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The (Somewhat Tortured) Case for Optimism

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ClipsNation is a nation divided.  Two recent Diaries have staked out either side of the debate.  Citizen ZhivClip is combing through the schedule, looking for the wins the team desperately needs until maybe, just maybe, Elton Brand is back on the court.  Meanwhile, Citizen cabezadeknuckle makes the depressing, though common sense argument that a non-playoff team with one all-star caliber player cannot possibly be a playoff team without that one superstar - not when the signees brought it were essentially cast offs from other teams.  

Or read through the comments on Kevin's lineups post at ClipperBlog.  You get the idea.

The fact that all of the basketball previews are predicting a dismal season for the team is certainly sobering.  Let's face it - it's a lot easier to make a case for 20 wins than it is to make a case for the playoffs.

And yet, that's exactly what I'm going to try to do here.  I'll start off by saying, I don't think it will happen.  But I could imagine it happening.  Stranger things have happened.  But I don't think the Clippers will make the playoffs this season.  Nonetheless, I'll lay out the case as I see it.

The case for optimism begins with a relatively early return for Elton Brand (and that's also where it ends if he does not return quickly).  I'm going to say that he needs to be back by early January.  The All Star break is clearly way too late.  The old chestnut about the All Star break being the midpoint of the season has always baffled me.  It's not - the season is closer to two-thirds than halfway done by the All Star break.  There's no way this team survives half the season without Elton Brand, let alone for 50 games.  No way.  That's just life in the NBA folks.  No team lasts long without their best player.  

The actual midpoint of the season is late January.  The Clippers play game number 41 on January 28.  As it happens, the beginning of January would be the 5 month point for Elton's Achilles injury.  It would also be an even 2 months from the removal of his walking boot, assuming he stays on schedule.  That is not unrealistic at all.  Players have come back more quickly than that, and no one can doubt that Elton Brand will work as hard as anyone to get back out there.  So on this point, I'm with Zhiv - plan on the first two months of the season without EB, and see if you've got a chance from there.

The second plank in the optimism platform is that we assume 06-07 was the anomaly, and 05-06 is the real Clipper team.  Turn that around and you might as well blow this team up and start over.  The team, the management and the fans have no choice here - we have to believe that what we saw in 05-06 was real: at least until EB and Livingston are back on the court.  So maybe it's a coin toss as to which season was REALLY the mirage, but we don't have any choice about how we answer the question.

And of course you have to look at the landscape.  Eight teams make the playoffs in the Western Conference.  If that's the goal we're shooting for, then we have to look at which teams the Clippers can finish ahead of, realistically.  Bear in mind, last season we were aspiring to top 4, home court advantage, status.  Obviously that's out the window.  The Western Conference remains the far stronger conference, improvements in Boston and Orlando notwithstanding.  But what's interesting is that, while the top of the Western Conference is as good or better since the Clippers playoff heroics, the last spot is arguably more open than ever.  

The big three remain the big three - San Antonio, Phoenix and Dallas are safely entrenched.  The Jazz were the Clippers of last season - trying to crash the big three's party.  You have to figure they're solidly in front of the Clips this season, despite an off-season to forget.  Houston made the playoffs last year, and had the best off-season of any Western Conference team, addressing both of their weaknesses at point guard and power forward.  They're in.  That's five.  

Denver has problems, but they also have Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson.  There's too much talent on that roster to realistically predict that the Clippers can finish ahead of them, barring a meltdown of some sort (which is certainly a possibility).  In a similar category is Golden State - the mid-season roster changes, once Baron Davis returned from injury, appear to have turned that team into a legitimate contender, albeit an unusual one.  They may be one Baron Davis injury or Stephen Jackson arrest from the lottery, but for now it's hard to argue that the Clippers could finish ahead of them.  So that's seven teams in the Western Conference who look solid.

