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Fortress Clipper Update

I've been meaning to do this update for awhile but have not gotten to it.  But with a couple of weeks of travel looming ahead of me, I feel like it's now or never.  

In attempting to build a case for optimism before the season began, we looked to things like Kaman's development, an all star caliber season from Maggette, a return to health for Sam Cassell, and a boost on offense from Cat Mobley and Tim Thomas.  The idea was to 'hold the fort' until Brand's return.  The team had to win enough games without Brand to stay in contact with the playoff race.  Four games into the season, the plan seemed to be working perfectly.

At this point however, only one thing has gone well for the Clippers on the court.  Kaman has far exceeded even the most optimistic projections (I even went so far as to mock the idea of Kaman playing like an all star in my optimism post - I was trying to be realistic after all).  But Maggette has been no better than solid, while everyone else has been sub-par or injured or both.  The Clippers actually have three 'starters' (I use the term loosely since the starting lineup fluctuates so much by necessity, but they've all started more than half of the games) shooting well below 40% each.  Only ice cold Chicago can match that claim.  And Mobley joins the sub-40 ranks when you eliminate the first 3 games before he was injured.

So the Clippers, owing in large part to key injuries to Mobley and Cassell and others, have not held up their end of the bargain in trying to hold the fort until Brand's return.  There are two other aspects worth updating.

Brand himself continues to get positive medical reports - steady progress, no set backs.  However, no one is willing to be nearly as aggressive with his return date as I was originally hoping.  The information available on Achilles rehab is maddeningly inconsistent.  I've seen it reported as typically 4-6 months, but it's also constantly referred to as 'season-ending' and 'typically a year.'  Clearly this last is simply not correct, primarily stemming from the fact that an in-season injury takes the rest of the season to heal, so the player is often out of action for close to a year.  But Voshon Lenard was actually back on the court in 5 months after his ruptured Achilles, and I was ever hopeful that the Herculean Brand would make a similar recovery.  However, it seems that the medical professionals supervising Brand's recovery are (no doubt wisely) not even entertaining such an early return.  He has begun light shooting and treadmill work which is good, but Clipper trainer Jasen Powell wants him to stop talking about early February.  With the Clippers already dropping out of contention (and this current stretch of killer games should make it semi-official) there will be no reason to rush.  Everyone will point to the All Star Break, and that's fine with me.  (By the way, Livingston is also pointing to the All Star Break, and is also making great strides, with no set backs so far.)

And I'll repeat here something I said in the comments recently.  This season has been perfect - I repeat, perfect - for the Clipper's future.  In the wake of the serious injuries to Brand and Livingston, there were basically 3 things you could ask for -

  • Kaman needed to step up
  • Brand needed to have a full recovery
  • Livingston needed to have a full recovery
Well, we're three for three on that front.  Brand and Livingston have a long way to go, but as of now there's been nothing but good news.  For several years the Clippers have been saying that they would build around Brand, Kaman and Livingston.  The plan looked like a disaster as of August.  It's far from perfect right now, but at least it's moving back in the right direction.  Throw in some bright moments from Al Thornton, and the season is definitely serving it's purpose - to prepare the team for next season.

Finally, there's the question of the other teams in the west.  The Clippers long shot playoff hopes were always dependent on other teams faltering, at least a little, in the zero sum game that is the NBA playoffs.

I was targeting the Lakers, the Hornets and the Clippers as the teams with the best chance at the 8th and final playoff spot, with the Grizzlies having a slight chance.

Instead, the Hornets and Lakers are currently tied for the fourth position in the West at 16-10.  The Hornets have stayed healthy and are riding an All Pro caliber season from Chris Paul into the upper echelon.  Meanwhile, the Lakers looked to be in disarray before the season began, but winning makes everything better (doesn't it, Kobe?)  

Meanwhile the Jazz (15-13) and Rockets (12-14) have traded places with the Hornets and Lakers.  Utah and Houston were 4 and 5 last season, but now they're 9 and 10 and would both miss the playoffs if the season ended today.  Could the Clippers be in position to catch these teams with a healthy Brand?  Not likely.  There's a lot of talent on these rosters - it's hard to imagine that they won't get their seasons back on track soon.  (In Houston's case, this depends in large part on Tracy McGrady's back and knee.)

The bottom of the standings are largely as we suspected.  If we were dreaming of lots of ping pong balls in the lottery, it's still hard to imagine being worse than Minnesota or Seattle.  Sacramento has overachieved a bit, particularly considering their own injury troubles with their starting backcourt currently out of action.  And the Grizzlies have been a disappointment.  But for the most part the bottom of the Western Conference is what we thought it would be.

With one massive exception.  Prior to the season, I took extreme exception to the predictions that had the Clippers as among the very worst teams in the West.  Clearly, it seemed to me, the Clippers were going to be better than the T-Wolves, Sonics and... Blazers.  

Riding a 10 game winning streak, the Blazers are the hottest team in basketball.  As it happens, the Clippers don't play the Blazers until after the All Star Break (poor Portland, they may actually see LA at full strength) so I haven't really watched them this year.  But if the season were to end today, it is the Blazers who would have the 8th spot, and with the Jazz and Nuggets both under-performing, they've got their sights on the Northwest Division.  And none of it makes any sense.  They traded their leading scorer and rebounder from a team that won 32 games.  In return for said leading scorer and rebounder they received a guy who is playing 17 minutes a game.    They won the lottery and got the most coveted big man in two decades in Greg Oden - and then lost him for the season.  The number 2 pick from 2006, LaMarcus Aldridge has been playing very well - but he just missed 5 games, and they won all five of those.  I'm telling you, none of it makes any sense.  

I'm beginning to think...

  • Brandon Roy is pretty good
  • Nate McMillan can coach.
A ten game winning streak.  Can you imagine?  Hell, we're Clipper fans.  All we can do is imagine, because we've certainly never experienced a ten game winning streak.  Let's put this in perspective.  The Blazers were 5-12 on Dec. 2 and had lost 9 out of 10.  At that point, they looked like the young, promising, but in the end over-matched team that everyone predicted they'd be.  Since then, they've won 10 in a row.  The first three wins were against teams with losing records.  The last seven have been against teams with winning records.  Seven in a row against good teams!  And now they have three in a row against some of the worst teams in the league.  They could easily win 13 in a row!  If the Clippers went on a ten game winning streak starting today, they'd be 19-16 and right back in the playoff race.  Wouldn't it be loverly?

So for now, in addition to watching Kaman's growth and Brand and Livingston's recoveries, I'm watching the Blazers.  I'd love to see them dethrone the dreaded Nuggets in the Northwest.  Besides, I'm going to need a team to root for in the playoffs.