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What's Wrong With the Clippers?

With the team mired in a 4 game losing streak, winless on the road, and having not played a solid 4 consecutive quarters of basketball all season, it's time to ask the question.

It should be pointed out that I have WAAAAY too much time on my hands.  A little over a week ago, the team was 6-2.  In another week's time, things will have changed again.  The season is 82 games long, so we're about one-seventh of the way through.  But I have a blog about the Clippers, and, well, this is what I write about.

So, what's wrong with the Clippers?  There are many possible answers.  

Nothing - They've still only lost one game at home.  And all but one of the road losses have come against division leaders this year, or division champs from last year.  In other words, they've lost at MOST 2 games that they should have won on paper.  Are they playing well?  No.  But they will, and the schedule has not been the easiest in the league so far.  A dominant home court record, and some road wins out East will be enough to make it into the playoffs again.  At that point, the Clippers size and versatility will make them a threat to anybody, just as was the case last season.  Be patient... it's early... this team will be fine.

Expectations - They weren't really as good as we thought.  They started last season 9-2.  From that point, they were 38-33, a winning percentage that equates to between 43 and 44 wins.  Since Sacto was the 8th seed at 44-38, the Clippers would have been the last seed in the playoffs last year absent their hot start, which after all might have caught some opponents by surprise.  The fact that in the playoffs they dominated Denver and outplayed Phoenix says more about the weaknesses of those two teams than it does about the strengths of the Clippers.  The team is what it is.  It played like a low seed last year, it didn't improve in the off-season, and with the Jazz, Rockets and Hornets all much better, it will be difficult to make the playoffs this season.

Off-Season and Training Camp - Superstar Elton Brand had a VERY busy off-season, playing for USA Basketball in Asia, premiering a movie he produced (he's now got a distributor and a release date, btw), and getting married, among other things.  The team then conducted the beginning of training camp in Moscow, as part of the NBA Europe Live promotion, which turned out to be a VERY bad idea.  14 hour plane flights, multiple hours lost in Moscow traffic, and community relations activities like visiting schools and orphanages left very little time for basketball.  By the time the team returned for the remainder of camp in Santa Barbara, they were jet-lagged and way behind schedule.  Compounding the problem were NBA rules forbidding 2 a day practices in the final weeks of camp, so the practices lost to Moscow traffic could not be made up.  Newcomer Tim Thomas missed all of the Santa Barbara camp to oral surgery and some back trouble, and Kaman and Cassell spent the entire pre-season injured as well.  By the time the regular season started, the team was just about ready for the pre-season to start.  And it shows.  

Poor performances from individuals - The Clippers feature 8 players that could arguably be starters for many teams in the NBA.  Unfortunately, 5 of those 8 players have underperformed as compared to last season and to the team's expectations.

