2011-2012 Los Angeles Clippers Season Preview

Team Name: Los Angeles Clippers

Last Year's Record: 32-50

Free Agents: DeAndre Jordan, Craig Smith, Ike Diogu, Jamario Moon

Team Needs: A small forward and a true point guard (as well as a new owner and a better coach, but those aren't happening any time soon).

1. What are the Clippers' biggest needs this offseason?

There is probably no team in the league with a more glaring need than the Clippers - they need a small forward. They'd love an impact player at the position, but really, anything above dismal would be a significant improvement over last season. Ryan Gomes was signed as a free agent (you know, to soften the blow of losing out on LeBron James) and was the ostensible starter at the position (starting 62 games) and proceeded to have the worst year of his career, setting career lows in almost every significant category. He was one of the least productive starters in the entire league, ranking 6th in lowest PER for players who started at least half of the games.

Rookie Al-Farouq Aminu is the other current option at the position, and at least in AFA's case you can say that he's still very young (he turns 21 a few days before the season is scheduled to begin), but his productivity was about the same as Gomes' last season. He's has good size and quickness for the position, and he's crazy long - but more often than not he looks like a lost kitten on the floor. He showed some flashes last season, but his game still has a long way to go, and his confidence was sadly shot by the end. A major question for Aminu is his three point shooting - specifically, can he shoot or not? He surprised everyone by beginning the season red hot from the arc. He made 32 of 69 three pointer, over 46%, through the end of the year. But after January 1, he was just 13 for 74 (17.6%) the rest of the way.

The Clippers would dearly love to acquire a quality small forward before the 11-12 season begins (that is, if the 11-12 season begins). A rumored trade of Chris Kaman for Andre Iguodala seemed ideal - Kaman had become somewhat redundant with the emergence of DeAndre Jordan and Iguodala was the type of do everything small forward that would be a great fit - plus he wouldn't take a lot of shots away from the team's young cornerstones of Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon. Sadly, Kaman-for-Iggy probably was too good to be true and the trade never materialized. The deal could resurface, but Philadelphia will likely want significant sweeteners added. It remains to be seen what the Clippers would be willing to include, but one thing they will NOT part with for Iguodala is the unprotected Minnesota first round pick for next year that the team will FINALLY be getting from the long ago Sam Cassell for Marko Jaric trade.

There are small forward upgrades available via free agency, but no home runs. On such a young team, GM Neil Olshey and coach Vinny Del Negro will probably be interested in adding a veteran with lots of playoff experience - someone like Tayshaun Prince, Shane Battier, Andrei Kirilenko or Grant Hill. All are free agents and would add a veteran presence while upgrading the position over last season, but age will be a concern with each of these options (Prince 31, Battier 33, Kirilenko 30, Hill 39), and it remains to be seen how much the team is willing to spend for a small forward on the decline.

The other need this off-season is to keep the core group together. Jordan, who took over as the starter and emerged as the team's center of the future when Kaman was injured, is a restricted free agent. The team has made it a priority to re-sign him and almost certainly will barring some crazy offer sheet from another team. In addition to Jordan, Eric Gordon is eligible for an extension when the NBA resumes it's business. Gordon enjoyed a breakout season averaging over 22 points per game, and is considered by many the best young shooting guard in the league. Jordan (23), Gordon (22) and Blake Griffin (22) form the core of the best young collection of NBA talent outside of Oklahoma, and keeping them together for the foreseeable future is the closest thing the Clippers have had to a "plan" in a long, long time. It's not a requirement to extend Gordon now - he has another year on his rookie deal after which he'll be a restricted free agent next summer, at which time the Clippers can sign him or match any other offer - but it would send a very clear message to Blake Griffin who is up next: we're serious about this team.

2. What are the Clippers' biggest strengths and weaknesses?

The Clippers were among the youngest teams in the league last season. Early in the season while Baron Davis and Randy Foye were injured, there were multiple game where the team actually started five players under the age of 23 (Jordan, Griffin, Aminu, Gordon and rookie point guard Eric Bledsoe). Is this youth a strength? Well, it wasn't last season, as the team lost 13 of their first 14 games and struggled to a 32-50 overall record. But at the risk of using a loaded word, it's pretty obvious that this group has a lot of potential.

Griffin and Gordon both averaged over 22 points per game last season, the youngest teammates in NBA history ever to do so for a full season; and there's every reason to believe that they can each be even better. Gordon was above 24 points per game on hyper-efficient scoring before suffering a series of injuries (chief among them a small fracture in his left wrist) that caused him to miss 26 games and affected his productivity when he did return. When he was healthy, Gordon was almost unguardable because of his combination of skills. He can shoot with almost unlimited range, but he can also attack the rim off the dribble. He's a terrific finisher, and he gets to the line frequently. He also showed signs of becoming the closer the Clippers have long needed, ranking among the league leaders in fourth quarter scoring.

