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Clippers Season Preview

Los Angeles Clippers
Last Years Record: 40-42
Key Losses: Shaun Livingston (knee surgery, out for several months), Elton Brand (ruptured Achilles, out for several months)
Key Additions: Al Thornton, Ruben Patterson, Brevin Knight, Dan Dickau, Josh Powell

1. What significant moves were made during the offseason?

The most significant move the Clippers made this off-season was the one Elton Brand put on Chris Kaman in an August game of one-on-one.  That move caused Elton's Achilles tendon, and the Clippers playoff hopes, to emit a loud popping sound.

The shadow of Brand's injury looms over every other move this summer.  14th overall pick Al Thornton was an excellent prospect late in the lottery.  Veteran free agents Brevin Knight and Ruben Patterson are both solid signings, acquired inexpensively both in terms of money and contract years.  Josh Powell and Dan Dickau have never gotten much run in the NBA, and Clipper fans hope one or both will turn out to be another Bobby Simmons or Quinton Ross - players who were signed from obscurity and became solid NBA rotation players.  But without Brand, how does it all fit together?  Why bring in a veteran like Patterson when you're unlikely to make the playoffs without your superstar?  If you've got the choice of giving minutes to Patterson or to Powell and Thornton, wouldn't you rather develop the youngsters this season?  Likewise with Knight - a terrific floor general and underrated player, he may well have been the best free agent point guard to change teams this summer, yet he signed for far less than guys like Steve Blake and Smush Parker.  But why sign a 31 year old veteran for two seasons when you've still got Cassell, you're hoping to get Livingston back eventually, and you had to get rid of two second rounders (2006's Guillermo Diaz and 2007's Jared Jordan) to make room on the roster?

The Clippers could have responded to the injuries to Brand and Livingston in one of two ways:

  1. stockpile young talent, try to develop it, and point to the 08-09 season when Brand and Livingston would hopefully return; or
  2. address the immediate needs presented by the injuries and try to remain in contention until Brand and possibly Livingston could return.
Perhaps foolishly, they chose option 2.  

As for the additions, Thornton is probably the key.  2005 lottery pick Yaroslav Korolev is gone - the highest drafted Russian in NBA history, out of the league after two non-seasons; 2004 pick (4th overall) Livingston has shown flashes of promise, but has yet to flourish and suffered numerous injuries even before his gruesome knee collapse in March - he's the definition of 'injury-prone'; 2003 pick (6th overall) Chris Kaman signed a $52M extension last fall and then proceeded to have easily the worst year of his career (and it doesn't help that guys like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony and Kirk Hinrich came out of the same draft).  I'm saying, the Clippers NEED Thornton to work out.  He doesn't have to be a star.  But he needs to be a solid NBA starter.  So far, so good.  Thornton has been at times spectacular in pre-season with games of 24, 24 and 23, and is rated by as the top rookie in the league in pre-season play.  Not bad for the 14th pick.

2. What are the team's biggest strengths?

If nothing else, the Clippers are back in familiar territory.  After their 2006 playoff run, they were widely predicted to be a force last season, and fell flat under the unfamiliar weight of expectations.  At least they're back where they belong as an afterthought.  They're not on anybody's radar, and that's fine with them.  They weren't really comfortable as a contender.  If there are no expectations, at least you can't underachieve.

Contrary to what you have read about these Clippers, the cupboard is not bare in LA despite the absence of their only all star since Danny Manning (Cassell was an all star in Minny).  Corey Maggette averaged 22.7 points per game in 04-05, the last time he was a full-time starter.  He is capable of putting up all star like numbers.  A foul-drawing savant, Maggette has a legitimate chance to lead the NBA in free throws attempted and made, and points per shot.  He also has a chance to lead the league in offensive fouls and turnovers.  Cat Mobley and Tim Thomas are both solid veterans capable of putting up points (Mobley himself is another former 20 point per game scorer).  And Kaman, despite his disastrous 06-07 season, remains a tantalizing talent at center.  After improving his first 3 seasons in the league, the Clippers are hoping that last season turns out to be an anomaly and he'll return to his earlier career trajectory and earn his new contract.  And then there is Sam Cassell - sure, he's the second oldest player on an NBA roster right now, but he was written off once before two years ago, and all he did was lead the Clippers to within a game of the Western Conference finals.