  • Elton Brand, after his busy off-season, appears simply tired.  Teams have totally revamped their scouting reports concerning EB, and are double teaming him with much greater frequency and vigor.  Compounding all of this, for some reason Elton has been significantly less aggressive offensively than he was last year.  He has been hesitant to shoot the open 18 footer, which was after all, the reason he boosted his scoring average from around 20 to almost 25.  He remains terrific on defense and rebounding, and has played well-enough, but compared to last season's MVP-like year, it's a big drop off.
  • Chris Kaman has been terrible in the early going.  After shooting 51% from the field last season, he is under 40% so far this year.  Because of his ineffectiveness, and compounded by difficult early season matchups against the Suns and Mavs, his minutes are way down.  Then after 2 straight double doubles, when it looked like he was coming around, he twisted an ankle in practice.  He's missed the last 2 games, and will probably be out at least another 2 weeks.  All of this is occurring under the microscope of increased expectations following a $52M contract extension prior to the beginning of the season.
  • Shaun Livingston has been a major disappointment thus far.  After a summer filled with intensive workouts where he improved his physical strength and his outside shot, everyone in the Clippers organization predicted a breakout season.  Indeed he looked terrific in the pre-season.  He was given the opening night starters job, partly because Cassell was hurting, but also because many thought it was time he took over.  Instead, he appears to have regressed.  He is tentative with the ball.  His offense has been horrendous - he's shooting just 37%.  Meanwhile, despite being a clearly gifted passer, he has a penchant for throwing the ball away, often on the most routine of plays.  He is averaging 2 turnovers per game, in only 24 minutes of court time.  His assists are down and his turnovers are up from a year ago, and his numbers weren't exactly stellar then.  We all see the potential there, but as Kevin at ClipperBlog pointed out, it is about time that we see some results.
  • Tim Thomas was signed to provide instant offense off the bench, and in particular to be the team's deep threat.  So far, he is shooting 37% from the field, and 35% from beyond the arc.  His shooting has provided a spark in a couple of games, and it is reasonable to say that the Clippers would have lost the Denver game on Nov. 2 if not for his 4 triples in the fourth quarter.  However, rather than being a consistent threat, he's seemed to be either on or off, and more often the latter.  He's made 18 threes on the young season, but half of them came in 2 games.  In the other 10 games, he is 9 for 32, 28%.
  • Cuttino Mobley started the season in very good form.  He shot over 50% in the first 7 games, and scored in double figures in 6 of the 7.  The team was 5-2 at that time, and Cat almost single-handedly won the Dallas game, playing lock down defense on Nowitzki and scoring 28 points.  Since, he is shooting 38.6%, has scored in double figures only once, and the Clippers are 1-4.

The rotation - Noticeably absent from the list of underacheivers above is one Corey Maggette.  After missing more than half of last season, Corey has essentially returned to his pre-injury form, when he was the team's leading scorer, but the minutes have not returned.  It's fine to bring him off the bench to provide instant-offense, but he's currently 7th on the team in minutes per at 26.3.  That's simply not enough.  Sure he commits a lot of turnovers, and his defense is suspect at times.  But per 48 minutes, he is the leading scorer on the team, and only slightly behind Brand and Kaman in rebouding.  And although he is shooting only 43.4%, his ability to get to the free throw line and 80% shooting there actually make him one of the most efficient scorers in the league.  Let's start playing the guy the minutes that represent what he is:  one of the most gifted wings in the NBA.  

Unimaginative offense - With the team averaging almost 98 points per game, you might think that offense was the least of their worries.  However, half of their early season games have been against up tempo teams like the Nuggets, Suns, Lakers and Mavs, so their scoring average is skewed.  The team has been out of sorts on offense all season, and has looked comfortable for only short stretches.  MDSr likes to walk the ball up court, but right now everything is taking way too long.  By the time the Clippers get into an offensive set, the shot clock is usually down around 10.  With the new scouting report opponents have applied to EB, the offense needs to adjust to find good shots on passes out of the double team.  However, they tend instead to stand around, resulting in far too many contested shots up against a dwindling shot clock.  The only alternatives the team seems to have are to post other guys (Kaman, Mobley, etc.) often resulting in similar results.  Without enough shooters to effectively spread the floor, opponents are able to double team quickly, and without paying a high price.  The only time the offense has looked good on the young season is when someone (Mobley against Dallas, Cassell for three quarters against Minny) has had a hot hand.  Maybe with 7 pretty good scorers on the roster, this approach will work in the long run.  But with several of those scorers slumping, it ain't working right now.

There are other, smaller though inexplicable problems with the team right now.  For instance, after being the second best free throw shooting team in the league last year at 79%, they are currently 18th, under 75%.  Likewise, they have allowed WAY too many offensive rebounds to their opponents, another supposed strength.  We're talking about essentially the same personnel, so there's no good explanation for these drop offs.  Free throw shooting is concentration.  Rebounding is about effort, particularly on the box out.  

It's early enough in the season that I'm inclined to say that basically nothing much is REALLY wrong with the team.  A combination of all of the above (higher expectations, a difficult situation in pre-season, some underperforming individuals, and some adjustments that need to be made on offense) has resulted in a less than inspiring beginning to the season.  But happily, there's always another chance to improve, and that starts tonight in Sacramento.