One of my favorite movie lines of all time is in Bottle Rocket, during a scene where Owen Wilson is trying to convince Luke Wilson to join in a planned heist. “Here are a few of the ingredients,” he says, ticking off elements of the plan on his fingers. “Dynamite, pole vaulting, laughing gas, helicopters…can you see how incredible this is going to be?!?” The joke, of course, is that it’s a terrible plan — long on pole vaulting, short on logic. The Clippers enter the 2010-11 campaign with a new coach, a new general manager and a whole bunch of new parts, including last year’s top overall draft pick, the Completely Cleared for All Basketball Activities Blake Griffin. And the question is: Has Neil Olshey put together a workable plan or will it be another season of laughing gas and helicopters?
The Clippers offseason has been described almost universally as “disappointing.” Disappointing compared to what? It’s completely clear now that LeBron James was never coming to Los Angeles. He was never going anywhere but Miami. The entire “process” was, in fact, a charade. Ripping the Clippers (as some did) for presenting the shortest and least involved “pitch” is like criticizing someone’s 3-Card Monte strategy — how you play the game is irrelevant when the game is rigged.
This time last year, there was a growing Nation consensus that although Coach Mike Dunleavy clearly had to go, General Manager Mike Dunleavy had shown his savvy, providing much needed depth with the acquisitions of Rasual Butler, Craig Smith and Bassy Telfair. Well, if last season’s off season was a success, then this one was an unqualified triumph. Telfair proved to be a pass-first, brick-second back-up point guard who didn’t like to play defense. Olshey re-signed Butler and Smith at discounts, then used the draft to add excellent young talent at positions of need with Aminu, Bledsoe, Willie Warren and unsigned pick-up Marquis Blakely.
While plenty has been written about Ryan Gomes already — his knowledgeable and deferential approach, ability to guard bigger 3s (something the Clips lacked last season) and strong shooting from beyond the arc — back up guard Randy Foye has been the less discussed signing. Perhaps he’s regarded as something of a bust, relegated to a backup role only four years after being the seventh selection in the 2006 draft. In fact, Foye is potentially undervalued. Before the selection of John Wall made Foye an afterthought in Washington, Foye was being discussed as someone who deserved a Ramon Sessions or Jared Jack type contract — 4 years, at least 4 million per. Flip Saunders described him as “coachable” and “a good guy.” Along with Gomes and Butler, Foye will help spread the floor for an inside-out game, and provide offense off the bench.
These moves aren’t flashy, but they’re coherent. Foye, Gomes, Bledsoe, Smith and Butler aren’t names that sell season tickets … but they also aren’t Al Thorton or Ricky Davis. Last year’s squad often felt like less than the sum of its parts, in part because of all the possessions wasted by Thorton, Outlaw, and the Davises. (And though Mardy Collins was one of my favorite Clips the last couple years, he had a terrible habit of bricking layups). Shot selection is a zero sum game — every jacked-up, off-balance, low-percentage heave is a shot taken away from a more efficient player. By assembling a squad of efficient role players, Olshey is playing with negative space, helping to guarantee that this season’s most important shots will be taken by his best players, and that everyone in the developing young core will have adequate touches.
The Clippers return three starters. There’s not much to say about Chris Kaman — he was an All-Star last year and initial impressions from preseason suggest he’s in great shape and ready to have another standout year. With Baron, frankly, there’s almost too much to say — or, at least, nothing left to add. Either you believe Baron can change or you don’t. Either Dunleavy was the problem or Davis is an inveterate coach killer. Either Davis is savvy enough to realize changing his game is the only way to remain relevant or he’s been practicing 20 foot jumpers in Africa. We’ll see soon enough.
Daniel Ikuta already did a nice job breaking down the impact of swapping Marcus Camby for Blake Griffin. This isn’t really another way to look at it, more an expansion on one of Ikuta’s points: Camby’s 12.8 percent usage ranked him 297th among qualified players last season, or, in other words, a mere 32 spots higher than Fabricio Oberto’s league low 7.2 percent. (An accurate measure of Camby’s offensive involvement would be even lower, since tip-backs account for a large number of his FGAs). Talk of Camby’s offensive efficiency is kind of beside the point – he’s an afterthought. The biggest difference between Griffin and Camby is that defenses will have to scheme for Griffin. There’s a critical mass to offensive weaponry in the NBA, and the best teams maximize the players on the court who can punish defenses for ignoring them. Also – this might be heretical – I’m not completely convinced Griffin will be a defensive downgrade. Camby struggled last season to stay in front of strong quicker PFs like Carlos Boozer, who took advantage of Camby’s slowing lateral movement. Certainly, Griffin won’t have Camby’s impeccable defensive instincts — at least not initially — but there’s not a power forward out there who will out-muscle him.
On a related note, Eric Gordon’s usage percentage was an (essentially) league average 20.2 percent. The hope in Clipperland this summer was that EJ “learned” something playing for his Team USA, that it finally “all clicked.” Usually, I’m skeptical of athletic epiphanies. Nine times out of ten, guys are held back less by “a lack of confidence” or “poor decision making” than a lack of talent. But Gordon’s USG percentage proves what Clipper fans already knew — he’s the rare player who would probably improve his team simply by hogging more of its possessions. What impressed about Gordon’s play in international play this summer wasn’t only his streaks of made 3s, but the way he continued to take open shots decisively even after he had missed a few. Gordon’s new confidence means fewer hesitations shooting open looks, and a less selfish surrounding cast will ensure that his opportunities come more consistently and more often.
