advised to learn how to set an NBA-quality screen for his point guard so that might get some touches early in possessions. So far as evaluating progress, I'd watch Thornton's FG%, and whether he's getting himself to the line. Given Brand's absence and Dunleavy's willingness to go small with Thornton at the 4, it's also important to keep an eye on Thortnon's Rebounding Rate, as well.
Yao should give Chris plenty to work with on Monday night. And it's only a matter of time before Thornton evolves from curiosity to cog.