Assessing the 08-09 Clippers

Trying to predict the fortunes of an NBA team before the season has started is an undertaking fraught with peril.  I was pretty sure that the 06-07 Clippers were going to be very, very good.  And they finished 40-42.  Nearly everyone thought the 07-08 Lakers were at best an 8th seed, and they finished as Western Conference Champions.  It goes without saying that some eventualities simply can't be foreseen, except perhaps by Nostradamus or the FSM.  Significant injuries to, say, all of a team's point guards, or all of their, you know, players, can invalidate even the most insightful prognostication.  As can the addition of 7 foot Spaniards.  But even when a team remains relatively unchanged, it can be very difficult to know what to expect.  Unless perhaps that team is the ever-so-predictable Spurs.

With a new star, three new starters, seven new names in the 10-man rotation and ten new faces overall, the 08-09 Los Angeles Clippers pose a particularly difficult challenge.  Will this team be very good, good, bad or very bad?  Yes, it will.  One of those - I'm pretty sure.

With Elton Brand playing power forward somewhere back East (who cares, really), the franchise has lost its face.  But, at the same time it has found it's face - the much-hairier visage of Baron Davis. 

While reasonable people are free to disagree, I think that Baron is an upgrade over Brand as 'star of the team'.  Here's why:

  1. He plays a more important position.  Point guard is the engine that runs any team.  In crucial situations, you want the ball in the hands of your best player.  When that player happens to be your point guard, it's a lot easier to make that happen.  Davis is by some accounts a top 5 point guard in the NBA.  Regardless of where you rank him, he's damn good.
  2. He is a massive upgrade at the position.  With the exception of Sam Cassell in 05-06, to call the Clippers' point guard play sub-par would be a massive understatement.  Two seasons ago they played the last two months with Jason Hart as the starter.  Last season, Brevin Knight and Dan Dickau split the duties.  Before that it was Rick Brunson, and on and on.  Baron Davis is, without ever having played a game, the best point guard in LA Clippers history.  (Sam Cassell's 18.5 PER in 05-06 is the best ever by a Clipper point guard.  Baron's career PER is 18.5, and he's been above that mark in four of his last five seasons.) 
  3. He is a winner.  Baron Davis and Elton Brand were picked first and third in the 1999 draft.  Baron has been to the playoffs five times in nine seasons.  Elton Brand once.  Does the rest of the team and fate and blind luck play a part in that?  Sure.  But consider that Baron Davis joined the Warriors when they had missed the playoffs 10 consecutive seasons and led them to an unprecedented first round win over a number one seed.
  4. He is clutch.  How many game winners has Baron Davis hit in his NBA career?  How many has Elton Brand hit?  OK, I don't know the answers, but I guarantee you that Davis has hit more - a lot more.  I've watched practically every game Elton Brand has played as a Clipper, and I can remember maybe two game winners.  But there was a time you couldn't watch SportsCenter without seeing a BD buzzer beater.  It's unscientific to be sure, but a YouTube search of Baron Davis game winner returns 32 results (some of them videos of the same game admittedly).  A search of Elton Brand game winner returns 4 results - none of them acutal Elton Brand game winners.

This last point is huge.  Even at the height of Clipper-mania prior to the 2006 season, I could not ignore this particular flaw in Elton Brand, and consequently in the Clippers.  He isn't a the kind of scorer who can get the team a crucial bucket in the final minute of a close game.  Baron Davis is.  And it matters.

It's also worth noting that Baron Davis and Chris Kaman as your two best players is a better combination that Elton Brand and Chris Kaman.  As interesting as it would have been to see a healthy Brand playing with Kaman 2.0, they are both inside players.  Anyone who thinks it would be better to have two great inside players than to have one great inside player and one great perimeter player is flat wrong.

Of course, the changes this summer went way beyond the departure of Elton Brand and the arrival of Baron Davis.  Gone from the Clippers' 2006 playoff team are Brand, Corey Maggette, Shaun Livingston, Sam Cassell and Quinton Ross.  There have been lots of references to 'Baron for Brand' or 'Baron and Camby for Brand and Maggette' this summer.  But the fact is, the situation is far more complex than can be summed up in a straightforward player swap.  The team is different - vastly different.  And as such, it can't be compared to prior Clipper teams.  We know it will be better than last year's team - but any healthy NBA team would be better than last year's team (with the possible exception of the Grizzlies).  Will it be good enough?

There's reason enough for optimism.  If you're a fan of Win Score, then you have to love the Clippers' new 'big three'.  Of course, unless you read the Wages of Wins journal regularly, you may be a little surprised at who the Clippers best player is, based on Wins Produced - that would be Marcus Camby, whose .365 'wins per 48 minutes' ranked him fourth in the NBA behind Chris Paul, Kevin Garnett and Dwight Howard.  Now, it goes without saying that WP48 is a less than universally accepted measurement, and that the knock against it is that it overvalues rebounding and undervalues scoring.  If you believe in WP48, then Camby, Kaman (.233 WP48) and Baron (.177 WP48) are a very good 'big three'.  But live by the WoW, die by the WoW - Wins Produced also ranks Al Thornton and Tim Thomas as among the WORST players in the NBA. 

