Los Angeles Clippers 2010-11 Season Preview

Here it is, my entry in the Blogger NBA Preview series.  This is the fifth time I've represented the Clippers, and I believe I was there for the very first one.  I want to thank Jeff from CelticsBlog for putting it together again - it's like an institution at this point, or as close as you can get in blogland. 

Team Name:  Los Angeles Clippers

Last Year’s Record: 29-53

Key Losses: Marcus Camby, Steve Blake, Travis Outlaw, Drew Gooden, Head Coach Mike Dunleavy Sr.

Key Additions: Blake Griffin, LeBron James, Ryan Gomes, Randy Foye, Al-Farouq Aminu, Eric Bledsoe, Head Coach Vinnie Del Negro

1. What Significant Moves were made during the off-season?

 

The NBA off-season was dominated by mega-star free agents, in particular LeBron James.  When the Clippers unloaded Al Thornton and Sebastian Telfair at the trade deadline, they assured themselves of having enough money under the salary cap to pursue James or any other big name. Indeed, they were one of six NBA teams invited to make a pitch to LeBron and his minions.  But Neil Olshey and Andy Roeser probably never had a chance, their meeting lasted less than an hour, and LeBron eventually joined Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami.

Still sitting on a big pile of cash, the Clippers could turn their attentions to another free agent.  Who would it be?  Joe JohnsonRudy Gay?  How about Clips Nation favorite Josh ChildressNope.  Try Ryan Gomes, Randy Foye and Brian Cook.

Don't get me wrong.  The fact is that Johnson and Gay were

(a) already off the market by the time LeBron took his talents to south beach and

(b) wildly overpaid in contracts that will surely be anchors to Atlanta and Memphis within two seasons at most.

Compared to Rudy Gay at 5/$82M, Ryan Gomes at 3/$12M is a definite value signing.  But for a fanbase that watched their team and their front office give up on the season and execute trades for the sole purpose of signing free agents, Gomes and Foye and Cook are more than a little disappointing. 

Disappointing, but not necessarily dumb.  The Clippers have six players on their roster 22 or younger, including the top pick in the 2009 draft, Blake Griffin, who will be a rookie this season after missing all of last season with a fractured patella, and Eric Gordon, a key member of the Gold Medal winning US team from this summer's FIBA World Championships.  Anything short of a home run in free agency this summer would likely have been counter productive - better to maintain some financial flexibility moving forward as let the young players develop and mature than to tie up loads of long term money on overrated or aging name players

Consequently, the Clippers will enter the 2010-11 season as they always do, with a lot of hope, and even more questions.  One thing is very different though.  This is the fifth Clippers preview I've written for this series, but it's the first time that Mike Dunleavy Sr. hasn't been in charge.  Dunleavy stepped down as head coach last February 4th, and then was fired as General Manager a little over a month later on March 9th.  Neil Olshey took over GM responsibilities in March, and former Bulls head coach Vinnie Del Negro was hired July 6th to take over the coaching duties. 

Del Negro was a mixed bag in Chicago.  He often looked overmatched on the bench, yet his teams played hard through the end of the season, and managed to make the playoffs both years he was there.  Given that the talent in Chicago was less than overwhelming, that was certainly an accomplishment.  Clipper fans had grown to dislike Dunleavy so much that many thought things would improve immediately upon his departure.  However, an 8-25 conclusion to the season under interim coach Kim Hughes may have demonstrated that change is not always good.  Del Negro will have a full training camp with these players starting next week, and then Clippers fans will get a chance to start a season without Dunleavy for the first time in 8 years.

The other major event of the off-season was the draft.  The Clippers drafted Al-Farouq Aminu from Wake forest with the 8th overall pick, and then traded a future first round pick to Oklahoma City for the rights to Kentucky's Eric Bledsoe, the 18th overall pick.  Aminu and Bledsoe play positions of need for the Clippers (small forward and point guard respectively), and Olshey wanted them from the beginning.  But they're both 19 years old, and judging by their performance in Summer League in Las Vegas, they need a lot of work before they're going to be regular contributors.  These could prove to be excellent first round picks for the Clippers in the long term, but I don't expect them to do much this season.  In the second round, the Clippers picked up Blake Griffin's Oklahoma teammate Willie Warren, and they also signed undrafted free agent Marqus Blakely from Vermont.  Of the four, Blakely looks closer to contributing this season than any of the others.

 

2. What are the Team's Biggest Strengths?

 

Believe it or not, on paper the Clippers have one of the most impressive starting lineups in the NBA.  It may not compare with the lineup for that other LA team, or those guys down in Miami, but check out the resume lines for four of their starters -

  • two time All Star Baron Davis at point guard;
  • current member of Team USA and Gold Medalist Eric Gordon at shooting guard;
  • 2009 first overall pick Blake Griffin at power forward;
  • 2010 All Star Chris Kaman at center.

