LA Clipper Optimists - Betting Baron Bounces Back

There are many times when it's not easy for a Clippers fan to maintain his or her optimism.  Then again, given the history of the franchise, it would seem that most fans are by definition either optimists or masochists - undoubtedly more than a few are both, not that there's anything wrong with that.

This summer has been different.  It's been downright easy to be optimistic about the Clippers.  From the moment the team won the lottery, a lot of things have gone right.  Obviously the biggest single factor in this newly rosy outlook is Blake Griffin - he was the consensus number one pick, he has the physical talent to be a superstar, and more importantly he has the work ethic to excel as well.

 Still, 21 year old rookies rarely take 19 win teams into the playoffs in their first season - which is what many people, some of them paid to write about the NBA, are saying is going to happen with the Clippers.  Four out of five writers at HoopsWorld have predicted that the Clippers will edge out the Suns for second place in the Pacific Division, and the eighth playoff spot.  Eric Pincus of HoopsWorld has them 14th in the NBA, eighth in the West, in his pre-camp Power Rankings.   If we peg the playoffs at around 45 wins, that's a 26 win improvement over last season.  Blake Griffin can't do that alone.

There are other weapons in the Clipper optimist's arsenal of course.  Team health and team depth are two concrete things that will arguably (hopefully?) be improved in 2009-2010.  The Clippers were fourth in the NBA in player games lost to injury last season (after being first in the category the season before) - if you believe in curses, or that some players are simply injury-prone, then that may not improve much.  If you believe in the law of averages, then eventually the Clippers will have a relatively injury-free season, and maybe this is that season.  As for team depth, I for one certainly believe that this is the deepest Clipper roster in years.

Having said all that, there's really one overriding factor that will determine whether the Clippers can compete for a playoff spot this season, and his name is Baron Davis.  Why is Davis the linchpin, more so than say Griffin, or Eric Gordon, or Chris Kaman?  For a few reasons. 

  • Baron Davis has been an All Star in the NBA, and was playing at that level as recently as 07-08.  His first season with the Clippers was his worst since he was a rookie, a decade ago.  Based on PER (an imperfect measure to be sure, but it does convey a sense of overall performance), the difference between Baron's 06-07 season (21 PER) and his 08-09 season (14.5 PER) is the difference between an all star and a below average player.  That's huge.
  • Baron Davis has demonstrated a tendency to be up and down in his career.  His first season in Golden State, he shot 39% - the next season he shot 44%.  More than most players, Baron wears his heart on his sleeve, and plays with emotion, both positive and negative.  So there's reason to hope that Baron will bounce back, because there's been a precedent.
  • Baron Davis plays point guard in the Western Conference, arguably the most competitive position in the NBA. 

For me, this last point is the most crucial.  Look at it this way - many NBA game previews are constructed position by position - who will win the center matchup, who will win the power forward, etc.  Despite his $13M salary and massive expectations upon his return to LA, Baron Davis almost NEVER won the point guard matchup last season.  At least he ended the suspense relatively early - we knew we were in big trouble when Beno Udrih scored a career high against the Clippers on Nov. 12, in only the eighth game of the season.  Whether Baron was injured or not, whether he was in shape or not, what we know about last season is that he got outplayed at his position almost every night.  If that happens again this season, the team is in trouble.

Now, as I mentioned, point guard in the Western Conference is a tough gig.  When Steve Nash and Chauncey Billups barely crack the top five, you know the talent goes DEEP.  So Baron is not necessarily going to win the point guard matchup against guys like Chris Paul and Deron Williams and Tony Parker.  But it wasn't that long ago that he was in the top five himself, and last season, frankly, he was in the bottom five.  So which is it?  Is he well-above average or well-below average?

Let's look at all 15 point guards projected as starters for their West teams next season.  (Obviously the question of who will start is open to debate in some cases.  Will Mike Conley start ahead of Allen Iverson in Memphis?  When will Tyreke Evans supplant Udrih as the starter in Sacto?  These are the 15 I'm using for the sake of argument.)

