Clippers Season Preview

Well ClipperNation, the long wait is finally over.  As part of the 30 Teams in 30 Days series of NBA Preview by NBA Bloggers, here is my preview of the 2006-2007 Los Angeles Clippers...

Billy Crystal Team Name: Los Angeles Clippers
Last Year's Record:  47-35
Key Losses: Vladimir Radmanovic
Key Additions: Tim Thomas, Aaron Williams

It is difficult to describe the feeling in ClipperNation, when we watched our team win a playoff series for the first time... the first time... that's it, the first time.  There may be a few Buffalo Braves holdovers out here (I remember Ernie D), but by and large, we are Los Angeles Clippers fans - eager for an alternative to the bandwagon Lakers, and sporting a massive inferiority complex.  So watching the team finish with a California record 47 wins, and then actually WIN a playoff series (and not just win but dominate), watching them play games in May while Kobe was sitting at home... well, obviously it was unprecedented.  It was also pretty cool.

To then outplay the Suns, but lose in seven games, it was a difficult situation.  There were mixed feelings.  On the one hand, the team had its best year ever, and was young and (mostly) locked up for several years.  So there was every reason to be optimistic in ClipperNation.  But at the same time, these are the Clippers.  There's a certain fatalism in Clipper fans, borne of the years watching Donald Sterling care more about debits and credits than wins and losses.   Billy Crysal is thinking to himself, "It sure looks like this team is going to be good next year and for a long time to come.  I wonder how they'll eff it up this time?"

But you can't really overstate the changes that have occurred in the Clipper organization since Mike Dunleavy became the head coach.  Prior to 2003, a grand total of two players had EVER re-signed with the Clippers (Loy Vaught and Eric Piatkowski).  That's two players in 25 years.  In June 2003, the Clippers matched offer sheets to re-sign Elton Brand and Corey Maggette to the biggest contracts in franchise history.  Prior to 2003, the Clippers had never made an offer to a significant free agent.  In 2003, they offered more money to Gilbert Arenas than the Wizards, and in 2004 they offered Kobe Bryant a maximum deal.  Finally, in 2005, a free agent actually took their money, when Cuttino Mobley signed a 5 year, $42M deal.  

So while the work of this off-season (re-signing Sam Cassell and signing free agent Tim Thomas) may seem like business-as-usual for most NBA franchises, for the Clippers these are BIG DEALS.  It indicates that Donald Sterling kind of likes watching playoff games (I mean ones the Clippers are playing in), and is willing to spend some money to see some more.  For over three seasons now, since Dunleavy became head coach, the Clippers have behaved like a first class NBA franchise (and perennial punch line Elgin Baylor was rewarded for it with the GM of the Year award).  So entering the fourth year of the Dunleavy era, the optimism is drowning out the fatalism.  

What Significant Moves Were Made in the Off-season?

In the NBA, teams get better through one of four methods.  

  • The easiest way is to add talent, via free agency or the draft.  

  • The second way to improve is for the players you have to get better

  • The third way to improve is to get healthy.  Every team suffers injuries (except the Pistons) - limiting the number of key losses can be a huge bonus to the same team.

  • The final source of improvement is from the consistency of playing together as a team, in a system, with a particular coach.

The Clippers lost Vladimir Radmanovic and replaced him with Tim Thomas.  They are essentially the same player.  Radmanovic is younger and arguably less of a problem child.  Thomas is a better low post scorer.  Call it a wash.  The Clippers did not have a first round draft pick, and of their two second rounders, only Paul Davis will be on the roster this season, adding some front court depth.  They also added free agent Aaron Williams.  No one can argue that the Clippers added significant talent this off-season.

In all of the other areas, the Clippers figure to be significantly improved.  

With the exception of Sam Cassell, this is a young team.  Cassell is 37, and will be the 5th oldest active player in the NBA this season.  However, Cassell's game was never really predicated on speed and quickness.  He lives in the sliver of daylight he creates as he moves inexorably to his left.  Will there be a drop off in Cassell's production from the age of 36 to the age of 37?  Not a significant one.  

