2008-2009 Season Preview - Los Angeles Clippers

For the third year in a row, Clips Nation is representing the Clippers in the blogger previews put together by Celtics Blog

I have to take a moment to reflect on these previews, as they've played an important role in the history of Clips Nation.  In September of 2006, ClipperSteve was busily blogging about the Clippers, but no one much seemed to care.  Matt from Blog-a-Bull, for some unknown reason, asked me to join SBNation, and then when Jeff from Celtics Blog was looking for a Clippers blogger to write a preview, Matt suggested me.  I was rather proud of that first preview (though various factors derailed that promising season, and it's more than a little painful to read it now).  But the very fact that my preview was right there, next to previews from CelticsBlog and Blog-a-Bull and Sactown Royalty and so many other great NBA blogs made me feel like I was doing a decent job.  Interestingly, Celtics Blog this week joined the growing SBNation family of NBA blogs.  I'm proud to say that Clips Nation was the eighth NBA blog to join SBNation, and there are now 24 - making me an elder statesman.  So there’s that.

Having said that, here is my assessment of the Clippers in their 25th season in Los Angeles.

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Los Angeles Clippers

Last Year's Record: 23-59

Key Losses: Elton Brand (free agency), Corey Maggette (free agency), Sam Cassell (bought out in February), Shaun Livingston (free agency), Brevin Knight  (trade), Quinton Ross (free agency), Josh Powell (free agency)... the list goes on and on, although the use of the term 'key' becomes dubious at some point.  And GM Elgin Baylor.

Key Additions:Baron Davis (free agency), Marcus Camby (trade), Ricky Davis (free agency), Jason Hart (trade), Eric Gordon (draft), DeAndre Jordan (draft), Mike Taylor (draft)... the list goes on and on, although the use of the term 'key' becomes dubious at some point.  And GM Mike Dunleavy Sr.

1. What significant moves were made during the offseason?

Reviewing the lists of Key Losses and Key Additions above, perhaps the better question is "What significant moves were NOT made?"  The Clippers opening day roster in 2008 will feature only 5 players who were on the team last season, and one of those is Paul Davis who was injured in December and missed the rest of the season.  Only Chris Kaman and Cat Mobley remain from the 2006 playoff team that came within a game of the Western Conference Finals.

But the raw numbers only tell one part of the story of the Clippers 2008 off-season.  July brought a whirlwind of activity never before seen in Clips Nation.  It started with the surprise announcement on June 30th that Baron Davis would opt out of the final year of his Warriors contract.  When Elton Brand and Corey Maggette both opted out of their Clippers deals giving the Clippers about $25M in cap space, rumors began circulating almost immediately that Baron would be returning to his hometown to play alongside Brand.  Indeed, the very next day the Clippers reached an agreement with Baron for a 5/$65M contract, and the conventional wisdom was that Brand's signing was just a formality.  For one glorious week, the Clippers appeared to have a 'big three' in Davis, Brand and Kaman to rival any in the league. 

When Brand and his agent David Falk went into 'radio silence' a few days after Baron had signed, the excitement turned to trepidation.  Then, on July 8th, our worst fears were realized:  Elton Brand, the face of the franchise for 7 seasons, had reached an agreement with Philadelphia.  I won't go into the magnitude of the betrayal this represented.  Suffice it to say that when the Sixers come to Staples Center on New Year's Eve, no one's going to be offering any toasts to the guy.  Around Clips Nation, he's now known universally as FElton.  Then, when Maggette signed with Golden State, it was clearly the end of an era.  Either Brand (four times) or Maggette (three) had led the team in scoring for seven consecutive seasons, and it was their re-signings in 2003 that had seemed to represent a sea change for the notoriously cheap franchise.  Five years later, they both opted out and signed elsewhere.  Business as usual for the supposed 'worst franchise in sports history.'

Only something else happened.  Rather than sit on their new found cap space and lick their wounds, the Clippers aggressively pursued a replacement for their departed power forward.  They found a willing trade partner in Denver, desperate to reduce their luxury tax bill, who agreed to send Marcus Camby to LA in exchange for the rights to swap future second round picks (a 'trade' only in the technical sense - it was a pure salary dump for the Nuggets). 

