Where's the Young Talent?

I have generally speaking been a supporter of MDsrduring his tenure as the Clippers' head coach.  If nothing else, he convinced the organization to begin thinking and behaving like an NBA franchise.  Prior to MDsr's arrival, the Clippers' most significant free agent signing of all time was probably Wang Zhi-Zhi (I'm not kidding).  In the last two off seasons, they've signed Cuttino Mobley and Tim Thomas.  Are they superstars?  No.  But they're legitimate NBA players, and other teams were interested in them, and the Clippers signed them.  When was the last time that happened?  It says something about the progress the organization has made that the team was fighting for a playoff spot until the final day of the season, but was considered a major disappointment.  Expectations are decidedly different these days.

The timing of MDsr's extension was certainly strange.  Though it was early in the season, the team was clearly underperforming.  Was it possibly  the uncertainty of the coach's contract situation causing a distraction for the team?  I suppose.  But at least as likely, and perhaps even more so, was the coach's shelf life.  The motivational tactics begin to wear thin after two or three seasons.  It's a rare coach who can continue to get through to NBA players beyond that point.  The Clippers timed the extension perfectly to pay MDsr a lot of money just has his effectiveness was on the wane.  Jeff Van Gundy and Bob Hill make the playoffs and get fired.  MDsr misses the playoffs and starts a fat new contract.  Go figure.

Still, as I said, I generally support and appreciate what MDsr has accomplished in LA.  Team defense and to a lesser extent offensive execution have improved under the coach.  Of course, anyone who watches as much basketball as I do, and who cares as much as I do, is going to have myriad complaints.  The handling of Maggette the last couple of seasons is one obvious example of where I disagree vehemently with the coach.  

But perhaps a larger long term issue than l'affaire Maggette is the coach's handling of the young players since his arrival.  In four years under MDsr, the development of young talent acquired via the draft and rookie free agents has been disappointing to say the least.

When MDsr took over the Clippers in 2002, Chris Wilcox and Melvin Ely were second year players, both lottery picks in the 2001 draft (we can't blame him for the dubious picks themselves since he was not there at the time).  He also wisely immediately signed Bobby Simmons as a free agent.

Since then, the Clippers have drafted Chris Kaman, Shaun Livingston and Yaroslav Korolev (all lottery picks), and Lionel Chalmers, Daniel Ewing, Paul Davis, MBFGC and Guillermo Diaz in the second round.  They have also signed rookie young free agents Quinton Ross and James Singleton.

Of those 13 players, I would argue that only three of them (Simmons, Kaman and Ross) developed significantly under MDsr.  And of course that statement comes with some major caveats: Simmons is gone, Kaman had a major dropoff in 2006-2007, and Ross' development seemed to plateau last season as well.

Barring unforeseen developments, seven of the 13 (Wilcox, Ely, Simmons, Chalmers, Korolev, Ewing and Singleton) will no longer be Clippers by next season.  Not only are they gone, the Clippers will have only Paul Davis in return.  Assuming Singleton, Korolev and Ewing are not re-signed this summer, that will leave Davis, a second round pick from the Hornets the Clippers received in exchange for Ely, as the only remnant of seven young talents.

It's all the more frustrating given that the potential for help was clearly there.  Wilcox, while not a great player, is very good, and has been an everyday starter in Seattle since he was traded away.  The MDsr picks that are or soon will be gone, should certainly have yielded more.  Korolev at 12 was one of the great blunders of recent lotteries, compounded by the mistake of signing him right away rather than leaving him in Moscow when he was clearly not yet ready for the NBA.  And though it's unrealistic to expect much from second round picks, we aren't talking about guys taken in the 50's.  Chalmers was the 33rd pick, Ewing the 32nd, and Davis and MBFGC 34th.  We're talking about guys taken in the very beginning of the second round.  I'd tell you about some of the players taken after these guys, but I don't want to depress you too much.

As for the free agents, you have to give MDsr credit for identifying talented players.  Simmons, Ross and Singleton (not to mention 10 dayer Matt Barnes) have all proven they can play.  It's hard to fault anyone for losing Simmons - he developed as a Clipper and signed a big contract, which LA was probably wise not to match.  But James Singleton literally had his best game as a pro in his first game as a pro.  Why was he not given a chance to play more?  How is it possible we never got more out of that guy?

It's certainly possible that the remaining youngsters will vindicate MDsr.  Kaman could regain and surpass his form of 2005-2006; Livingston could return from his knee injury with a stronger body, ready to fulfill his considerable promise.  But as of now, those two players, taken 6th (in one of the great drafts of all time) and 4th, are major disappointments, with Livingston way behind schedule and Kaman looking like a contractual albatross.  Ross remains a bright spot, and MBFGC and Diaz may turn out to be great if they ever play in the NBA.  

Without the young guys stepping up, the Clippers top five scorers this season had an average age over 30, and almost 10 NBA seasons on average.  Veteran leadership is great, but who exactly is following?  

After years (decades?) of following Clippers' basketball, of cheering for teams that missed the playoffs, but were seemingly loaded with promising young talent, the 2007-2008 Clippers will have one of the oldest core groups in the NBA.  Brand, Cassell, Maggette, Mobley and Thomas have talent, to be sure.  But without an infusion of significant young talent, and soon, the Clippers will be rebuilding from scratch before the end of MDsr's 4 year extension.

And that is a disaster.

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