Cat Mobley is 31, but his numbers in his first season as a Clipper were actually worse than his career numbers, partly because of a series of nagging injuries.  Don't get me wrong, Cat did everything well.  In particular, he was one of the best defenders on the team.  But he will be better this season, particularly shooting the 3 ball.

People will say that there's no way Elton Brand can improve upon his 2005-2006 season.  But I think there's a corollary - there's no way Elton Brand can be less than the stud he is.  He simply does what he does.  He has for years.  Will he average 24.7 points per game?     Maybe not... but he'll average more than 20, he'll shoot better than 50%, he'll get more than 10 rebounds and he'll block shots, because that's who he is.

Up and down the Clippers lineup, with the exception of Brand and Cassell, I expect more from this cast of characters than they provided last year.  But two players in particular stand out.

Chris Kaman has improved each of his three seasons in the NBA.  He averaged 11.9 points, 9.6 rebounds and 1.4 blocks last season while shooting 52%.  In the Clippers final 71 games of the season, he averaged a double-double.  He uses either hand effectively around the basket, and actually prefers to finish with his left, despite being ostensibly right-handed.  He needs to improve in recognizing and passing out of double teams, and extend the range on his shot some.  He's already one of the top 5 centers in the league, and if he continues his current trajectory of improvement, an all star appearance is entirely possible this season.

Shaun Livingston turned 21 last month.  He is entering his third NBA season, and for the first time, he spent the entire off-season working on his game.  All day every day, he was hitting the weights and shooting jump shots.  The guy already does all the things you can't teach - he's a 6'7" pass-first point guard, with a 7 foot wing span, an unbelievable handle, who plays great defense.  If he can consistently make the 17 footer, he will be unstoppable.  He can get his shot whenever he wants.  If you guard him with a small point guard, he'll post up.  If you double him, he'll find someone for a layup.  As good as Elton Brand is, the Clippers will certainly not win an NBA title while he is their best player.  Within the next two seasons, Shaun Livingston will be the face of the franchise.  He's that good.

As for health, the Clippers certainly weren't the hardest hit team last season, but they had more than their share of injuries.  Second leading scorer Corey Maggette missed 50 games, while Livingston missed 21 and defensive stopper Quinton Ross missed 15.  Most observers seemed genuinely surprised by the ease with which the Clippers dispatched the Nuggets in the first round of the playoffs, and then by the closeness of the series with Phoenix, a series the Clippers probably should have won.  However, it is worth noting that it was the first time ALL SEASON that the Clippers' top eight players were all healthy at the same time.  That team that destroyed Denver and outplayed Phoenix?  That's the team Clipper Nation expects to see every night this season.

Finally, the stability of this team represents uncharted waters for Clipper's fans.  By re-signing Sam Cassell for 2 years, $13M, the Clippers are returning 11 players from last season's team, including 9 of their top 10 scorers.  The only difference is Thomas for Radmanovic.  In three seasons under coach Mike Dunleavy, the Clippers have gone from 28 wins, to 37 wins, to 47 wins.  Another 10 win improvement (leaping into the top four or five records in the NBA) is probably unrealistic, but not out of the question.  I assure you, Dunleavy expects to win more than 47.  In particular, the Clippers have become a solid defensive team under Dunleavy, and one more year in his system of complex help rotations will only make this team stronger.  

What are the Team's Biggest Strengths?

This team has several strengths.  First and foremost is their low post presence.  Chris Kaman and Elton Brand represent the best Center/Power forward combination in the NBA.  This size manifested itself statistically in rebounding and blocked shots last season.  The Clippers led the league in shots blocked, led the league in defensive rebounds, and were in the top 3 statistically in most rebounding categories (total rebounds, rebounding percentage, etc.)  

