I had a day of keen interest in the Clippers back in July when Lucas and Raffo were manning the fort during SP's absence, and a number of topics crossed my mind. Now that we're in the September dog days for basketball I thought I might revisit the list and perhaps try to tune up for October and training camp/preseason. There were some final roster adjustments at the end of summer which didn't quite go the way that I would have liked, but for the most part things are the same as they were during the flurry of activity that began around the solstice with the Doc Rivers deal. So here's a few (thousand?--can the old meditative, discursive zhiving be rekindled?) words over the course of three or four posts, notes and thought on topics we might be considering in a few weeks.
I declared Darren Collison my favorite new clipper before the Byron Mullens signing. Mullens has the long lines and mysterious, intriguing background and game of a typical Club Optimism underdog cynosure, Big Z (Zelko Rebraca) or Nick Fazekas-style: maybe he's Fazeke without the Zbo soft hands but also without the plodding non-athleticism. One of the many problems with Fazekas was that he was supposed to be a great shooter, with good range and a high success rate in college, but his shots didn't go down frequently enough, not at all, in his NBA stint.
A big part of being a longtime Clipper fan has traditionally been having a strong penchant for the underdog, and even the lost cause: a large number of citizens have romantic leanings, hoping against hope that a savior would emerge during the endless march through the wilderness. There were the LO-Q-Darius Miles Days of A New Hope, brutally quashed by Andre Miller and Olowokancer. Then a faint Zelko Rebraca blip (finished in even more brutal and thuglike fashion, by Ben Wallace). We amused ourselves with Fazekas while pondering the broken karma of YK and Paul Davis. Our little band of deluded Fazekefreaks swelled into a determined core of Novakians for a time, a nice complement to our obsessive tracking of dark horse rookie Eric Gordon's statistical battles with frontrunner OJ Mayo and complex star Russell Westbrook, all of them trailing the superb Derrick Rose (a group of great young players all currently challenged to come back in the aftermath of knee injuries). And we shouldn't forget that MDSr's final season began with a big man quintet of Kaman-Camby-ZBo-Blake Griffin-DeAndre Jordan (and Steve Novak!). We believed in ZBo, we believed that he could be traded, and this is the thanks we get.
So Byron Mullens joins a long line of quirky Clipper big men, one that was undoubtedly conceived in a twisted Bill Walton-Jerry Garcia mind meld: what a long strange trip it's been. I prefer Stanley Roberts to Benoit Benjamin, but it's a close call between those guys, and they must be noted, along with Keith Closs I suppose. Closs marks a cue for you to chip in with our own obscure favorites. On top of that, Chris Kaman is an elite member of this twisted pantheon: Clipper fans put their heart and soul into supporting Kaman's slow and maddening growth, and they were rewarded with the ill-timed All-Star 2.0 season, which wasn't so bad in the relative scheme of things (20wo30 shout out!). And then there's DJ. He a major topic, a huge part of the future, the upcoming season, and the moment. And he's damn quirky, a classic Clipper. More on DJ as we meander along.
The first thing about all of these guys, and the big issue with Byron Mullens as he steps into a critical role on the new roster, is that they just weren't that good. It takes special circumstances for the underdog to put together a stunning victory, for the meek to inherit the earth and wear the crown. In the old days, if everything went right for the Clippers there was a slight chance that they might make the playoffs. You need steady, solid big men, and guys like Elton Brand and Loy Vaught aren't on this list. Successful teams feature centurions alongside tested floor generals, and elite teams have been constructed like the Praetorian Guard. In this decade the Clippers have adopted the imperial mien and manner, and that's the only way to win. DTS is like a decadent provincial governor who has finally marshaled his abundant resources and cleaned up his act just enough to make a late-in-life journey to Rome. The Clippers have always been the Christians, no match for the imperial powers. But no more.
I suppose the majority of fans don't care to remember the days of subjection, of the benighted and impulsive cruelty of DTS, and the long wanderings in the wilderness. New Age Citizens want to see the surgery of domination executed by Paul and Griffin and the most balanced and deep roster ever, guided by experienced field marshal Doc Rivers, who already owns a triumph, including a victory march into Rome.
