The 08-09 Clippers - Athletes and Passers and Shooters, Oh My!

Citizen ghost_ride wrote a FanPost about a few side stories he has been thinking about this pre-season.  As it happens, one of his themes is part of a post I've been mulling myself.

For several seasons the Clippers have been something of a lunch pail team.  They've played solid, somewhat uninspiring basketball characterized by strong defense, low post offense and a slow pace.  They've ranked in the bottom couple of teams in three point attempts, three point makes and three point percentage each of the last three seasons.  And while I don't have this stat, I feel rather certain that they were near the bottom of the league in dunks as well.  There's not necessarily anything inherently wrong with any of this (although I did notice that most of the top teams shot a lot of threes a couple of seasons ago).  After all, the most successful Clippers team of all time, the team that came within a single game of the 2006 Western Conference Finals, fell into this boring category. 

It hasn't just been the absence of the long ball either.  Whether it was Darius Miles or Chris Wilcox or James Singleton, the Clippers spent the Elton Brand era driving away the super-athletic players.  Sam Cassell had a great season in 05-06, but he's about the least athletic point guard in the history of the NBA.  Likewise, Cat Mobley was added in 05 and contributed to the team's playoff success, but he's a rather earth-bound sort, at least by the standards of NBA wings.  Sure, Cat will throw one down from time to time, but face facts, you're always more than a little surprised when he does.  Of course, the team was just adopting the persona of the star.  Elton Brand is a workhorse at the power forward, not a thoroughbred.  Even some time leading scorer Corey Maggette, an Adonis as a physical specimen, got his points not by gracefully swooping to the basket for dunks, but rather by bulling his way in order to get to the line.  Few three pointers, few dunks, lots of low post isos and trips to the line.  Even when they were winning, it wasn't necessarily a lot of fun to watch.  As strange as it seemed, it was as if MDsr was allergic to shooters and athletes.  One last roster spot to fill?  How about Aaron Williams?  Or Ruben Patterson?

Well, if it was an allergy, he most have taken some shots.  The house cleaning of summer 08 seems to have been specifically intended to replace plodders and non-shooters with athletes and gunners.  Gone from last year's rotation are Brevin Knight, Dan Dickau, Quinton Ross, Josh Powell, Nick Fazekas, Brand, Maggette and Cassell.  In their place, we have Baron Davis, Mike Taylor, Jason Hart, Ricky Davis, Marcus Camby, Steve Novak, Eric Gordon, DeAndre Jordan and Mike Taylor.  To a man, the incoming player is either a better shooter, a better athlete, a better passer, or all of the above.  Even in the swap of Brand for Camby, while Brand is clearly the better all around player, Camby will provide more highlight reel dunks, and is a far superior passer. 

Nowhere is the makeover more apparent than at the point guard.  Cassell, Knight and Dickau are arguably the three least physically imposing NBA point guards of the last 10 years.  Seriously, who else would be on that list?  At least Dickau could make an occasional three, which could not be said of 2007-2008 Cassell, nor ever of Knight.  The point guard rotation now includes a guy who posterizes first team all defense forwards and one of the flat out quickest and most athletic players from this draft.  Now, maybe Jason Hart isn't a monster athlete, but compared to the guys we had last season, he's Michael Effing Jordan. 

Elsewhere on the roster, the transformation started with last season's first team all rookie selection Al Thornton.  Rated as the best athlete in a very good draft, Thornton did not disappoint, providing more highlight reel jams in his rookie season than the Clipper team had seen collectively in years.  Seriously, before Thornton, when was the last time a Clipper dunk was on SportsCenter?  And don't get me started on the teams pathological inability to complete an alley-oop.

As if MDsr suddenly discovered that having athletes on the team is not such a bad idea after all (tell that to Chris Wilcox), for the second consecutive June he went after the best athlete in the entire draft.  You like Thornton's 41 inch vertical leap?  Well Gordon's 40 inch jump ain't shabby.  DeAndre Jordan is clearly a lottery athlete, even if other issues dropped him to the Clippers picking 35th.  And we've already mentioned the raw athleticism of Mike Taylor.  With three draft picks, the Clippers took three superior athletes, and all three appear to be capable of making significant contributions this season.  We've already seen a few highlight reel dunks this pre-season from Thornton, Taylor and Jordan.

Now, let's talk about outside shooting.  Prior to trading Wilcox for Vladimir Radmanovic in Feb. 06, the Clippers had one three point threat - Cat Mobley.  There weren't even any shooters at the end of the bench, assuming you don't count Walter McCarty.  Cassell and Maggette each made a decent percentage that season, but neither makes better than 1 in 3 for his career.  The following season, when Tim Thomas came in to replace Vlad, the team had all of two legitimate shooters as both Cassell and Maggette shot atrociously that year. 

The 08-09 Clippers will add Baron Davis, Ricky Davis, Eric Gordon and long range specialist Steve Novak alongside Thornton, Mobley and Thomas.  For the first time in my recollection, the Clippers can call time out down three with 10 seconds remaining and put not two, not three, not four, but FIVE shooters on the floor.  What a concept.  And they'll have seven to choose from, so they can even pick the ones with the hot hand. 

(By the way, I'll point out before someone calls me on it that Baron's career three point percentage of .325 is actually worse than either Cassell's or Maggette's.  But with over a thousand makes in his 9 year NBA career compared to fewer than 700 for Cassell in 15 seasons, I think we can all agree that he shoots it with more confidence.  His shot selection isn't always the best, but he sure seems to make a lot of important ones.  I have no problem with him taking threes.) 

Of course, the team is still a week away from it's first regular season game and it remains to be seen just how much rein MDsr is going to give his new ponies.  But it's clear he's got some very different weapons than in recent years, and so far in pre-season, it looks like he's willing to use them.  I expect to see a lot more three point shooting and a lot more dunking. 

And maybe even a few alley oops.

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