Not bad.  If Gomes of Rasual Butler (or less likely but not impossible Aminu) can hold their own at small forward, it's an impressive group, at least on paper. 

Of course, much depends on Davis.  Yes, he's a two time all star, but those two times were 2002 and 2004 and he's now 31 years old.  To be fair to Baron, he should have made the all star team again in 2007, when he had arguably his best season as a pro.  But the simple fact is that he has not been that player since returning him to LA.  His first season in LA was atrocious; last season was much better, though still not quite what fans were hoping for when he signed a 5/$65M contract in 2008.  Surrounded by major scoring threats in Gordon, Griffin and Kaman, the real question for Davis is whether he can evolve into more of a Jason Kidd type point guard, managing the game, racking up assists, shooting less frequently.  His floor vision is among the best in the NBA and he's an uncanny passer - he can be effective in the league for several more years, even as he loses some explosiveness.  The other question for Davis of course is whether he can remain motivated for an 82 game season.  More than most NBA players, the difference between a motivated Baron and a disinterested Baron is monumental.  If Del Negro turns out to be a poor X's and O's coach, but a good motivator, he could be a very good fit for the Clippers.  And we'll be able to tell pretty quickly in the play of Baron Davis.

Gordon is coming off a summer in which he surprised everyone with his play for Team USA.  Widely assumed to be among the first cuts when the team first got together in Las Vegas back in July, he not only made the team but became a key member of the rotation.  He played so well in the opening round that Chris Sheridan of ESPN at one point asked Coach Mike Krzyzewski if he should replace Chauncey Billups in the starting lineup.  Gordon finished the tournament fourth on the team in scoring and seventh in minutes played.  He was the team's designated three point specialist, making 18 of 41 triples, but also their defensive stopper.  Clips Nation is hoping that his new found confidence will carry him to a breakout season in the NBA.

Kaman added a consistent 18 footer to his offensive arsenal in 09-10, and parlayed it into a career best 18.5 points per game, which led the team and was third best among NBA centers.  With a face up jumper to go with a variety of post moves with either hand, Kaman is almost impossible to guard one-on-one.  Unfortunately, he still needs to get much better against the double team.  Having Blake Griffin starting next to him in the front court should help there.  It's also worth noting that Kaman and Baron had started to develop some pretty decent chemistry on the court by midway through last season.  As he became the focal point of the offense, Kaman's rebounding and shot blocking seemed to suffer some - which the Clippers can ill-afford with Marcus Camby now in Portland.  Hopefully, as Gordon and Griffin take up more of the scoring load, Kaman can find more balance to his game this season.

Which leads us to Blake Griffin.  Expectations for the Clippers hinge almost entirely on his belated rookie season.  He's yet to play an NBA game, but he's probably the Clippers' best player.  It's been almost 11 months since anyone's seen him play 5-on-5 basketball (save for the guys he's been schooling at the Clippers' training facility this summer).  He's supposedly 100% healthy, and there's no reason to suspect that his particular injury and surgery would have any impact on his breathtaking athleticism.  His work ethic is unquestioned.  Will he be a leader on the Clippers?  Will he be the rookie of the year in the NBA?  Will he be a star?  Will he 'just' be a solid player?  If the Clippers hope to be a playoff team, now or even in the future, then Blake Griffin has to live up to his first pick status.  I assume he will.

 

3.  What are the Team's Biggest Weaknesses?

 

In a word, youth.  Griffin and Gordon, two starters and the presumptive cornerstones for the future of the franchise, are 21 years old each, and Griffin has yet to play a regular season NBA game.  First round draft picks Aminu and Bledsoe are 19 each.  Backup center DeAndre Jordan is 22.  Until Bledsoe is ready (which could be awhile, based on his turnover filled summer league performances), Randy Foye will have to hold down the backup point guard spot.  Until Aminu can step in, it's journeymen Gomes and Butler manning the three. 

This youth leads to another issue - depth.  It's exciting and arguably smart to build the team around talented youngsters, and the future for the Clippers could be very bright indeed.  If you froze all 30 NBA rosters, and then flashed forward 5 years, the Clippers' team of Bledsoe (24), Gordon (26), Aminu (24), Griffin (26) and Jordan (27) could be great.  But of course, it doesn't work that way, and if those youngsters are taking up roster spots now, before they're ready to contribute, it's an issue in the present. 

