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Over-acheivers? Hardly

Lost in the Clippers 5-2 start is a little known fact:  most of the team isn't playing well.  The conventional wisdom held that the Generic Clippers had no chance with no Brand.  If, however, they were to somehow have some level of success, it was obvious that they would have to get contributions from everyone - that multiple players would have to increase their productivity in order to compensate for the loss of their best player.

Well, guess what?  Other than Chris Kaman and Cuttino Mobley, none of the Clippers are playing particularly well.  And Mobley has been out or limited in more than half of their games.  This makes their 5-2 start even more surprising.  To be sure, the competition has not been great.  The Clippers five victims include three teams that missed the playoffs last season and are expected to do so again, and two playoff teams who happen to be among the biggest disappointments of this young season, who have combined for 1 win between them.  But still, no one expected the Clippers to start 5-2, even with a soft opening schedule.  And it's not difficult to argue that the team is not really playing to it's potential, even without Brand.

Corey Maggette has, as expected, led the team in scoring.  But his shooting percentage is a career low 40% while his turnovers are a career high 3 per game.  To be sure, more turnovers were to be expected with more minutes and as the number one option of the offense.  But the cold shooting is a different matter - Corey's never been a great shooter, but his career percentage is near 45%, so 40% is quite a drop off.  Whether it's a result of a temporary shooting slump, or an indication that Maggette is forcing more bad shots in his new role, remains to be seen.  Maggette is at least doing a good job on the boards, averaging almost 7 per game.  Still, 19 points per game on 40% shooting is hardly the career year many were expecting from Corey, yet the Clippers are 5-2.

Sam Cassell is to some extent defying the odds to be playing at all as he approaches his 38th birthday, but he is certainly not exceeding all expectations - not mine at any rate.  Yes, he's had a couple of good games.  But like Maggette, he is shooting a career low percentage from the field at under 42% (Sam's over 45% for his career).  Yes, he's had a couple of big games (35 points and 28 points) but the Clippers actually wasted one of those losing to Cleveland.  Take away those two games, and Sam's 14 for 60 in the other 5 - an abysmal 23%.  Yet the Clippers are 4-1 in those five games.

Like Maggette and Cassell, Tim Thomas is currently well below his career shooting percentage (42% on the season, 44% for his career), but at least it's not a career low.  A streaky shooter to say the least, he did put up 20 in each of the first two games - but has barely managed to average double figures since.  Going 3 for his last 20 three point attempts hasn't help matters either.  Meanwhile his rebounding and defense have hardly been worthy of a starting NBA power forward.  Not that we really expected much there, but it would be nice if it happened.

Quinton Ross has never been a particularly good offensive player, but he's been positively wretched so far this season.  After making most of his open jumpers last season and ending the season at a career high near 47%, there were high hopes for Q, especially given that he had supposedly worked hard to expand his range this summer.  Well, no such luck, as he's shooting below 30% so far.

As for the new comers, Brevin Knight, Ruben Patterson and Al Thornton have all provided energy.  But they sure aren't playing over their heads - au contraire.  Like Ross, Knight has never been a great shooter, and also like Ross, he's started this season ridiculously cold - he's made four shots in 18 attempts, for 22%.  Patterson has shot almost 52% as a pro, but he's currently having his worst season since he was a little used Laker rookie, at 46%.  Meanwhile, Knight and Patterson are both managing to turn the ball over more times per 48 minutes than even Maggette, and that's not easy.  In the case of Thornton, we have no career numbers to compare against, but his stellar pre-season certainly had us hoping for better than 30% from the field.  Likewise Paul Davis is shooting a putrid 27%.

So, yes, the Clippers are trying to survive by committee.  But of their top 10 players, 8 of them have had BAD starts to the season, by almost any measure.  And yet they are 5-2.  So how to explain this?

  • They have beaten bad teams.  We've said it before, but it is the truth.  Having said that, if you assume the Cavs are actually a good team (and they played well against the Clippers), LA is 5-0 against bad teams.  That's a really good record against bad teams.  You can make the playoffs beating all the bad teams, and stealing some wins against good teams.  
  • They were much better than most analysts gave them credit for.  This is essentially accepted as gospel around ClipsNation, but it's becoming more and more obvious.  There are some good basketball players on this team, even in the absence of Brand and Livingston.  Is everyone on the roster having a career year to get the team to 5-2?  Quite the contrary.  The majority of the roster has started the season stone cold, most of them at career low levels.  
  • Statistics lie.  These numbers are certainly a little misleading.  The Clippers played really well for four games, at which point the team was 4-0, and Tim Thomas for instance was way above his career averages for shooting and three point shooting at that point.  The last three frigid shooting games have brought everybody back to earth - the fact that the team managed to still get a win in those three is the biggest surprise of all.  Hopefully this is just an indication that they can get back to the level of those first few games, especially with a healthy Mobley back.
  • Kaman and Mobley have been REALLY good.  Kaman is averaging over 18 points and over 14 rebounds while shooting 52%.  He has been among the top three centers in basketball in the early going, with Dwight Howard and Yao Ming, and that's some pretty good company, given that both of those guys were number 1 overall picks.  Mobley meanwhile has reverted to his scorer-with-no-conscious persona from the early years of his NBA career in Houston.  He's making ridiculously difficult shots with regularity and demanding the ball in late game situations.  His 59% field goal shooting is second in the league, and simply unheard of for a guard.  It's very likely the Clippers would be 6-1 right now had he not been injured for the Cleveland game.

The competition will get harder, and soon.  In fact, six of the next seven games are against playoff teams, with the seventh being the 7-2 Hornets.  Sure, the slumping Warriors and Bulls are up next, but they could snap out of their funks at any time.  

The good news for the Clippers is that they can play better than they have.  A lot better.