As for Griffin, he continually improved throughout his Rookie of the Year season and there's little reason to think that he has come anywhere close to his ceiling. In fact, let's face it, if you're talking about the strengths of the Clippers, Griffin is at the top of the list. In a superstar driven league, the Clippers have never had a player of his caliber - never. Griffin's first year averages of 22 points, 12 rebounds and almost 4 assists are a combination not seen from a rookie since Kareem Abdul-Jabbor (or more accurately Lew Alcindor at the time). Even among non-rookies, that kind of season puts him the company of almost exclusively Hall of Famers.

How the Clippers are able to put pieces around Griffin will ultimately determine how good a team they can be. Gordon is a good start in that regard - as a classic inside-outside combination, Griffin and Gordon complement each other perfectly - they even showed a nice chemistry on the pick and roll last season. Gordon's never going to be John Stockton, but the scoring options when you put Griffin and Gordon into a pick and roll are almost overwhelming.

If youth is a major strength of the team, it is also a major weakness. It manifests itself in myriad ways, some of them very measurable. For instance, you might expect a young and inexperienced team to be turnover prone, and indeed the Clippers committed more turnovers than any team aside from Minnesota last season. If they intend to improve, this is one place to start.

They were also the second worst free throw shooting team in the league at less than 71%. Most of their foul shooting woes stemmed directly from Jordan (one of the worst free throw shooters in the league at 45%) and Griffin (64%). Griffin steadily improved his percentage over the course of the season - he was below 62% before the All Star break and just under 70% after - and will hopefully be better still next season. 

These two areas are the low hanging fruit of the upcoming Clippers season. Minor improvements that may come with more experience and more time playing together will help the team across the board. But by simply moving towards the league average in both turnovers and free throw shooting the team can make major improvements in their offensive efficiency.

I would also consider coaching to be a weakness of the team. Vinny Del Negro now has three seasons as a head coach in the NBA (two in Chicago and one in LA, his only experience as a head coach, by the way), and he's yet to impress. The Clippers' offense tends to be very predictable, and VDN's in game adjustments leave much to be desired. His proponents will point to his ability to develop young players, noting Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Griffin and Jordan as examples. But it's tough to know how much credit to give him for that sort of thing - specifically, what exactly was he going to do to hold back talents on the level of Rose and Griffin? Furthermore, if Del Negro was integral to Rose's success (as we were told when the coach was hired in LA), then how to explain Rose's improvement to MVP level after Chicago hired a new coach? Chicago went from .500 to the best record in the league after VDN stopped coaching them. How much of that is Tom Thibodeau? And how much is Vinny Del Negro?

3. If there is no season in 2011-12, how are the Clippers set up for 2012?

You'd have to consider the Clippers as one of the teams least hurt by the loss of the season. The bad news is that they miss out on a relatively cheap rookie scale season for both Griffin and Gordon. In Griffin's case, a lost season would be particularly bitter for him and for Clippers' fans: it would be the second lost season out of his first three in the league, after he missed all of 2009-2010 with a fractured patella.

But in the big picture, it's clearly better to be missing out on a season leading to a player's prime than to be missing out on a season leading away from it. It's simplistic but not inaccurate to say that older teams will be hurt the most, and younger teams will be hurt the least - and the Clippers are one of the youngest teams. 

As to how they'd be set up for 2012, assuming both Jordan and Gordon are re-signed, they'd be about the same. Aside from small forward, the lineup would be set - which is exactly the situation today. Kaman would be a free agent, but if Jordan is the center of the future, that's not a devastating loss. Randy Foye would also be a free agent, but for both Kaman and Foye, the cap savings are almost as valuable as the players since neither particularly fits into the team's long term plans. If the upcoming season is lost, the team would be going into 2012 needing to find a starting small forward and to shore up the bench, but they'd also have some cap space with which to do it (though Jordan and Gordon would both presumably be on expensive new contracts).

There are however a couple of specific reasons that the Clippers would dearly love to see this season happen. One is the trade deadline. With the clock ticking down to unrestricted free agency for superstars like Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Dwight Howard, the Clippers currently hold the assets to make an interesting offer for one of those players (the point guards being of particular interest). Chris Kaman is in the final year of his contract at $12.5M, a necessary asset for matching salaries in such a trade. More importantly, that first rounder from Minnesota is invaluable - it has a very good chance to be a very high pick in a very talented draft. If New Orleans, New Jersey or Orlando decides to make the painful decision to start over without their franchise player, a high lottery pick will be high on their wish list, and the Clippers are arguably the only teams with a chance to be good (i.e. they might actually be of interest as a destination for a megastar) who can offer one.

