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One Month Down

Ready for a spooky factoid?  Cuttino Mobley shoots 43% from the field for his career.  This season, in individual games where he has shot over 43%, the Clippers are 6-0.  In games where he has shot under 43% (or not played at all), the Clippers are 0-8.

I'm not suggesting that the Clippers are unstoppable when Cat guts out an injury-limited performance of 4 for 9 (as was the case in wins over New York and Denver).  I am suggesting, as we've said before, that the Generic Clippers have no margin for error.  If Mobley is terrible (which frankly he has been in the losses, only shooting over 33% in a single game), they have no chance.  Given the number of shots he's taking (over 10 per game in the six losses he's played in), it's pretty clear the team would be better off without him.

With the first month of the season in the books, it seems like a great time to take a check point.  And I think we can honestly say regarding the Clippers, that we know... nothing.  The season has been a Rohrshach test so far.  You can see what you want to see.  

  • The Clippers are 6-8 without their best player and against some tough competition!  They're in great position to make a playoff run when Brand returns!

  • The Clippers have lost four in a row and 8 of their last 10.  They haven't beaten a decent team yet.  They were lucky to have a soft opening schedule, and they'll be lucky to stay out of last place much longer.

  • The Clippers haven't lost a game yet when Mobley, Maggette and Cassell were healthy.  They're a playoff team even without Brand, as long as everybody else is healthy!  They'll be even  better when Brand and Livingston return!

  • The Clippers have suffered inevitable injuries to Cassell (38), Knight (32), Mobley (32) and Maggette (injury prone).  They all pulled muscles - that's what old guys do.  It's irrelevant to wonder how good they could be if they were healthy - they won't ever be.

I find myself firmly in the middle on this argument.  I'd love to see what happens when Cassell, Mobley and Maggette are all healthy (and Kaman of course - he's the fourth indispensable Clipper at this point).  But I am extremely concerned that it might not happen.

There is one undeniable positive on the young season - the resurgence of Chris Kaman.  Of course, while he did have a down season last year, it's not like he ever played this well.  So maybe this isn't a resurgence so much as a surgence.  Because he's never really surged like this.  

In the really big picture, the one that includes Elton Brand and Shaun Livingston, there could not possibly be a better development.  For several years, Clipper management has been saying that Brand, Kaman and Livingston are the untouchables, the future of the franchise around whom they will build.  It looked like a disastrous plan when Kaman's numbers dropped across the board last year, Livingston's knee imploded and Brand ruptured his Achilles.  While it's still extremely tenuous, the best imaginable scenario as of December 1, 2007 would be for Kaman to be playing like an all star, and for Livingston and Brand to be on or ahead of schedule in their rehabs.   Check and check.

So, the 07-08 Clippers remain something of a mystery, though the 08-09 season is looking up.  What about the rest of the league?  Prior to the season, in discussing the team's playoff prospects, we looked at the rest of the Western Conference.  The playoffs are the ultimate zero-sum game - there are exactly 8 spots, and if you want one of them, you have to take it from someone else.

Before the season, I said that the Spurs, Suns, Mavs and Rockets were locks.  The Jazz, Nuggets and Warriors looked like semi-locks - good enough to get in, but maybe volatile enough to miss out.  I surmised that the eighth and final playoff spot would come down to the Hornets, Lakers, Clippers and maybe the Grizzlies.  After a month, most of the above is pretty accurate.  The Spurs (14-3), Suns (12-4) and Mavs (11-5) are 1, 2 and 4 in the Western conference.  The Jazz have been good enough to overcome the Andrei Kirilenko distraction and are 3rd in the conference at 12-5.  The Rockets have underachieved at 9-8 and suffered through a six game losing streak.  But the talent is there.  The Warriors featured their own 6 game losing streak, which happened to come at the beginning of the season, but have won 8 of their last 9 and look like the surprising playoff team of last season now that Stephen Jackson is back from suspension.  Of my pre-season top seven, the Nuggets look the most vulnerable.  Like the Clippers, they have gotten most of their wins against weak teams, and fared poorly against good teams.  The Nuggets are a volatile mix.  there's probably enough there to get to the post season on talent alone, but I wouldn't be surprised if they struggle.

As for the final spot, the Hornets have started a solid 11-6.  The Lakers are an up and down 9-7.  The Clippers are of course 6-8.  The Grizzlies have been an unimpressive 5-10.  It's obviously still very early, but I still think it's the Hornets, Lakers and Clippers fighting for the final spot - the Nuggets could conceivably enter that group, making it four teams fighting for two spots.  Houston and Golden State are currently behind the Lakers and the Hornets, but the Rockets have too much talent, and the Warriors have been as good as anyone with Jackson in the lineup.  The Clippers are right there, currently in the 10th position and with a sof stretch coming up.  And obviously, no team is dealing with more injuries than the Clippers - they can afford to hang around 10, assuming Brand returns in time to allow themcatch a couple teams ahead of them.

So a 6-8 November and 10th in the Western Conference would be a great start if we were imagining it back in October.  But it's obviously not as exciting following the 4-0 start.  With five straight games coming up against teams with non-winning records, the Clippers can get back above .500 here in early December.  If they can also get healthy, then maybe we'll find out something about this team.