I guess what I'm saying is 'veteran leadership' and 'depth' are strengths of this team.  Sure, those are words you toss around when your team's just not that good.  But I don't see a Memphis-sans-Pau style tank job out of this group.  If Maggette can be a legitimate first option on offense, if Kaman can have a bounce back season, if Cassell can be productive and stay on the floor, this team will be competitive most nights.  And yes, I realize those are three ifs, but none of them are unreasonable assumptions.  

The second unit of Knight, Quinton Ross, Thornton, Patterson and Paul Davis is solid.  In fact, three of those guys have been NBA starters for long stretches in their careers, and Thornton and Davis both looked solid in pre-season.  I realize that two mediocre units is not as good as one great one - but the Clippers are hoping that this group of NBA veterans can keep them competitive until Brand and Livingston return.

3. What are the team's biggest weaknesses?

In the NBA of 2007, all the best teams revolve around a superstar, with the possible exception of Detroit.  The Clippers do not have a superstar; not until Brand comes back.  Can Chris Kaman punish single coverage in the low post the way a legitimate post player needs to?  Can he effectively handle the double teams he draws, passing out to set up teammates?  If Kaman is ineffective on the low block, it forces the Clippers to undergo a complete personality change.  Coach Mike Dunleavy Sr. has said that this team will run more than in the past (of course anything would be more), but it's hard to imagine a running Clippers team keeping up with the likes of the Suns, Nuggets and Warriors in the Western Conference.  

Maggette spent most of last season sitting on the bench and sulking.  The total lack of communication between player and coach contributed much to the chemistry problems that caused the team to underachieve all season.  When he was (somewhat inexplicably) re-inserted into the starting lineup after the trade deadline had passed, he responded with 20.3 points per game and improved all around play.  His rebounding and assist numbers were near career highs, and his defense was improved.  It will be interesting to see how he responds to be the focal point of the offense until Brand returns, and if the coach-player issues are a thing of the past.  But, regardless of how optimistic one is about Maggette's prospects, the Clippers will suffer in close games.  A scorer so dependent on drawing fouls is neutralized when the officials swallow their whistles in the final minute.  With no Brand, and Maggette limited, the Clippers will have to look to Cassell to carry them down the stretch of close games (that is if they're lucky enough to be in them).  That's a lot to ask of a 38 year old.

Three point shooting has also been a major weakness for this team.  For several seasons they've been at or near the bottom of the league in three point field goals attempted and made.  Mobley and Thomas were their only legitimate deep threats a season ago.  The addition of Thornton (and to a lesser extent Dickau) may help some.  Furhtermore, Quinton Ross has added range to his jump shot in the off season (he made two threes in a pre-season game against the Lakers as compared to three total in his 226 game NBA career), and Maggette and Cassell hope to be able to contribute from deep.  Still, don't expect Dunleavy to give anyone other than Thomas and Mobley the green light.

4. What are the goals for this team?

Well, health and happiness of course.  That's a given.  Look, almost everyone wants to make the playoffs, right?  I mean, if you're Seattle or Portland and you've got 10 guys under 14 on your roster and a billion dollars in cap space on the horizon, you can have crap goals like 'develop the young talent', happily miss the playoffs and add another lottery pick.  But the Clippers team goal is still to make the playoffs.  If they had decided to mail in this season, and point to 08-09 with Brand and Livingston healthy, they wouldn't have signed Patterson or Knight.  And maybe that's what they should have done.  But they didn't.