The second issue is also related to the Minnesota pick. The NBA has never lost an entire season before, and it's unclear how the draft order will be determined if it happens. The Clippers have waited patiently seven long years for this pick. (One of my favorite aspects of this trade is that when it is finally complete, Sam Cassell could wind up being traded for a player 24 years his younger.) The Timberwolves had the worst record in the league last season; Rick Adelman is a great coach, but the mess in Minnesota will take time to clean up, so if the season is played there's every reason to expect that the Clippers will have a LOT of ping pong balls in the lottery come May. Without a season, does that pick become much less valuable? Not knowing how the draft order will be determined, it's impossible to say.

4. If I could make one change to the NBA's new CBA, what would it be?

There are a few different ways to answer this. Do I answer as a fan of the Clippers, based on my personal feelings, based on what would be best for the game?

The Clippers as a team would benefit from a hard, team-by-team cap. Owner Donald Sterling has never shown the tiniest inclination to pay the luxury tax (or even to get much over the salary cap most seasons) despite playing in the second largest market in the country. A team-by-team cap would level the playing field for the Clippers, giving them the benefits of playing in a large market without allowing other teams to outspend them by quite so much. But I am not a fan of the hard cap, so that's not the change I would make.

The thing that the league needs the most is robust revenue sharing. There is clearly a benefit to having teams in many markets, and most of them are not capable of generating as much revenue as New York and LA. More revenue sharing is clearly the biggest need of the league at present - a fact which hopefully even the big market owners recognize. But technically that's not part of the CBA - it's a separate issue.

Within the CBA proper, I'd include a provision to increase the rate of the luxury tax based on seasons spent over the tax threshold, rather than the current proposal of increasing it based on the amount over. The Larry Bird exception is a good thing - it keeps players in their current market, it increases fan loyalty, it provides for a sense of identity and history for a franchise. Team's should have the flexibility to exceed the cap to keep their players - but it should be the exception (as the name implies) and not the rule (as it has become for many teams). 

5. Will the Clippers regret trading Baron Davis?

Or maybe the question is how much will they regret it? 

The team was so desperate to get out from under Davis' contract (which has two more seasons and almost $29M left on it) that they were willing to include this year's lottery pick in the deal to trade him to Cleveland for Mo Williams and Jamario Moon. That pick of course became the first overall pick in the draft, Kyrie Irving. 

Williams is a competent starter at the point, and provides better perimeter shooting than did Davis which helps spread the floor for Griffin. But Baron had shown signs of becoming the player the young Clippers needed at the point; a dynamic leader who knew how to push the pace and get the ball to Griffin and Jordan on the break or to Gordon in his spots. Griffin's highlight reel dunks were legendary, but go back and take another look - the truly great passes all came from Davis. (Ironically some of Griffin's most spectacular dunks were off terrible lobs - the kind where you think he's got no chance to get there, yet somehow he does. In that sense, Williams and Foye and Bledsoe could definitely keep the highlights coming, since every lob pass is a bit of an adventure.) 

There's no question that Davis was a major disappointment and wildly overpaid as a Clipper. His first season in LA was dreadful and his second was only OK. But Davis is clearly at his best when he's having fun, and he was finally enjoying himself in LA when Griffin joined the party. There's little doubt in my mind that he was a better fit as the point guard of this team than Williams. 

So why was Olshey so determined to get rid of him? Maybe there were other issues behind the scenes, maybe they felt he had to go to make it clear that this team now belonged to Griffin and Gordon. Or maybe it was just the money. Sterling spent time heckling Davis from his courtside seat this year - this might have been a case of the boss wanting him gone, no matter the cost.

The perceived benefit of the trade was additional cap space this summer. But there are myriad issues that could limit the value of that cap space. For one, the Clippers need a small forward, but the free agents at that position are all flawed as we've already discussed. For another, a proposed amnesty clause in the new CBA could free up cap space for several other teams, diluting the value of the Clippers own space. And of course if there's no season at all, then cap space is irrelevant.

If Williams turns out to be a bad fit or if Irving turns out to be a star, the trade will look far worse in retrospect. Meanwhile, hindsight and the lockout could make it even more regrettable. If this season is lost to the lockout, then half of Davis' remaining contract evaporates - in that scenario, not trading Davis would have netted a lottery pick, and the Clippers would enter the 2012 season with Davis' now expiring deal as a potential trade chip. Worse still, an amnesty clause would render the trade unnecessary, at least from a cap space standpoint: the Clippers could have kept Baron AND the pick, waived him under the amnesty provision (as Cleveland is likely to do) and realized even more cap savings than the trade provided. (Not that Sterling would be likely to pay Baron or any player just to go away.)

Instead the Clippers lost their lottery pick and their only true point guard. They are left with a series of combo guards (Williams, Foye, Bledsoe, even Gordon can play a little point) who may or may not be capable of providing the floor leadership that such a young team requires. I never liked this trade - it remains to be seen just how much it hurts the team in the long run.

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