 

Team

PG

Age

PER09

PER08

PER07

NOH

Paul

24

30.0

28.3

22.0

SAS

Parker

27

23.4

20.0

21.4

UTA

Williams

25

21.1

20.8

17.1

PHX

Nash

35

19.5

21.1

23.8

DEN

Billups

33

18.8

23.6

21.3

POR

Miller

33

18.6

18.4

16.1

MIN

Sessions

23

17.6

16.4

N/A

DAL

Kidd

36

16.9

16.7

19.4

OKC

Westbrook

21

15.2

N/A

N/A

GSW

Ellis

24

14.5

19.0

15.0

LAC

Baron

30

14.5

19.8

21.0

HOU

Brooks

25

12.9

13.1

N/A

MEM

Conley

22

14.3

12.6

N/A

SAC

Udrih

27

12.3

13.3

10.3

LAL

Fisher

35

12.1

13.8

11.4

 

Based on 08-09 PER , Baron tied for 10th among West points  And is it a conincidence that the top six players on the list (ignoring Andre Miller and Ramon Session who weren't in the Western Conference last season) all led their teams to at least 46 wins?  Now, I'm not suggesting that you must have a great point guard to compete in the West or in the NBA - after all, the Lakers have the weakest starting point guard in the West based on PER, but they finished with the conference's best record and won the NBA title.  Then again, the Lakers tend to win every other positional battle on the floor in a landslide.  So they're the exception that proves the rule.

The Clippers on the other hand are going to be competitive, but not dominant, in most of their positional matchups.  A healthy Kaman should win more than he loses in a suddenly ultra-weak center spot, and Marcus Camby wins most as well, making this position a theoretical strength for the team.  Blake Griffin will win some of his matchups this season - but West power forward is almost as loaded as West point guard, so he will lose his matchup a lot as well.  In his case, we have a level of confidence that in future seasons, he'll win his spot more and more freqently, so there's less urgency that he deliver NOW.  Likewise with Eric Gordon - he's going to struggle against Kobe Bryant and Brandon Roy, but he's still only 20, so that's OK.  Small forward may be a problem for the team, but hopefully Al Thornton and Rasual Butler can hold their own.  The advantage for the Clippers as a team may be that they don't have a glaring weakness - they're pretty solid at every starting position and off the bench as well.

With the team looking like a toss up at so many spots on the floor, Baron's nightly battle at the one is magnified.  Does he storm back into that top five group, where he was in 06-07 and 07-08?  Or does he remain mired near the bottom, with a bunch of other lottery team points (and Derek Fisher)?  In contrast to Griffin and Gordon, Baron's age does lend a sense of urgency to this situation - Russell Westbrook, Mike Conley, Ramon Sessions (and Jonny Flynn and Ricky Rubio), Tyreke Evans, Monta Ellis, Aaron Brooks - the teams that the Clippers are supposed to beat this season all have young point guards, 25 and under, they're hoping to develop.  Baron is 30.  So let's face it - if Baron is simply in decline, his ranking among his peers is likely to get worse before it gets better.

Realistically, where might Baron slot in amongst this collection of current all stars (3), former all stars (6), all pros (7) and Olympic team members (8)?  ([Note by Steve Perrin, 09/24/09 2:29 PM PDT ]: And 8 of the top 10 NBA point guards of the last decade according to Kelly Dwyer on Ball Don't Lie today.)  Paul, Parker and Williams are all younger than Baron and have been consistently better for a few years now - so let's start by saying that the top three is out of the question. 

The next group is interesting - Baron can look behind him and see some youngsters chasing him.  But if he looks ahead of him, he sees a group of his elders.  Baron's only 30.  Jason Kidd (36), Steve Nash (35), Chauncey Billups (33) and Andre Miller (33) are all quite a bit older than Baron, and getting to an age where point guards tend to slow.  Based on the age and recent performances of this group, if Baron can indeed bounce back, we would expect him to be better than Kidd or Miller, if perhaps not quite as good as Billups or Nash.

Is he going to be better than Ramon Sessions?  Well, the Clippers certainly hope so, since they could have signed Sessions for a lot less money than Baron makes and handed the team over to him. 

What about Westbrook or Ellis?  This brings up a different issue.  Neither Westbrook nor Ellis is really a point guard.  They are incredibly talented basketball players, but they are scorers who happen to be the size of point guards.  Baron is an exceedingly gifted passer and an exceedingly mediocre shooter who happens to like to shoot - a lot.  Despite what was clearly a difficult season for him both physically and emotionally, he still managed to be seventh in the league in assists per game, and in the top 10 in assists per 48 and assist percentage as well.  With more and better scoring options around him, he could be among the league leaders in assists - and maybe not feel compelled to shoot that off balance jumper off the dribble quite so often.

If Baron can bounce back as he has at other points in his career, if he is in shape and healthy as he apparently was not last season, and if he can channel his positive emotions into his on court performance, he should be no worse than the sixth best point guard in the Western Conference this season.  And quite simply, if Baron Davis plays like a playoff caliber point guard, the Clippers will be a playoff caliber team.

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