Assuming that the teenagers truly aren't ready for major NBA roles yet, the Clippers' nine man rotation figures to be Davis, Gordon and Foye at the guard spots, Gomes and Butler at small forward, Griffin and Craig Smith at power forward and Kaman and Jordan at center.  And even that is assuming that Jordan is ready to assume a primary backup's role in this, his third NBA season.  That's not a bad rotation, but with four rookies and Brian Cook rounding out the rest of the roster, any significant injuries could force Del Negro into playing someone who's just not ready.


4. What are the Goals for this Team?

 

Coach Vinnie Del Negro's goal is that they play the right way.  (For those of you who are linking to this preview from outside, during VDN's initial press conference with the team, he used the phrase 'play the right way' about 30 times and it's become something of a joke around here.) 

With such a young team, it's not unreasonable to set a goal of simply improving.  There are however some more practical goals as well.

Last year's team was 17-19 when they found out that Blake Griffin was out for the season.  The rest of the year was one white flag of surrender after another - Dunleavy stepped down as coach, Thornton and Telfair were traded, Marcus Camby was traded, Dunleavy was fired as GM.  And frankly, the team started mailing in it in terms of effort.  The result was a 12-34 record in their final 56 46 games. 

In light of last year, a good goal would be for this team to play hard all season.  With Blake Griffin as the emotional center of the club, this seems achievable.  It's hard to imagine Griffin giving less than his all on a basketball court.  One can only hope that his all out approach is contagious. 

 

5. How Big a Difference Does Griffin Make?

 

This is the real question of the Clippers season.  If you take the team from the start of the season, the one that went 17-19 in their first 36 games, the major difference is that they are replacing Marcus Camby with Blake Griffin.  Griffin is pretty close to a can't miss prospect - but the simple fact of the matter is that he's yet to play an NBA game, and he's replacing a guy who was still wildly productive (second in the league in rebounding, fifth in blocked shots).  Even if Griffin is terrific from the first month of the season, how much can he add over and above what Camby brought?  Griffin should score more than Camby on sheer athleticism alone.  He won't block as many shots, but his on ball defense stands to be better than Camby's.  He should hold his own on the boards, where he was a monster in college.

But the most important element that Griffin could bring to the Clippers is his intensity.  Camby was the consummate professional who gave a solid effort every night.  But he was neither a cheerleader nor a vocal leader.  Like Camby, Griffin is softspoken and prefers to lead by example.  But his work ethic and energy are on a completely different level.  It's just hard to imagine the Clippers allowing their focus and intensity to wane with Griffin on the court.  I'd hate to be the guy who had to face Blake Griffin in practice the next day if he felt like I was dogging it in a game.

Four of the Clippers starters figure to be the same from last season (depending on who wins the starting small forward job, Butler or Gomes).  The backup bigs are the same (Smith and Jordan).  Ignoring the rookies not named Blake Griffin, who don't figure to be factors this season, you've got Gomes and Foye instead of Thornton and Telfair.  There's just not a lot more wins in any of these changes.  Will Gordon have that break out year?  Maybe.  But Davis is getting older, and Kaman just had a career year, so there doesn't seem to be a lot of room for improvement there.  So any improvement in the team comes down to what Griffin can do, both on the court and in the culture of the team.

Don't underestimate him.

 

6. Can Chris Kaman Score 30?

 

On a slightly less serious note, Chris Kaman is currently the NBA leader in a very curious statistic.  He has more career games scoring over 20 points without ever scoring over 30 points than any other player since per game data is available starting in 1986-87.  He has scored over 20 73 times in his career, including 39 times last season alone, but has never reached the 30 point plateau.  I like to call this stat the "20s without 30", or 20wo30 for short.  Kaman was a remarkably consistent scorer last season, topping 20 points per game in over half the games in which he played, and failing to score in double figures only six times.  But he's never had that monster game, despite at least one 20 point half last year.

 

Prediction

 

Assuming the team can stay relatively healthy (always a risky assumption, particularly where the Clippers are involved), I think they can play .500 ball.  From a sheer talent standpoint, I think the near .500 basketball they played for the first 36 games was much more indicative than the .250 they played under Kim Hughes, after they'd given up.  If the combination of Del Negro and Griffin can keep the team (most importantly veterans Davis and Kaman) playing hard through April, I think the talent is there to win more games than they lose.

Depth issues will probably keep them from being a playoff team.  If one of the first round picks (Aminu or Bledsoe) or perhaps one of the new guys (Gomes or Foye) can far exceed expectations this season, that could change.  Otherwise, I'd say the team is still a year or two away from the playoffs in the still very deep and competitive Western Conference.

42-40 (which, by the way, was my prediction for the team last October BEFORE Griffin was injured).

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