The net result in the starting lineup is that the Clippers replaced Brand and Maggette with Baron and Camby - a trade that I think any GM in the league would at least consider.  In my opinion, by filling a longstanding hole at the point guard, the Clippers came out ahead.  Elton Brand, for all of his workhorse strengths, has never been a go to scorer.  In Baron Davis, the Clippers have a player who can manufacture points on the final possession of a close game. 

Beyond Davis and Camby, the Clippers also signed veterans Ricky Davis and Brian Skinner to economical contracts, and traded Brevin Knight for Jason Hart.  Ricky Buckets is a proven NBA scorer and figures to be the first wing off Mike Dunleavy's bench.  Skinner and Hart are both former Clippers who can provide solid if unspectacular backup minutes.

And the team appears to have had a very successful draft.  Lottery pick Eric Gordon was rated highly by the team going into draft day, and they tried to move up a few spots to ensure they could grab him.  Luckily, the proposed trades fell through, but Gordon was still on the board at seven.  DeAndre Jordan was also rated as a lottery talent until about a week before the draft, but somehow fell into the team's lap in the second round, number 35 overall.  They also traded a future second rounder to get Mike Taylor with the 55th pick, another bargain given that they were considering picking Taylor at 35.

Jordan and Taylor impressed the team enough to earn guaranteed contracts, and all three rookies have been impressive in pre-season.  Taylor has had several 20 point games and has played particularly well down the stretch of a couple of pre-season wins.  Gordon has shown an ability to score points in bunches, with a 21 point fourth quarter and a 12 point fourth quarter.  And Jordan's length and athleticism certainly attest to his former status as the most coveted big in High School not named Love or Beasley.  Sure, it's only preseason, but the botton line is, all three rookies appear ready to contribute.

2. What are the team's biggest strengths?

I don't know.  With so much turnover in the roster, it's really all speculation - I mean, even moreso than usual. 

Still, surely they'll be a pretty good shotblocking and rebounding team.  Marcus Camby led the league in blocked shots last season, and was second in rebounds per game and first in rebounds per minute.  Meanwhile, Chris Kaman in an injury shortened season, put up averages that ranked him third in each category.  The simple fact of the matter is you'd have to go back to Duncan and Robinson on the Spurs to find a statistical combination of rebounding and shotblocking anywhere close to Kaman and Camby.  Of course, they've never actually played together in a game (not even in pre-season, which Camby missed with a flu bug and a brusied heal), so there's no evidence that they can thrive on the floor together.  Will they cannibalize each others rebounds and blocks?  Will there be enough room near the basket for both of them?  The truth is that on offense, Kaman likes the block and Camby likes the high post, so there's no real overlap there.  And on defense, neither is what you would call a slow, plodding big (Kaman is much quicker than most people think when they see a 7 foot white guy with a bad haircut) - so I think they can coexist quite well.  But I'd really like to see them play together, you know, like once.

And for the first time in, well, forever, the Clippers should have strong point guard play - assuming Baron Davis can stay healthy.  In a league full of talented point guards, Davis is in the top five on talent alone.  And for those who point out that Baron has worn out welcomes with two NBA teams, I would counter that he's always started strong.  So if you want to use past history as a guide, I think there's every indication that Baron will have a banner year in his inaugural Clipper campaign.  It's years three, four and five of the contract that could get dicey.  But I'll reiterate that Baron has to play.  Hart can provide steady backup minutes, and Taylor is an exciting prospect who can provide a change of pace as the third stringer, but if either of them is forced to start more than a handful of games, it won't end well.

Beyond rebounding, shotblocking and point guard, I really, really don't know. 

  • Chris Kaman, when healthy, was among the best centers in the league in 07-08; and he was simply awful in 06-07. Which version will we see?
  • Al Thornton had a terrific rookie season which resulted in a first team all-rookie selection.  But he was also wildly inconsistent.  Is he ready to take over the small forward position vacated by Maggette?
  • After an atrocious season at the offensive end last year, the team will be better.  But they couldn't very well be worse.  
  • Defensively, they'll have the backstops in Camby and Kaman, but Baron and Cat Mobley are the only proven defenders on the perimeter.
  • They played at one of the slowest paces last season, but they now have the personnel to run and gun.  And while coach MDsr says they will, that's never been his MO, so we'll see if he sticks to the plan or reverts to a by-the-numbers approach.
  • Outside shooting has been a huge problem for the Clippers for many seasons, but suddenly they have a host of options.  Joining Cat Mobley, Tim Thomas and Thornton are two Davis' (Baron and Ricky), Gordon and long range specialist Steve Novak who can all shoot the three.