So then the question becomes, what are they thinking?  Do they actually have a shot at the playoffs?  You can't answer this question in a vacuum - you have to look at the rest of the Western Conference.  The top of the Conference is as daunting as ever.  The Spurs, Suns, Mavs, Rockets and Nuggets look to be as good as they were last season (better in Houston's case).  The Jazz had a bad off-season, but they would seem to be good enough to overcome it and make the playoffs.  The Warriors are more of an enigma - they were the hottest team in basketball last April, but Jason Richardson is a big loss, and it's hard to imagine they could sustain that energy for an entire season at any rate.  But they too are probably good enough to make the playoffs.  OK, that's seven teams.  But the playoffs take eight.  The Lakers, 42-40 last season, had a surreally bad off-season and are a dysfunctional train wreck of a car crash.  The Hornets are probably the most likely gate crasher at eight, but let's face it, they're not that intimidating.  

So there are two ways to ask the question:  

  • Can the Clippers make the playoffs this season?  One is tempted to answer No immediately.
  • Can the Clippers finish ahead of the Lakers, Hornets, Grizzlies, Kings, Sonics, Blazers, and Wolves?  Well, that sounds easier.  That's a definite maybe.

The goal of the players who start the season will be to keep the team in contention until Brand returns.  When will that be?  Well, his walking boot was removed Oct. 23, a week ahead of schedule and he's now in full rehab mode.  He's at least 6 weeks away from basketball-related activity, and no one in the organization has dared to say anything remotely optimistic about his return.  But Voshon Lenard returned from his ruptured Achilles in five months.  Five months would put Elton back in uniform in early January.  I do have this to say - no one will work harder to get back out there than Elton Brand.  But the bottom line is, the longer the team has to play without him, the farther they will fall out of the playoff picture.  They could surprise some teams early with a combination of low expectations and underdog moxie.  But that won't take them very far.  If Elton Brand misses more than half the season, forget it.  So circle January 30th on the Clippers schedule.  That's their 42nd game - no 42 in 42 means no playoffs.

Playoffs aside, everyone associated with the Clippers will be happy when / if Shaun Livingston returns to the court.  When he crumpled to the Staples Center floor last March, it was far from certain that he would ever play again.  As severe an injury as a ruptured Achilles is, players usually return to play at pre-injury levels, so with Brand the question is really when.  But Livingston's knee just came apart - three out of four ligaments were torn, with meniscus damage as well.  He's making great progress in his recovery - he's actually shooting jump shots, though a long way from being cleared for contact.  If Livingston, the player deemed untouchable in Allen Iverson trade discussions, can return at anything near his pre-injury level, the Clippers will be very happy.

5. Can the Clippers avoid the contract year meltdown?

In 2002, the Clippers entered the NBA season coming off a 39 win season with high hopes for their talented young team.  Unfortunately, the top six players on that team were in contract years.  The team proceeded to win 27 games, all six players became free agents, and four of the six left LA.

In the summer of 2003, the seeds were sown for the current Clippers team, the same one that reached new heights in the 2006 playoffs.  Elton Brand and Corey Maggette were the two players the Clippers chose to re-sign.  And for the next 3 seasons, the Clippers improved, until last season's slide.

At the end of this season, 5 of the Clippers top 8 players can become free agents - Livingston, Ross and Cassell will be free agents (Livingston will be restricted), and Brand and Maggette are eligible to opt out of the final season of those contracts they signed the last time this happened.   If the wheels come off, this could get ugly.  The Clippers could indeed pull a Memphis, losing 19 of their first 24 games.  If that happens, Cassell will probably be traded to the first playoff contender to offer a first round pick and Brand's rehab will be placed on the slow track. Although it's unlikely Brand would opt out after an injury year, it's nonetheless possible the Clippers could be starting over around Chris Kaman.  As longtime Clipper announcer Ralph Lawler might say, "Yikers."

Predicted Record: 35-47

The worst of both worlds.  The team builds a big hole with Brand sidelined, but he still rushes back to make a playoff push.  They play better down the stretch and remain in mathematical contention into April, but in the end the deficit is too much to overcome.  They end up with the 13th pick in the 2008 draft.