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A Clipper a Day - Chris Kaman

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For most of last season, Chris Kaman had the ugliest hair in the history of the league.  I mean, sure, that's a bold statement, and there's been some ugly hair in the NBA - but I feel like I'm on pretty solid footing here.  

When he finally got it cut, he went to a barber in Dallas - and it looked like he had gone to a barber in Dallas... in 1957.  It was shorter, but hardly an improvement.  And no, Kaman doesn't have a lot to work with, with his stringy hair and thinning crown.  (I know whereof I speak on this one.)  But it seemed like he could do better, even on rookie contract coin.

Now that the big money deal has kicked in, it seems like maybe Chris has stopped by a salon in Marina Del Rey.  I'm not talking about a really great place, but not a Super Cuts.  It's a big boy hair cut, you know what I'm saying?

It's a good thing too, because Chris Kaman could be in the spotlight this season.

I had intended to finish all of these Clipper a Day profiles prior to the beginning of the season.  I came close - 13 out of 15.  Best laid plans, dontcha know.  But how fortuitous that Kaman was one of the players I saved for last, so I can include his revelatory performance in the Clippers' first game.  It is yet another portent in a most portentous beginning for the Generic Clippers (No Brand).

The superlatives for Chris Kaman's season debut are many.  In profiling Paul Davis recently, we discovered that Davis led the team in scoring once last season, which was once more than Kaman.  In fact, 26 points not only led the team, it was also a career high.  And while he has had a few better rebounding games, none of them came last season.  As a harbinger that last season was the anomaly in Chris' career, this was a big game.  As a message that the Generic Clippers (No Brand) still have an interior presence, it was huge.  And to do all these things in the first game of the season?  If you pitched it to the guy who greenlighted The Core he'd reject it as being too far fetched.

There's a reason that the Clippers gave Kaman an extension for 5/$52M last year.  It's easy to see that he has a rare combination of size, athleticism and skills.  He has good hands.  He is ambidextrous, and actually prefers using his left hand from 12 feet and in, despite the fact that he is ostensibly right handed (he shoots his jump shot right handed).  He has quick feet, and excellent footwork on his post moves (though he does get overanxious at times resulting in a high number of traveling violations).  And he's just plain big.  He slimmed down some this summer, but he still pushed Andris Biedrins around Friday night, and let's face it, Biedrins is pretty big for an NBA center these days.  

After improving steadily his first three seasons, increasing his numbers in minutes, points, rebounds and blocks per game as well as in field goal percentage each and every season, his performance in 06-07 was a major disappointment.  Coming as it did after the Clippers had committed $52M to him, it looked like a looming disaster.

The biggest culprit in his slide was field goal percentage.  Yes, his scoring and rebounding were off of his 05-06 career highs, but the per 40 minute declines were relatively slight - less than 5% in scoring, 7.6% in rebounding.  And while they were worse than his career best season, his scoring and rebounding averages per 40 minutes were still better than his career averages.  So, yes he was worse - but he was still in the ball park.  By contrast, his field percentage fell from 52.3%, another career high, to 45.1%, a career low.  For a 7 footer shooting almost exclusively from within 10 feet of the basket, this was abysmal.  

And as we've lamented many times, the drop off can be anecdotally linked to missed bunnies.  Neither is an official stat, but it sure seemed like the guy led the league in both blown layups and 'spin outs'.  If Chris Kaman had converted one more shot every other game last season, he would have been well over 50%.  So it felt like a weird run of bad luck.

But we know that bad luck just doesn't last an entire season.  Things even out eventually, and last season they evened out right at 45%.  Clearly Chris Kaman was not the same player he had been, though the reason was far from clear.

Concentration is oft-cited as the culprit.  Given that Kaman was diagnosed with ADHD as a youngster, it's a tempting explanation.  But it's all a little facile.  For one thing, he's had ADHD his entire pro career, and yet his performance was steadily improving.  So why should it suddenly cause these issues in 06-07?  Besides, it all seems like amateur psychology hour.  I admire Kaman for eschewing his medication.  When I was a kid, I had friends with ADHD.  Only we didn't call them that - we called them spazzes.  And they didn't have medication.  They had friends who said "Stop being a spazz."  We don't all have identical attention spans or levels of concentration.  You deal with it.  And Kaman is dealing with it, so good for him.

So what changed?  Well, what changed is that he signed a $52M extension.  Sure, this explanation also smacks of amateur psychology and over-simplification, but at least the chronology fits.  And certainly anyone whose played basketball (or any sport probably) knows that once things start going bad, it can get in your head.  Maybe he just had a few bad games at the beginning of the season, and the combination of those bad games and the new contract got into his head.  You could see the plan in almost every Clippers game last season - MDsr wants to get the ball to Kaman early, get him going, give his confidence a boost.  And every game, Kaman would start the first quarter with one beautiful move after another, only to see the ball trickle off the rim, having the opposite of the desired effect.  

If indeed some combination of expectations and confidence conspired to undermine Kaman's 06-07, it bodes well for him to open 07-08 with arguably the best game of his career.  After that game, hopefully his confidence is at an all time high.  Sure, it was just Golden State, but no one needs to tell him that.  And with Seattle coming to town on Sunday, with their combination of power forwards (Chris Wilcox and Nick Collison) and projects (Robert Swift, Johan Petro and Saer Sene) manning the post, hopefully he can keep it rolling.  

There's another stat from Friday night's game that may seem unimportant, and it probably is.  But Kaman had 4 dunks in that game, and while I haven't been through all the game logs, I feel pretty confident that it is a career high.  Given that he has not tended to finish strong around the basket, and the number of missed layups that have resulted, the sight of him flushing the ball like a real-live NBA center was a beautiful thing to ClipsNation.

Before last season, it was not difficult to make the case that Chris Kaman was among the best traditional centers in the NBA.  If you were looking for low post scoring, rebounds, blocked shots and a high shooting percentage, he was arguably the second best center in the Western Conference after Yao.  Okur is a perimeter scorer and not a shot blocker.  Chandler and Camby are limited on offense.  Brad Miller was never a shot blocker or a great inside presence, and his career is winding down at any rate.  Of course Kaman's regression last season made that sort of talk seem foolish.

But even if he returns to form this season, one can't help but get the feeling that he is a terrific Betamax deck in a VHS world.  He won this round with the Warriors - but isn't it perhaps as likely that they would have chased him right out of Staples Center?  In the evolving NBA, where Shawn Marion is a power forward and Amare Stoudemire is a center, one has the suspicion that Chris is not so much a caveman as a dinosaur.

Still, the dinosaurs did rule for 160 Million years.  And Chris Kaman looked like a T-Rex on opening night.  Maybe the dinosaurs can rule for a little while yet.