So Byron Mullens is a bit of throwback. Let's start with the slim but important premise gleaned from all this chaff: he's not that good. Mullens -- and now we're officially in the hunt for an appropriate sobriquet for this tantalizing new youngster (mulling it over? the way we hope he is with his shot selection, just a bit more than previously?) -- is not going to turn into an NBA immortal over the course of a couple of summer months in Playa Vista. But the question is a different one, now that the Clippers have a new perspective, and the view from the top wonders only: does he have skills? And do those skills fit neatly with the needs and puzzle and strengths of the roster? My guess is that the answer is yes. He can shoot, he has length and athleticism and he runs the floor. Those are all good things. He was most recently mired in the quicksand of a bad team, which made his play desperate and suspect -- but Clipper fans have seen enough of that over the years to know how it skews results and warps the spirit. And if a quick trigger, somewhat flashy hired gun like Mullingitover was coming in to be coached by a shooter of similar ilk during his playing days, the Man Named Del Negro, it could result in a blizzard of bad shots and worse decisions. But maybe you heard -- the Clippers now have a guy who is supposed to be a good coach, who seems to know something about getting specialist (a better upswing word than limited) players not to run around like aimless idiots. Mullens playing for VDN or some other earlier Clipper incarnation could have been amusing for a time, but it would have worn thin fairly quickly I think. That's the standard performance model for quirky big men in the Clipper past. But maybe it will be different now.
And it should be fun. SP and others can glance back at the archives and note the string of campaigns when the Clippers had literally no 3-pt shooters, let alone any specialists. The rise of Clipper 3 pt shooting should make for big fun in the upcoming season for the statistically inclined (as so many are these days; Zhiv, not so much, though I like my arcane oddities just as much as the next citizen, and probably more in fact). Citizens wandering in the desert were justifiably slow on the uptake as they watched other teams play in and out or exploit relatively simple and obvious strategies--"wow, these guys are hitting a whole lot of corner 3s!," Milph was known to opine as we all painfully figured out the strategy (we watched Bobby Simmons experiment his way to $50M down on the baseline, for instance, stretching out oh so deliberately behind the line). It's a different game when you have solid interior players, a bunch of shooters--and an elite point guard, of course. The new Clipper roster features shooting and more shooting (Redick and Dudley for Bledsoe the Great is a pretty sweet swap in these terms, although you have to throw in Butler too, I suppose. Caron, not Rasual, for anybody who was looking at the pathetic roster of leading Clipper 3 pt shooters), and that's before you get to Byron Mullens.
My guess is that Mullens is going to be a sweet fit, and he's going to make the fans, as opposed to certain cynical and crabby citizens, go nuts, and he will cut a dashing figure in Club O. The Clippers are poised to smash through November, December, and January in a blitzkrieg, overwhelming teams with their firepower. We will be happy celebrating the birth of a new Reich (while some, of course, accustomed to underdog provincialism, will remain befuddled at the showcase of imperial might). We know, however, that the Clippers are missing interior brawn, defense, and rebounding that they will need to impose their imperial will upon the playoffs. That's the fear of the aforementioned C4s (certain cynical crabby citizens--you know who you are!), the Mullens detractors. But for right now we should relax and enjoy the show. Shoring up defenses and retooling the attack for the playoff march is what the trade deadline is for, and as the new year begins the rich get richer. We're just not used to it. So let's have fun with this latest iteration of QCBM technology (not to mention the vast amount of digital ink about to be spilled on DJ), and let the Big Z fans, Fazekefreaks and Novakians raise the flag once more with pride and gusto, only this time as part of the New Order.
And by the way, I'm not sure I'm ready just yet for the rapidly approaching preseason to be a completely meaningless romp, yet another index of imperial privilege. A 180 degree flip of the NBA calendar requires all sorts of adjustments. We remember the days when the season was over at the All-Star break, and our occupation (yes, obsession -- so what?) was scouting draft prospects during March Madness and building lottery mojo (not to be called the T-word, as lo, the humble citizens roamed the wilderness for many years waiting to witness the Days of Wonder, the Griffin Miracle and the revelatory benediction of St. CP3, as it justly came to pass). I think I just successfully completed one significant modification, being able to ignore summer league completely (did somebody say something about some rookie from North Carolina or somewhere shooting the ball? did I overlook or even forget some other youngin?) -- a far cry from sweltering Vegas campaigns past. In the day training camp and preseason were an eggshell walk through injuries ranging from insidious to staggering, amidst a search for signs of life and the meager crust of faint hopes. More recently the preseason has been interesting, rather than desperate or even dire, the unveiling of Kaman 2.0 or gauging the progress of Gordon and Bledsoe, and just last year we were dumbstruck to discover that DJ suddenly had rudimentary offensive skills. The other thing DJ brought last year was a credible and consistent free throw stroke--which just means that he shot it more or less the same way every time, having nothing to do with whether the ball went in the hoop or not. So this year we'll be watching and expecting those free throws to be going in with greater frequency, while we're also getting busy and giddy Mullingitover, I expect (that one's not going to work, is it?) Sadly, thinking about this reminds me of MDSr never playing YK, not even in the preseason, not even in motherf-ing Russia. Don't kid yourself: as good as things are, there are still scars that won't heal.