Shaun Livingston and Sam Cassell really could not be more dissimilar.
- Sam shaves his pate. Shaun spends hours having his corn rows done just so.
- Sam is the 6th oldest player in the league at
3837. Shaun has been old enough to drink for three whole months now.
- Sam is a 6'3" pit bull (am I still the only one who thinks he looks like Spuds McKenzie?). Shaun is a 6'7" grey hound.
- Sam could miss 10 straight shots and still want to take the game-winner. Shaun could make 10 straight and be content to watch on the next 10 possessions.
- Sam is all about swagger. Shaun has yet to learn the testicle dance.
23 games into the season, Cassell has started 12 games and Livingston has started 11, including 10 of the last 11. The team is 6 and 6 in Cassell's starts, 4 and 7 in Livingston's.
Because there has always been some other distraction, it has been difficult to evaluate the question of who should be starting for this team. Cassell has been banged up with one injury or another for most of the season, and has three DNPs in the last 11, and 10 minutes or fewer in 6 of the last 12. For that reason, it's difficult to blame Livingston for his poorer winning percentage, as Sam's injuries are hurting the team, whether he starts or not. And because Sam has been hurt so much, it's difficult to know whether MDSr has decided on Livingston as the permanent starter at this point. Going into the season, there were rumors that Livingston would be the man. But after a poor performance on opening day, Sam was right back in the starting lineup.
And of course now we have the ultimate distraction. Basically, both players know that that they figure prominently in Allen Iverson trade talk. Livingston is the player the Sixers want, and Cassell is the player the Clippers have offered. (It's not quite that simple of course.)
The shame of it is that this could be an ideal situation for both of them. Cassell is 38 years old, incapable of playing big minutes, but still one of the best clutch shooters in the game (and easily the best clutch shooter on the Clippers). Livingston, for all his monstrous gifts, is not ready to take game winning shots at this point in his career. Nonetheless, he has responded very well in the last 11 games, averaging 12.7 points and almost 7 assists in 34 minutes during that span.
It seems clear that having Livingston as the starter, and Cassell as the closer, suits the team best at this point. Cassell can save his energy for fourth quarter heroics, and Livingston can log the minutes that other young guys like Chris Paul, Ray Felton, Jarrett Jack and Deron Williams have gotten by default, and which seem essential to developing a top NBA point guard. (Deron Williams was horrendous as a starter for three fourths of last season before finally getting it, and deserves all-star consideration now.) The two can certainly play together as well, with Cassell being the team's best catch and shoot option at the two.
Livingston is finally beginning to realize the potential that everyone has seen in him from day one. A 6'7", pass first point guard with incredible court vision... well, there's only been one other of those. I've stopped making the Magic comparison for now - he just doesn't have the command of the game. But he could be special in his own right, and is a better defender than Magic ever was. When you see him drive the lane, extend and finish, you wonder why he doesn't do that every time. And then he'll pass up a shot he should have taken, or try a pass that has no way of getting through, or worse yet botch a simple pass, and you wonder if he's ever going to get it.
ClipsNation got a glimpse of what might be in consecutive wins at the beginning of January. In the team's most impressive win of the year, Livingston and Cassell combined for 22 points and 19 assists in 46 evenly split minutes against Orlando. In the next game, they combined for 15 points and 15 assists, with 6 of Cassell's 8 points and 4 of his 8 assists coming in the crucial fourth quarter. Then, in the team's only road win of the season, Livingston the passer racked up 9 assists in 36 minutes while Cassell the scorer poured in 18 points in 27 minutes to beat the Grizzlies. It's a combination that could be incredibly effective.
Unfortunately, it's entirely possible we've seen the last of this one-two punch, or at least the best of it. It's not just that one of them could be traded (which seems less likely now, as Philly seems set on Livingston, while the Clippers seem equally adament that he is untouchable). Sam is
38 37. This cannot be stressed strongly enough. The 5 players in the NBA who are older (Mutumbo, Dale Davis, Cliff Robinson, PJ Brown and Payton) are all reserves, mostly bigs, and playing limited minutes. Furthermore, plantar fasciatis is an injury that can take a long time to heal in a young man. It basically ended Doug Christie's career, at the age of 35. I truly, truly hope that we will see the Sam of old, and not just an old Sam, in the fourth quarter of many Clipper victories to come. But I have my doubts.
Some have suggested that Sam is pouting, not happy to have been replaced in the starting lineup. I really don't believe that. Sam is a pro, and he knows that he's
38 37. I really believe that he'd rather been in there and fresh in the fourth quarter than be in the starting lineup. The lackluster performances of the last couple weeks are because he's been hurt, and not his feelings.
This team as currently configured still needs Sam... badly. Elton Brand is a terrific all around basketball player, but he has never been a 'go to' guy, nor can he create his own shot easily. In the fourth quarter, if defenses are determined to take Elton out of the game, they can do it, as we've seen. It's always easier to have a perimeter guy who wants the ball in crunch time, as they're not dependent on receiving a pass in scoring position. Until Shaun makes a major leap in aggressiveness, Sam is the Clippers best option for a big basket at the end of a game. Does Sam take some bad shots, some quick jumpers, some hoping-for-the-dagger threes when he's shooting 14% from out there? Sure. But who else is going to take the big shot for the Clippers right now? If I was in the huddle, and Sam was healthy, I'd be drawing up the play for him and his giant huevos.
I for one hope that AI gets traded soon, regardless of where he goes. If he doesn't wind up a Clipper, then ClipsNation can enjoy another season and a half of Shaun the starter, and Sammy the closer.
(1100 words on Shaun and Sam.)