But isn't that eighth spot completely up for grabs?  Last season it belonged to the Lakers, but only Utah and the Clippers had a worse off-season.  The Lakers limped into the playoffs last year and have a toxic mess brewing in the clubhouse.  They did nothing to improve.  And although injuries certainly played a major part in their struggles, neither Lamar Odom nor Kwame Brown are ready yet, so counting on a 'good health dividend' seems like a stretch at this point.  Derek Fisher is an upgrade over Smush Parker, but the team remains something of a train wreck at point guard and at center - two kind of important positions.

New Orleans was in the hunt for a playoff spot last season, and they probably have a better case for the 'return to health' boost than the Lakers.  Chris Paul, Peja Stojakovic and just about every other Hornet spent significant time in street clothes last season.  But it remains to be seen if Peja can ever return to his all star form - let's face it, he looked mediocre for two seasons BEFORE back surgery.  And beyond Chris Paul, David West and the rebounding and defense of Tyson Chandler, the rest of the team is chock full of question marks.  I'd say it's easier to make a case for Brevin Knight and Ruben Patterson to be major contributors off the bench than, say, Rasual Butler and Hilton Armstrong.  When the big free agent signings are Melvin Ely and Morris Peterson, it's not a good thing.

The other five teams in the Western Conference all finished at least seven games below the Clippers last year.  That's a big chunk of standings.  And other than Memphis, it's hard to argue that any one of them will be better this season.  Portland and Seattle have some nice plans in place to be good some day - but this is the NBA.  Seattle replaced their top two scorers with two rookies (possibly great rookies, but still rookies) and Portland replaced their top scorer and rebounder with... well, nothing, at this point.  Sacramento is on a steady decline: 55 wins, to 50, to 44, to 33 - are Spencer Hawes, Mikki Moore and Reggie Theus going to reverse that trend?  And then there's Minnesota.

So, by my count, only the Lakers, Hornets, Grizz and Clippers have a realistic shot at the eighth playoff spot in the West.  And of course meltdowns from Golden State, Denver or Utah (not that I'm counting on it, but it's not out of the realm of possibility) open up the window a little wider.  So, we're not talking about being a great team - we're talking about being better than the Lakers, Hornets and Grizzlies.  It's not quite so daunting when you look at it that way, n'est ce pas?

OK.  The Clippers need a quick return for Elton, plus the overall standard of the Clippers of 05-06, and the wide open eighth spot in the West is within reach.  From there, it's a relatively simple case to make.  If Elton returns by the beginning of January, he'll be back for 53 games.  If the 05-06 Clippers are our standard, that team won over 57% of their games.  No tricks, no 'Chris Kaman is an all star' - 57% over the last 53 games yields a record of 30 wins and 23 losses.  Last season, 42 wins got the Lakers and Warriors into the playoffs.  It seems reasonable to think, with the competition I've outlined for the final spot, that 42 wins would be enough this season as well.  In the 29 games in November and December, prior to Elton's projected return in this scenario, the team would need a measly 12 more wins.  12-17 in November and December, plus 30-23 in the final 52, no smoke, no mirrors, gives you a 42 win season.  A post All Star break return for Shaun Livingston, and maybe the team even carries a little momentum into the post-season.  But that's another story.  

Obviously the big fly in my ointment is the assumption about the 05-06 Clippers versus the 06-07 Clippers.  Is that the standard we should expect, or was 06-07 simply a return to normalcy?  Like I said before, we don't really have much choice other than to hope that last season was a blip.  But it's also useful to look at the differences between the two teams.  The question has been discussed ad nauseum, and of course no one knows for sure.  But I think there are three leading candidates to explain the drop off.  