On the other end of the advanced statistics spectrum is PER.  Here, the picture is decidedly different.  The Clippers best player by PER (Baron) was ranked about 28th last season - with only 30 teams in the league, you can see that it makes him theoretically one of the 'worst best players' in the NBA.  But Camby and Kaman both contribute solid PER numbers (as does Steve Novak, albeit in extremely limited minutes), and Thonton, Ricky Davis, Thomas, Jason Williams and Cat Mobley all have respectable PERs  - so while the conventional wisdom says that the Clippers don't have a lot of depth, by PER at any rate, they go eight or nine deep, and that's without relying on contributions from Eric Gordon or DeAndre Jordan. 

Which is just another example of how unpredictable this team is.  WoW would say that they have a terrific top three, but that the supporting cast is horrendous.  PER would say that the supporting cast is pretty good, but that the stars are not studs. 

My feeling is that two things will determine how good this team will be (and I'm not going to include injuries in the discussion - it goes without saying that they have to enjoy relatively good health): Baron Davis and chemistry.

I guess I'm surprised (and certainly pleased) that expectations are not higher for this team based simply on Davis' addition.  As I mentioned before, the Warriors had missed the playoffs 10 consecutive seasons, and were among the worst teams in the league when they traded for Davis in February 2005.  In three plus seasons in Oakland, the Warriors were 125-102 with Davis in the lineup.  They overcame lots of serious injuries (including to Davis himself) to make the playoffs and defeat the Mavs in 2007, and they won 48 games last year - a terrific season, despite missing the playoffs.  He's an impact player, and certainly a leader.  If he was able to have such a positive effect up north, imagine the possibilities in his LA homecoming.  There's no question that he is motivated.

As for chemistry, there's just no way of knowing.  How will all of these pieces fit together?  Among the more vexing questions:

  • Can Camby and Kaman be productive on the floor at the same time?  Some have criticized the acquisition of Camby as being redundant.  But it's a non-issue on offense, where Camby, limited though he is, will not need to occupy low-post space.  They actually complement each other well on offense, with Kaman taking the block, and Camby ready to shoot the elbow jumper.  The fact that Camby is an excellent passer is just a bonus.  And defense would seem to be the strong suit for a Camby-Kaman pairing.  They are two of the best shot blockers in the league, and two of the best defensive rebounders.  Can one of them guard a power forward?  The short answer is yes.  In fact, you may recall that Kaman often drew the quicker big (Duncan instead of Elson, Nowitzki instead Diop, etc) when he played alongside Brand, and Camby can guard most fours as well.  Teams that play small may create some problems, but the Clippers will create headaches for them as well. 
  • Can erstwhile black sheep Ricky Davis, Tim Thomas and Jason Williams be productive role players for the Clippers?  This is a huge question.  This trio is extremely talented.  And they have all been accused of being lazy or selfish or dumb - and sometimes all three.  But you're talking about three guys with the talent to start in the NBA - all coming off the bench.  I believe that Baron Davis' personality helped to keep Stephen Jackson on the straight and narrow with the Warriors - can he have a similar impact on this group?  Davis and Williams will likely have something to prove this season after having to settle for less money than they believed they were worth.  But make no mistake - in our chemistry experiment, these are some volatile elements.
  • Can Al Thornton be a reliable, consistent scoring option?  Thornton showed signs of brilliance last season.  And lots of inconsistency.  The simple fact is, he was playing on a very, very bad team.  And he was often the only legitimate scoring threat.  It's not hard to imagine a rookie being inconsistent in that situation.  In fact, what's much more surprising is that he was able to have as much success as he did.  Along with Baron Davis, Thornton is a second perimeter player who can create his own shot.  This is not to be discounted in the NBA.  The talent is there - he just needs to develop the consistency and discipline, but there is a school of thought that says the Clippers will be as good as Thornton this season.

I will say (stealing an observation from Kevin at Clipperblog) that Baron Davis and Marcus Camby immediately become the two best passers on the Clippers, and the best passers the team has had in many seasons.  Whether by happenstance or design, the team has simply not been blessed with solid delivery guys.  To the point where a simple post-entry pass has been an adventure.  Passing is an underrated (and difficult to quantify) skill in the NBA - and it also happens to be something that tends to improve team chemistry.  Remember those extremely successful Sacramento Kings teams of the beginning of the decade?  Why did they have such good on-court chemistry?  Well, I think a big part of it was the fact that Vlade Divac, Chris Webber and Brad Miller were all great passers.

In the end, there are theoretical answers for all of the Clippers off-season questions.  Can they replace Elton Brand's production?  Not entirely, but Kaman's emergence as a legitimate low-post option last season and Camby's defense and rebounding mitigate most of the loss.  Can the Clippers replace Maggette's offense?  Thornton stands ready to try - and he's even pretty good at getting to the line.  How much will they get from the shooting guard position?  Cat Mobley is still a legitimate contributor and more than capable of being a fourth scoring option, and Ricky Davis has the potential to be a great bench scorer.  Meanwhile, Eric Gordon waits in the wings to take over.  Do they have enough depth?  In a word, yes.

All of which puts them in the mix for a playoff spot in my book. 

Consider this:  in three of the last four seasons, the Clippers have remained in contention for the playoffs into the final month of the season.  This despite the fact that Rick Brunson and Jason Hart were running two of those teams.  It tells me that when Mike Dunleavy Sr. has had the talent (he did not last season), the Clippers have been competitive.  They have the talent this season.  But will it be enough in the ultra-competitive Western Conference?  Ask Nostradamus.

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