On the offensive end, Kaman and Brand represent a powerful one-two punch on the low post.  Brand has been one of the best players in the NBA his entire career, and no one ever seemed to notice.  Last season, he stepped up his offensive game, the Clippers got a few more W's, and suddenly he's second team all-pro.  Guess what?  He should have been second team all-pro for 3 seasons before that, and he should have been first team last season.  Much has been made of Elton's new mid-range jump shot.  I gotta say - I've watched Elton day-in and day-out for 5 seasons now, and I always knew he could make that shot.  The big difference is that last year, he took it.  Elton is such an unselfish guy - the main reason he bumped his scoring average from 20 to almost 25 is because he took more shots.  And he still managed to make 53%, above his career average, despite the additional jumpers.

Kaman gives the Clippers another monster on the other block.  Basically, the Clippers can decide which opposing big they want to abuse on any given night, and feed Brand or Kaman accordingly.  Big, surprisingly athletic and ambidextrous, Kaman is a load around the basket.  Plus, he's got that crazy thing going on, so defenders are bound to be a little freaked out.  Which is probably why Reggie Evans went downtown in the playoffs.

In addition to Kaman and Brand, the Clippers have several other low-post scoring options.  Sam Cassell likes nothing more than to post up a small point guard.  Cat Mobley is likewise excellent with his back to the basket.  And Shaun Livingston, at 6'7", can take small points into the low post.  Basically, whoever the Suns put Nash on, that guy is going to post up.

This segues nicely into the Clippers other major strengths, which are depth and versatility.  The top eight players could all be starters for many NBA teams.  As it is, second leading scorer Maggette (a slasher who is one of the most effective players in the league at getting to the foul line and who actually led the team in scoring in 04-05 and 03-04), will likely begin the season coming off the bench, along with starter-in-waiting Livingston and Tim Thomas.  This 8 man rotation also affords the Clippers the luxury of playing several different styles of basketball.  With Kaman and Brand, they're already big.  They can put Tim Thomas at the 3, and Shaun Livingston at the 1, and go HUGE.  Or they can put Brand at the 5, Thomas at the 4, and spread the floor.  The choices at the point and on the wings are almost limitless.  Cassell, Livingston, Mobley, Maggette and Ross can all play at least two positions, and Dunleavy can choose to play them in almost any combination.  The importance of Ross in particular needs to be stressed.  Dunleavy has described his defense as `perfect.'  For the most part last year, the Clippers avoided bad losses (losses to teams with losing records, particularly at home).  The bad losses they had were while Ross was injured.  

Second year players James Singleton and Daniel Ewing provide additional depth beyond the top 8.  Singleton is an athletic forward, who was a terrific rebounder and pretty good scorer in limited minutes last season.  Ewing provided quality minutes backing up the point guard position while Livingston was hurt.  19 year old Russian Yaroslav Korolev, last year's first round draft pick, may see some spot duty this season.  

Free agent veteran Aaron Williams figures to be the first big off the bench until Zeljko Rebraca's back heals.  Second round pick Paul Davis will provide additional depth.  

What are the Team's Biggest Weaknesses?

This team has one glaring weakness, and it is outside shooting.  Last season, they were last in the NBA in three-point field goals made, 29th in attempts, and shot only 34% from beyond the arc.  On the whole, the team should be better, as Radmanovic only played 30 games after he was acquired, and Thomas will fill the Radmanovic role.  But look for defenses to crowd around Brand and Kaman and dare the Clippers to beat them from outside.  

Interestingly, it seems that this lack of three point shooting is by design.  When you look at a team like Houston, there are three point threats up and down the roster.  The Rockets drafted Steve Novak in the second round with the 32nd pick - two picks later, the Clippers took Paul Davis.  The Rockets signed Casey Jacobsen to a minimum deal this summer.  The Clippers signed Aaron Williams.  

Dunleavy doesn't like the 3 ball.  Cat Mobley made 44% of his 342 threes in 04-05.  In 05-06, he only took 245, and made only 34%.  And for much of the season, Mobley was the ONLY deep threat for the Clippers, so he figured to take a lot of threes.  But Dunleavy runs very few sets that are designed to free up long range shots.  Even the kick outs from the post tend to be for mid-range jumpers.  It's hard not to feel that the Clippers are leaving points on the table by taking so few threes.