  • Elton Brand's tired legs.  After playing for Team USA, traveling to training camp to Russia, getting married and promoting a movie, Elton was just worn out.  No problem there, right?  When he comes back, he'll be fresh as his momma Daisy.
  • Sam Cassell's decline.  Wages of Wins compared the two seasons last week, and attributed over 4 of the Clippers 7 additional losses to a drop off in Cassell's production.  It is difficult to be optimistic on this front.  The man will turn 38 the first week of the season and he battled myriad nagging injuries last season that seemed like, well, like the injuries of a 37 year old.  The only positive thing I can say about that is, look at his last season in Minnesota.  Cassell's 04-05 stats were almost IDENTICAL to his 06-07 stats.  He was about to turn 36, and the T-Wolves were so sure he was done that they had to throw in a first round draft choice just to complete a trade for Marko Jaric, the worst finisher in the history of the NBA.  You have to assume that the rest of the league also assumed Sam's career as an effective point guard was over, or the Wolves would have been able to find a better trade.  So all I can say is, predict the end of Sam Cassell's career at your own peril.  It would be only slightly more surprising for him to have a solid year this season than it was his first year as a Clipper.  I also happen to think that this problem will be mitigated somewhat by the arrival of Brevin Knight.  Not that Knight is great... but he's a significant upgrade over Jason Hart at the end of last season, and among the best in the league of a type of point guard.  For splitting minutes with Cassell, I think he's a good acquisition.
  • Chris Kaman's horrible year.  The same Wages of Wins post puts almost all of the blame on Kaman.  7 fewer wins for the team, 5.8 fewer 'Wins Produced' for Kaman.  Neat, tidy.  I believe I saw a bow on the top.  I've also pointed out that Tony Mejia ranked him as the 5th best center in the NBA last September and the 15th best center this September.  Kaman will be the Clippers low post presence until Brand's return.  Not only does he have to return to his 05-06 form in order for the team to return to that form, he'll have to do it with consistency, and for more minutes each game.  Which also means he'll have to stay out of foul trouble.  He has all the tools to be a terrific center.  He's going to get every opportunity for the next few months.  You may not want your favorite team's fortunes to be tied directly to the performance of a 25 year old space cadet 7 footer from a small town in Michigan - but they are nonetheless.

As for the question of 'staying afloat' until Brand returns, I look at the Clippers projected starting lineup of Kaman, Thomas, Maggette, Mobley and Cassell and although I'm not blown away, they are all legitimate NBA starters.  The problem of course is that there is no 'go to' guy on that list.  Maggette will be expected to carry the scoring load, and has proven capable in the past, but defenses will be able to focus on him that much more without Brand on the court.  I did find it interesting that Ralph Lawler, neither a cock-eyed optimist nor a Maggette-cheerleader in the past, actually suggested that Corey could be an all star this season on yesterday.  I'd settle for something close.  Thomas has to play with purpose, something he's only done occasionally in a 10 year NBA career; Mobley will have to take and make shots; and we've already discussed Cassell and Kaman.  The bench looks good enough - Ross, Knight and Patterson are all capable, and very good defensively.  Significant contributions from Thornton, Powell, Davis, Diaz or Dickau would be pleasant surprises, if not shocks.  

I can't help but think that the team's state of mind is going to be more important than ever.  Opening night, against last year's surprising Warriors, will be very interesting.  A win against May's darlings would be a huge shot of adrenaline.  At home, opening night, anything can happen.  And let's face it - the Dubs are fun, and capable of beating anyone they way they play.  But they can also lose to anyone.  It probably doesn't hurt the Clippers that it's their first game, but not the first game for the Dubs.  Game 2 is against the very beatable Sonics, but then it's on the road for three.  1-4 (or worse) after those five games might be enough to set the tone for the entire season (as a 1-8 start did for Memphis last year).  But surprise a couple teams, play with heart, win the home games, steal a game on the road... and suddenly the team starts believing they really can 'hold the fort'.  

So, there it is.  The case for optimism.  Do I believe it myself?  Frankly, remaining somewhat competitive without Elton Brand is the real stretch.  I fear that the team will simply not be able to win games without their superstar.  But if they can, and I haven't set the bar too high at 12 wins before the new year, the rest is not unrealistic, if still a bit optimistic.