A Clipper a Day - Shaun Livingston

In our ongoing Clipper a Day series, we turn our attention to Shaun Livingston.  We've already done Elton Brand; why not get the injured guys out of the way?  It's not like they're going to do something in a pre-season game that I'll wish I had included in my post.

The story for Shaun Livingston in 2007-2008 will be his attempt to come back from a massive knee injury and play basketball again.  His surgery and rehab have gone so well thus far that it seems certain that he'll make it back to the court, but that was in fact far from clear as he lay beneath the basket screaming in pain last February 26th.  On a routine, uncontested layup, Livingston landed awkwardly and his left knee vanished.  All of the essential knee-ness of it ceased to be, leaving his lower leg connected to his upper leg by a single ligament and skin.  In the TV injury hall of fame, it ranks near the top along with Joe Theisman and Willis McGahee.  But Livingston's injury is unique in that there was no hit, there was no contact.  His knee imploded for no apparent reason.

The state of knee surgery is such that Livingston is up, walking without a limp, and shooting baskets.  He even, according to Art Thompson's blog, snuck in a dunk when he thought no one was looking last week.  That in and of itself is remarkable, less than 8 months removed from the injury.  And other athletes have made full recoveries from similar injuries, included McGahee.  

Perhaps the bigger fear is that Shaun will suffer another injury once he does return.  In three seasons in the NBA, he has never played more than 61 games.  He has suffered a dislocated knee cap, a dislocated shoulder, a sprained ankle and a back injury.  His frame is lithe and frail - it's possible that he's simply not built to hold up to the forces exerted in the NBA.  In fact, after watching his knee fall apart last February, one wonders if his ligaments themselves are somehow faulty - are his joint too loose?  I'm no doctor, but it would explain these dislocations.  It would not surprise me if he returns with a surgically repaired left knee only to suffer an injury to his right knee.  I probably shouldn't even think it.

But enough about injuries.  What about the basketball player?  The first time I watched Shaun Livingston play basketball I was certain that he would be the best player to ever wear a Clippers uniform, and soon.  An ultra quick, ultra smooth, pass first point guard standing 6'7" with a seven foot wing span.  There simply had never been such a thing before.  The prospect of a Clippers roster where Elton Brand was the second best player had me absolutely drooling.

The Clipper organization certainly saw the promise as well.  When Allen Iverson was being shopped by Philadelphia last December, it was widely reported that the Sixers would have traded him to LA if Livingston had been included.  The Clippers however declared Shaun one of their three untouchables (along with Elton Brand and Chris Kaman) and stood by that declaration as they watched Iverson become a Nugget.  Similar rumors circulated around Vince Carter and Jason Kidd - the Nets supposedly would have given up either one of them had the Clippers included Livingston in a trade package.  But MDsr and Elgin Baylor stood by their statement - Livingston was not going anywhere.  They were building the team around him.

Unfortunately, the promise that has been so evident ever since the Clippers drafted him 4th overall in 2004 has yet to be realized.  Injuries have played a part in slowing his progress, but it goes beyond that.  For some reason, Shaun Livingston only occasionally goes onto the basketball court and takes over, though he could do it at any time.  Two games from last season (just prior to the injury, in fact) come to mind.  Two days before he was injured, he had 14 points and a career high 14 assists against Golden State.  And a few weeks before that on Jan. 31, he took over the fourth quarter of a huge game against Chicago.  Unfortunately, those types of performances have been far too rare.

No one really knows why.  Certainly his jump shot has been suspect, but it was much improved last season.  If he can make jumpers, there's really no reason he can't dominate a game. Usually being guarded by a player at least 4 inches shorter, with the quicks and the handle of anyone this side of Chris Paul, he can get a 15 footer any time wants.  But it seems possible that Shaun Livingston does not have the demeanor to dominate a basketball game.  He's too unassuming, too nice.  If he were to take over the game, everyone would be looking at him and they might think he was a ball hog or something, and he's not.  People often ignore the fact that many of the truly transcendent players were in a way unbalanced.  I feel convinced that Dennis Rodman could never have rebounded the way he did if he weren't also certifiably insane.  Call him an obsessive compulsive rebounder.  And we all think Michael Jordan is cute and lovable in those Hanes commercials, but we've also heard the stories of hyper-competitiveness and other behavior that could only be considered less lovable.  And there's an example of this sort of phenomenon right here in LA, albeit on the Lakers.  Sure there are exceptions - Elton Brand comes to mind as a guy who seems balanced and yet is a great player - but it remains an interesting possibility to me.  Shaun Livingston might be a better basketball player if he were a worse person.

Update [2007-10-23 1:54:2 by ClipperSteve]: After I wrote this on Sunday, Henry at TrueHoop had some interesting, mildly similar observations in a post on Monday.  In Henry's vernacular, I'm not sure Shaun Livingston is comfortable being a 'warrior'.

Comparisons to Magic Johnson early in his career were never apt.  Shaun's combination of length and quickness and passing is compelling, but Magic was BIG, not just long.  Magic was a power forward playing point guard, and was a singular talent and personality in addition.  Shaun's just a long, long pass first point guard.  It could be a great combination in its own right, but it's not Magic Johnson.

Early last season, I suggested that maybe there's another NBA legend that is a more apt comparison.  Livingston's combination of length and quickness makes him a formidable defender, and at times last year he looked like a game-changer on that end.  Even if he never achieves the promise he has shown scoring and running a team, if he can be solid on offense, he could be a great player in the NBA based on his defense.  In that regard, he reminds me Scottie Pippen.

For now, we're in wait and see mode on Shaun Livingston.  As we have been for three years.  Can he play again?  If he does, will he be as good as he was?  If he is as good as he was, when will he be as good as we want him to be?  And can he stay healthy?

And then there is his contract.  Currently being paid $4.4M in the final year of his 4 year rookie contract, there's little question that this knee injury is costing him money.  (Conversely and perversely, it's undoubtedly going to save the Clippers some money.)  There is no thought of extending him now, as the Clippers did with Chris Kaman last October.  The team will monitor his progress, so when, if and how effectively he returns to action, and then go from there.  Livingston will become a restricted free agent at the end of the season.  But how much are other teams going to invest in an unpoven, injury-prone 22 year old?  Not much.  With the vast majority of teams above the salary cap, it's hard to imagine anyone offering him more than the mid-level exception.  Even the MLE could be a stretch depending on how he comes back.  Prior to this injury it was pretty clear that the Clippers planned to offer him more than the 5/$52M they game Chris Kaman.  Now he's looking at fewer years, and maybe half the money per year.

But odds are he'll be a Clipper, for at least one more season.  With Sam Cassell and Brevin Knight in their 30's and Dan Dickau an NBA journeyman, he remains for the time being the point guard of the future for the team.  The Clippers would probably match any reasonable offer sheets that come in.  And it would seem that Livingston would have some loyalty to the franchise as well.  Going through this experience together, the player and the team will have deep ties.  One interesting question is, what happens if he doesn't sign an offer sheet with another team?  The Clippers have a qualifying offer for $5.8M on the table (a necessary offer in order to retain his rights as a restricted free agent).  From a financial standpoint, his best option may be to play next season under that qualifying offer becoming an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 09.  The Clippers won't want that to happen, but if they have to commit $6M per and several years to an unknown quantity in order to avoid it, that might be too high a price.  At any rate, Livingston's contract will be one of the biggest stories of next summer in ClipsNation.

But for now we wait.  

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