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A Clipper a Day - Cuttino Mobley

Cuttino Mobley is not at all the player I thought he was when the Clippers acquired him in 2005.  Of course you're bound to see a player differently when you watch him every day, as opposed to two or three times a year and in box scores.  The Mobley I thought I knew and the Mobley on the Clippers are very different.  Or are they?

For all the talk on this here blog about Corey Maggette having averaged 20 points per game, it's interesting that he's not the only former 20 point per game scorer on the team.  Cat Mobley averaged 21.7 points per game for Houston in 01-02, and 19.5 the season before that - and those were his second and third seasons in the league.  In other words, early in his career he was on a trajectory to be a premier scorer from the shooting guard position.  

But there are a couple of things about that 01-02 season that jump out.  For one thing, that Rockets team was bad - Olajuwon had just retired, and the team won 28 games.  For another, with the Dream gone, the Rockets played perimeter basketball, and Stevie Franchise and Cat Mobley split 36 shots per game between them - the next highest on the team was Kenny Thomas around 11.  Finally, as much as I harp on Cat for being MDsr's blanket in LA, it's nothing compared to what was going on in Houston - Cat averaged over 42 minutes per game in 01-02!  

But I had the impression of Cat Mobley as a selfish and one-dimensional player.  Why?  Well, if you've played fantasy basketball you know that you can get hung up on specific stats and lose sight of the big picture.  For a guy playing 42 minutes a game, 4 rebounds and 2.5 assists was pretty anemic.  Especially the assists.  I mean, if you've got the ball in your hands enough to take 18 shots, you really should get a few more assists.  I've always played in a weighted score league as opposed to rotisserie - even when Cat was putting up huge points, he was a mediocre fantasy player.

So Cat Mobley became a one-dimensional player in my head.  He was a gunner - a chucker.  

Despite that, when Cat became the Clippers first ever significant free agent signing in 2005, I thought it was a great thing.  The very idea of going after a big time free agent was fairly new around here - Gilbert Arenas and Kobe Bryant had been the first to received offer in the seasons directly prior.  The fact that someone actually ACCEPTED an offer from the Clippers was unprecedented - Arenas took less money to play for the Wizards, while Kobe reneged on his verbal agreement with Elgin Baylor to stay with the Lakers, who did after all give him more money.  

The Clippers were fairly desperate for a shooting guard at the time - the Kerry Kittles era had been a disaster, Bobby Simmons and Corey Maggette were really small forwards, and Simmons was gone at any rate.  The Clippers also needed three point shooting, and Mobley had been third in the league the season before at 44%.  Sure he was a one-dimensional gunner, but that's kind of what the team needed.

It turns out, Cat Mobley isn't a one-dimensional gunner - in fact, he's a multi-dimensional player who needs to shoot more.  At least that's what he has been with the Clippers.  The guy who took more than 18 shots per game in 01-02 took fewer than 13 per game his first season in LA, just over 11 his second.  He had not shot that infrequently since his rookie year.  More importantly, on a team with few three point threats (he was the only one prior to the acquisition of Vladimir Radmanovic, and one of two thereafter) his three point attempts per game dropped from over 5 to just over 3, also the lowest since his rookie season.  The fact that he made under 34% his first season as a Clipper (a career low) didn't help matters, though he did bounce back to 41% last season.

Of course, none of this is Cat Mobley's fault.  MDsr has nothing but praise for his blanket, and clearly he is playing the way the coach wants him to.  For the two years that he has been in LA Cat has not heard his number called very often; the offense has always gone through Elton Brand.  The Clippers have ranked near the bottom of the league in three point attempts each of the last two seasons, preferring to pound the ball into the post.  In fact, even when Cat has gotten plays called for him, they've more often been post ups, another dimension of his game that I had no idea existed.

And while his assists and rebounds continue to hang around his career averages, from observation I would say that he is an above average passer and an adequate rebounder.  MDsr has on many occasions complimented the overall game of his blanket.

And then there is his defense.  As we've discussed on many occasions, good defense is subjective, and often difficult to recognize.  My expectations for the gunner the Clippers acquired in 2005 were very low on the defensive end.  However, it is in fact Mobley's defense that keeps him so heavily featured in MDsrs rotation.  While not really quick enough to stay in front of point guards, he is often assigned to the opposition's best scoring wing, at either the shooting guard or the small forward.  He has matched up well defensively on players as diverse as Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony and Dirk Nowitzki.  It is his success against much bigger players (Dirk goes 7 feet, Cat is 6'4") that has been remarkable.  In the 06 playoffs, the Clippers easily outplayed Denver by swarming Carmelo.  Defensive specialist Quinton Ross got some of those minutes, but it was in fact Mobley who started each game of that series checking the 6'9" Anthony.  He is very effective at crowding scorers on the wing and hectoring them into difficult shots.  He also has quick hands and knows every sneaky angle.  He is incredibly effective at raking the ball while it is low.  In MDsr's defensive schemes which rely heavily on switching and rotations, Cat is invariably in the right place.  I would have preferred that Cat's minutes had been shared more with Maggette and Ross last season - but I understood why the coach felt he needed him on the floor.  As a coach, you get frustrated when you're giving up something - if Maggette misses a rotation, you lose some more hair - if Ross can't keep the defense honest, your ulcer acts up.  Cat Mobley is solid if unspectacular on both ends.  A coach can feel secure with him on the floor.  He's like a... security blanket.

So what can we expect from Mobley this season?  It's interesting that, in anticipation of life without Elton, we've discussed increased opportunities for Maggette, Kaman, Thornton, Cassell - almost everyone except Cat Mobley, a former 20 point per game scorer.  Limited in training camp by a strained muscle, we've had little indication of where he'll fit into the Clippers' new uptempo schemes in the 41 rusty pre-season minutes he's played so far.  It's far from clear if he'll even be the starter this season.  After offering to come off the bench last season to allow Maggette to start (an offer MDsr foolishly declined), Cat has repeated the offer this season.  Maggette will get a lot of minutes at the small forward this season, but also some at the shooting guard.  With a glut of players who can play the three and need minutes, the remaining minutes at the two will be split between Mobley and Ross.  Will Blanket continue to start and play 36 minutes per game, leaving little time for Ross?  

Given that Maggette will probably be the number one option starting games, it seems to make sense to make Mobley this season's Maggette - the second unit's designated scorer (although Al Thornton is also making a push for that role).  Bringing Mobley off the bench will also allow Ross to guard the opposition's quickest player and help cover for Cassell.  On offense, the team will be more willing to spread the floor and shoot threes without Brand, and Mobley's attempts should increase there.  (Of course, I maintain that they should be doing that with Brand, arguably even more so.)  At any rate, starting the season without the team's leading scorer from the past two campaigns means more shots for everyone, and Mobley is clearly one of the players who can and should take up some of the slack on offense, as a starter or a reserve.  The fact that he feels better than he has in years after off-season arthroscopic elbow surgery bodes well.

So, which Cat Mobley will we see this year?  The solid pro that contributes in small ways, shoots infrequently and plays big minutes?  Or the gunner and three point specialist?  Is it too much to hope for both?