3. What are the team's biggest weaknesses?

I wish I knew, I really do.

All of the bullets under strengths can just as well come down here and be listed under weaknesses.  There's just no way to know how these pieces fit together.

To that end, I think you have to list chemistry as a weakness, at least for now.  Maybe everything will click right away.  Who knows?  It's worth noting that we use this term 'chemistry', implying an immediate reaction that happens based on the elements involved and not on any ongoing experience together.  But of course we know it doesn't really work that way.  Baron Davis played one pre-season game before catching the flu and spraining his finger.  As I mentioned before, Camby didn't play at all.  Veteran Tim Thomas played a single game before shutting it down to rest a groin pull.  This gave ample time for the rookies to get game experience, which is all well and good.  But these guys need some reps together, and they just haven't had them.

Perimeter defense is a likely problem area as well.  In the Western Conference, who will guard Kobe Bryant and Manu Ginobili and Kevin Martin and Carmelo Anthony and Brandon Roy?  Cat Mobley is a solid defender, but has been in steady decline.  Al Thornton has the tools, but often looked like the rookie he was last season, and needs to show marked improvement as the starter.  Ricky Davis has never been known for his defense, and Eric Gordon is a 19 year old rookie.  Shutting down high scoring wings may be a big problem for this group, even with Kaman and Camby taking away the lane.

And then there's the question of health.  Can these guys stay on the court?  The marquee additions, Baron and Camby, have been injury-prone throughout their careers (although both were surprisingly durable last season).  Kaman likewise has had some injury issues, including missing 30 games last season.  Throw in the ages of several players expected to log heavy minutes (Mobley is 33, Thomas 31, Camby 34, Hart 30, Baron and Ricky 29) and it certainly is cause for concern.  Injuries can happen to any team - but they seem to happen to the Clippers more often.

4. What are the goals for this team?

Yeah, see, I don't know that either.

They'd like to make the playoffs.  I think that much is clear.  But the West remains incredibly competitive.  Of the nine teams that finished with 48 or more wins last season, only Denver and Golden State appear to be weaker on paper.  (Phoenix and Dallas and even San Antonio are all a year older, and any of them could fade as well.)  The fashionable pick to join the playoff party is Portland, and it's hard to argue against them.  So that leaves the Clippers battling the likes of the Blazers, Nuggets, Suns, Mavs and Warriors for a limited number of playoff spots that will likely leave half of those teams home. It may seem ludicrous to suggest that a team coming off a 23 win season should be in the conversation, but this group bears little resemblance to the injury-decimated group of D-Leaguers who played a large chunk of 07-08.  So all you can do is throw out last season's team and look at this group on paper.  And on paper, they're pretty good.

Unfortunately, the November schedule is brutal.  Although it is relatively home friendly, it also features an inordinate number of 50 win teams.  Given the importance of chemistry and momentum to this group, how well they play in the early going may determine their fate.  The NBA schedule-makers did not do the team a favor by front-loading so many difficult games.

5. Will the Clippers hoard their 2010 cap space and make a run at a big name free agent?

While losing Brand and Maggette was painful, the Clippers recovered well by signing Davis and acquiring Camby.  But beyond the fact that they put together a competitive team out of the wreckage, they also were very smart about it.  Camby's contract, the one the Nuggets were so desperate to get rid of, runs for two more seasons.  Likewise Cat Mobley, Tim Thomas and Ricky Davis are on the books for until 2010.  As it stands now, the Clippers could have as much as $30M in cap space that summer to throw at a bumper crop of free agents. 

With other teams like the Knicks and Nets also eyeing 2010 when players like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Amare Stoudemire, Dirk Nowitzki and others could be free agents, Camby and Mobley and Thomas become interesting trading chips prior to 2010.  Would the Clippers be willing to part with one or more of them to help the team sooner?  Or will they keep the space for themselves and make a run at someone like Bosh?

Predicted Record: You're kidding, right?  How about 41-41?

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