There’s been a race to the thesaurus, as basketball writers try to find new ways to describe Vinny Del Negro as an unknown quantity. So yes, we’re all in agreement — Del Negro is a mystery wrapped in an enigma, couched in a riddle, hidden in a conundrum. His strong playoff runs in Chicago have been widely cited as proof that he gets the most out of his players, that he “wins games when they count most.” Another way of looking at it is that for the better parts of two seasons he coached a pretty talented Bulls team to a losing record. Potato potato, as Christopher Walken might say. It’s all bland generality until we see what Vinny rolls out against Portland on opening night.
But I do know this — he’s not Dunleavy. Whatever merit Dunleavy’s basketball philosophies may have had, by the end Dunleavy had become a caricature of a losing coach: sweaty and red-faced, gesticulating maniacally in one of his tan-on-tan suits. More than once, I watched fans at the Staples Center conspiring to organize “Fire Dunleavy” chants behind the Prime Ticket postgame, hoping the audio might leak on-air. Dunleavy’s oft-quoted complaint that fans don’t analyze the game the same way coaches do was undeniably true; it just didn’t matter. Perception is reality, and the perception was that the Clippers couldn’t win with Dunleavy as their coach. Dunleavy may well have been holding together an overmatched team with x’s and o’s – but Clipper fans had passed that point of no return, beyond which fans only notice facts that already fit the conclusion. We knew Dunleavy was terrible, so all we saw were the erratic substitutions, the head-scratching time outs (or lack thereof) and Baron’s lackluster efforts.
In the long term, Del Negro will be judged on how successfully he transforms the theoretical into the actual. We don’t know how what offense he’ll run or how he’ll manage his rotations.But “not knowing — and perhaps being pleasantly surprised — beats “doomed to failure” any day. Perhaps our new coach will tailor a system to suit the talent, instead of demanding that the talent squeeze into the system – in which case, unknown will turn out to have been a blessing.
Of course, the Clippers could have Red Auerbach leading the ‘92 Bulls onto the floor, and there would still be a vocal minority insisting that the team will never win as long as Donald Golden Sterling is still the owner. They insist that the Clippers will never be winners until there’s a change in ownership. Well, to those people, I say — Congratulations! It’s already happened.
I lived in New York in the late 80s and early 90s, when Yankee fans widely considered George Steinbrenner a cancerous owner — an owner who “could not” win. He meddled with personnel decisions, fired managers annually, and hired thugs to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield. Overnight hosts on WFAN 660 encouraged fans to mail back season ticket renewal requests with “NOT UNTIL GEORGE IS GONE” written on the backs of the envelopes. And yet, when he died recently, he was almost universally heralded as a “great owner.” How did the transformation occur? It wasn’t that George became such a nice guy. Throughout the 90s he continued to snipe at his general manager, criticize Derek Jeter’s social life, and insult Japanese free agents. But… 1. He began to let baseball people make baseball decisions. 2. He opened his checkbook when said baseball people asked him to. 3. The Yankees won. George’s occasional rantings were lost in the din of championship parades.
Granted, until the Clippers begin to win the rest is academic, but Sterling has already met points one and two. This isn’t the Donald Sterling of the early 90s who let Ron Harper walk, wouldn’t pony up for Danny Manning, and basically went a decade without a major free agent signing. In the last five years, beginning with the signing of Cuttino Mobley, Sterling has signed Baron Davis, attempted to re-sign Elton Brand, and built a state of the art practice facility in Playa Vista. These moves haven’t resulted in a consistent winner yet, but they do show that ownership has the will to win.
Sterling isn’t Sauron. His very presence does not cast a shadow of mediocrity over the Clippers. He may well be a troubled human being, prejudiced, reclusive, and strange, but I don’t think it’s too cynical to say most sports fans aren’t rooting for the morality of the owner. Once in a while he is going to open his mouth on record; often, the result will be something head-slappingly stupid. When Sterling admitted he couldn’t name his two new free agents, and questioned the window of the signings, Clipper fans were understandably appalled. Classic Sterling, went the thinking. Gomes and Foye hadn’t even had a chance to sign leases and they were already subject to the indignities of the Clipper experience.
Hyperbole aside, Sterling’s remarks were really more tacky than destructive, more crotchety than malevolent. It’s a sign of how detached Sterling has become from the day to day running of the team, kind of a basketball owner’s “Let them eat cake.” If Gomes or Foye turns out to be ineffective, it won’t be because he’s worrying that his owner doesn’t know his name. Unless you really believe that karma affects the outcome of basketball games, Sterling is playing the part of a good owner. The Clippers may continue to lose, but if they do, don’t blame it on the owner.
Optimism comes easy in October — and the more that needs to go juuust right, the more vulnerable it is. If this team goes on a losing streak, or suffers any significant injuries, it’s not hard to imagine meaningless February games dominated by Baron’s patented stop n’ pop 3-pointers. But in the meanwhile, there’s a plan. It’s not fool-proof, but it’s not just dynamite and pole vaulters either. The kids are the future, the adults are in charge. It’s your 2010-11 Los Angeles Clippers.