The team has one other weakness at playoff time: the absence of a first-tier mega-star on offense.  Right, wrong or indifferent, the NBA remains a league that is built around superstars.  Elton Brand is a great player, who shows up every night.  But he is not a guy who can get a crucial bucket with 30 seconds to go in a close game.  (He got closer to being that guy last year, but he's still not there.)  Sam Cassell was actually the guy with the ball in his hands at the end of close games last year, and he absolutely relishes that role (who can forget the testicle dance?)  But Cassell is 37, and won't be able to carry that load much longer.  Livingston may need to be the guy with the ball in his hands in this year's playoffs, but he may not be ready for that role yet.

What are the Goals for this Team?

The goal for this team is to improve on last season, as it is for every team.  Coming off a California best 47 wins, and within one game of the Conference finals, it won't be easy.  In particular, it won't be easy in the West, where Phoenix, Dallas and San Antonio were the other semi-finalists, and all figure to be about as good as ever.  Add in Houston, which figures to be a top-tier team with TMac and Yao healthy, and even a top 4 finish is going to be tough.

The team that destroyed Denver and outplayed Phoenix is certainly capable of  a 50 win regular season (improving on the franchise record of 49 set by the 74-75 Buffalo Braves).  I would also add that they need to have a winning record on the road, bettering last season's 20-21 franchise best mark.  The good news for the Clippers is that they believe, and they expect to win regular season games.  The bad news is that they are no longer going to be underestimated.  Teams will get up to play the Clippers.

Beating Sacramento at least once would be a nice goal.  The Clippers haven't beaten the Kings since January 18, 2003.  Dunleavy has NEVER beaten the Kings as coach of the Clippers.  I actually think this is significant - the Kings were very good for a long time, while the Clippers were very bad.  Even now, in the last few years as the Clippers have improved and the Kings have dropped off, the Kings simply expect to beat the Clippers, and therefore they do.  The Clippers have got to perfect a winning attitude, and it starts by beating the Kings.

A first round playoff win is also a must, as anything less would be a step backwards.  

But improvement means advancing to the Western Conference Finals.  A year of growth, another year in the system, the experience of just missing out last season: it could all add up to a trip to the Conference Finals.  Unfortunately, I don't think it's going to happen.  Unless Livingston arrives with a vengeance, the Clippers will come up short against the likes of the Suns, Mavericks and Spurs.  

(But seriously, the only real goal that matters to Clipper fans is that the Clippers finish ahead of the Lakers again.  Everything else is just gravy.)

So What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

These are the Clippers we're talking about.  For years (strike that) decades (strike that) a really, really long time, they've been bad.  When good things happened (i.e. number one pick in the lottery), bad things followed (Danny Manning tears an ACL or Michael Olowokandi, um,  exists).  A mere four years ago, the Clippers were coming off a 39 win season, with a boatload of young talent, poised to make the playoffs for the first time in years.  They proceeded to implode under the weight of contract years for their five best players, and ended up 27-55.  

So what could go wrong?  Well, injuries of course.  But that's a little too easy.  A much more `Clipper-y' demise would go something like this:  Kaman spends the season stewing about the `insult' of a mere 5/$50M contract extension offer, and looks to pad his offensive stats to secure a big deal in free agency.  Livingston sees what is happening with Kaman, and begins to worry about his own extension next summer, starts free-lancing, and leads the league in turnovers.  Meanwhile, Maggette mopes about the demotion to sixth man, and comes into every game trying to score 20 points in 4 minutes.  The entire team sees Dunleavy without a contract extension, and stops listening to him, believing he is a lame duck.  The team falls 10 games below .500 before the trade deadline, and Donald Sterling starts reminiscing for the good ole days, when his teams lost but his wallet won.  He trades Elton Brand to the Bulls for PJ Brown and two future second rounders.  

But that's not going to happen.  My optimism drowns out my fatalism, my optimism drowns out my fatalism, my optimism drowns out my fatalism....

Predicted Record: 52-30

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