The fanfare of the Clippers’ frenetic offseason is behind us.  Baron Walter Louis Davis (Crossroads ’97) has arrived home.  Elton Brand is gone.  Eric Gordon is the chic pick for Biggest Draft Day Bust…two months after Al Thornton emerged as The Best 2007-2008 Rookie Not Named Kevin Durant.  Marcus Camby is pissed.  Chris Kaman is German…

So what does it all mean?

It means the Clippers head into the 2008-2009 season with the most elastic of expectations.  A healthy and harmonious Clippers team could conceivably match the Clippers 47-win total from 2005-2006.  A crippled and dysfunctional Clippers squad would surprise no one if they finished in the Pacific Division cellar.  

Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll try to identify – and address – some unanswered questions.  

Item One…

Who’s going to pick up the really tough defensive assignments on the wing?

Looking ahead, this is arguably the peskiest and most persistent question for the 2008-2009 Clippers.  Defensive flexibility was one of the hallmarks of the Clippers’ 2006 run.  On any given night, Mike Dunleavy had the flexibility of assigning Quinton Ross, Cuttino Mobley, or the long Shaun Livingston to the likes of Carmelo Anthony. This allowed the Clips to absorb the defensive risk of Corey Maggette on the opposing wing.  It also took a lot of pressure off the Clippers’ back line at a time when Chris Kaman was still struggling to pick up help defense.  

However miserable the past couple of seasons have been for the Clippers, they rarely got torched by opposing scorers out on the perimeter.  Instead they lost basketball games in a much more workmanlike fashion on the offensive end by a simple inability to score.  Even at their nadir during the dark Smushian days of last winter, the Clippers remained, at worst, an average defensive team and, on most nights, measurably better than that.

This year, the Clippers don’t have a lot of choices.  Al Thornton will the start the season at small forward.  Maybe Thornton will be a quick study; there’s precedence for a steep learning curve.  Dominique Wilkins entered the NBA as a clueless perimeter defender.  By the time the Hawks came of age in 1985-1986, he was excelling defensively under Mike Fratello.  Thornton improved down the stretch last season, but an Anthony-Thornton…even a Maggette-Thornton matchup probably gives you pause.

Cuttino Mobley turned 33 on Labor Day.  The durable Mobley, whom John Hollinger once called “The Steve Trachsel of the NBA” – Trachsel was baseball’s consummate innings-eater -- started to show the creaking wear of age last season.  Even at his advanced age, Mobley still isn’t the first guy an opposing shooting guard wants to see alongside him at tipoff…but he’s not the last either.  

Where does that leave the Clippers?

Scouting reports describe Eric Gordon as a capable man defender.  The Clippers would be well-advised to make Gordon’s transformation into a lockdown defender among their first priorities in his development. Because unless Thornton can hone some instincts denying his man the ball – and stopping him once he does -- and unless they install a fountain of youth at the practice facility, the Clippers will be reminded that things actually could’ve been worse these last two years.