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Clippers-Suns Redux

I realized today that I never wrote a Clippers-centric recap of the Suns game.  I lost the bet with Dan from Bright Side of the Sun, and my debt was to write about Phoenix, but I haven't really said a word about the Clippers.

What is there to say, really?

This is not a competitive team right now.  Not even close.  They're not competitive in that they CAN'T compete with good teams.  And they're not competitive in that they DON'T compete.

Sure, the Clippers were missing two starters.  But neither of them were named Elton Brand, and there's just no way Mobley or Kaman makes any difference in that game (unless Mobley goes 12 for 15 like he started against Atlanta).

The final 115 seconds of the first half were just devastating.  After pulling to within 9 points on 6 straight by Maggette, the Clippers gave up the final 8 points in the form of two layups, 2 free throws and 1 dunk.  They even had a couple near stops on defense, only to give up points on unfortunate fouls or by being outhustled (Aaron Williams knocked a pass away and THREE Clippers were closer to the ball than Marion, but he got it and put it in the basket before any Clipper moved).  The refs hurt a little at the end of the half - Nash clearly switched his pivot foot before calling time out when he was trapped in the corner, and both of the calls on Cassell (the first bailing Raja out of another double team and the second resulting in two points) were ticky tack (RIP Chick Hearn).  But the refs weren't the difference in this game any more than Kaman and Mobley were.  Giving up that run changed a 9 point game into a 17 point game at halftime.  More importantly, somewhere in that time the Clippers quit.

Why was this team competitive with the top teams in the league last season, but this season they're not?  

Re-watching the game on TNT was an interesting experience.  I couldn't bear to watch the whole thing, but I watched a fair amount (I had to at least see Pike make his three which I missed walking to the car).  At any rate, Doug Collins, Charles Barkley et al can bring a different perspective to the Clippers.  They're much more removed from it - the Clippers have only been on TNT three times now, and this game on the original schedule was supposed to be a classic - a re-match of a 7 game conference semi-final.  I knew that this season's Clippers couldn't compete with the Suns, but the TNT graphics department had to try to explain to a national TV audience why that was the case.  

What did they come up with?  They busted out the big gun graphics in the first quarter:


BRAND -4.0
KAMAN -1.9


OK, so they overused the slip thing.  But these are pretty interesting.  Of course, we pretty much knew all of this - still, it's another thing to see it on the split screen.  Really drives it home.

The scoring one is a bit disingenuous of course.  Brand's FG percentage is the highest of his career, and his scoring is the second highest of his career.  Sure, it's less than last season, but that's more a function of fewer shots, which is a result of more double teams.  If the Clippers were more imaginative in how they deal with the double team (and/or if they could make a jump shot), EB's assists would be way up as a result, but it's hard to quibble with Elton's offense.  (His rebounding on the other hand....)

Maggette is averaging fewer points, but he's also playing fewer minutes. For all the talk of his shot selection, he's taking fewer shots per minute than at any time in four seasons - a result of fewer plays being run for him.  His percentage is off some, and he suddenly can't make a 3 to save his life, but mostly he's scoring less because he's playing and shooting less.  In fact, the most surprising thing about this 'Slippage' graphic is that all 5 of these players are actually taking fewer shots per game this season, which explains a big part of the drop in their scoring, but also begs the question, where did the shots go?  

As a team, the Clippers are averaging one fewer shot per game, a function of the drop in rebounds along with a slight increase in turnovers.  The only Clipper regulars taking more shots per game are Quinton Ross and Shaun Livingston, and both of them are shooting significantly better percentages this year than last year.  

In fact, the decrease in shooting percentage can be traced almost entirely to Chris Kaman.  The Clippers as a team shot 46.454% last season and are down to 45.455%, as close to one percentage point as we're going to get.  Backing out Chris Kaman's 52.3% from last season's shooting leaves that team at 45.738%; doing the same with his 44.8% shooting this season boosts them to 45.527%.  That's four-fifths of the drop off in team shooting coming from one guy.  Ouch.

The rebounding and defensive numbers are harder to explain.  Way back in October when I wrote my season preview, I made a big point of how the Clippers would be significantly improved even though they had essentially the same personnel.  The improvement was to come from the maturation of Chris Kaman (strike 1), ditto Shaun Livingston (foul tip) and another year in MDsr's defensive system (caught looking at strike three).  The team's defense got better (a lot better) in the first three season's under MDsr; with 12 returning players, and only one new player getting significant minutes, the team defense figured to be completely locked in.  Of course it hasn't been the case.

Art Thompson makes this exact point in today's OCR:

Nearly the same players are using a system they should be better at, considering recognition and experience at executing the schemes.

That has not been the case, and it has been the key to the Clippers underachieving this season.

Whether it's physical effort, mental effort, commitment to assignments or all three, the Clippers are not getting the job done, which is largely responsible for their record of 25-29, a sharp decline from last season when they were 31-23 through 54 games.

So the team has dropped from 4th in the league in opponent's field goal percentage to 13th.  The decline in rebounding is even more striking - 2nd to 13th.  

Show of hands - who here has ever played basketball?  OK, for the ballers out there, are defense and rebounding effortless, or do they require effort?  Offense is fun.  Defense and rebounding are work.  Somewhere along the line, this team has stopped working hard.

Which brings us to the other TNT insights - those coming from talking heads.  At the end of the game, Barkley and David Aldridge used the term 'mailing it in' about 20 times describing the Clippers.  They got that one right.  They also talked about the 'Maggette situation' (which Charles called the 'McGrady situation').  Charles: 'When you have a player and a coach that don't get along it drags your whole team down.'  Well the trade deadline has come and gone, and Maggette is still a Clipper - so unless they can have a Kumbaya moment, we've got this situation for the rest of the season.

Barkley also talked about 'big contracts' at halftime, which frankly doesn't ring true to me.  I mean, only three players signed contracts this summer.  Cassell signed for the same money he made last season and Thomas signed for a lot less.  Cassell's biggest season ever (03-04) had nothing to do with his contract status.  As for Tim Thomas, he's Tim Thomas.  He was a lazy bastard making $14M - now he's a lazy bastard making  $5M.  If they'd signed him for the league minimum, he'd be a lazy bastard making $1M.  It's not the contract in his case - it's the player.  Of course that leaves Kaman, and I just refuse to believe that the contract is the problem there.  He just doesn't strike me as Michael Olowokandi or Benoit Benjamin, where motivation is an issue.  Kaman is too unassuming and earnest to slack off now that he's set for life.  If anything, he wants to play well to justify the money and it's causing him to press.  He's just having a bad time, and maybe he wasn't as good as 52% shooting last season made us think he was.

Can it change in the final 28 games?  It seems unlikely.  But two things will have to happen:  

  1. Chris Kaman will have to play better.  This one is certainly possible.  And as I've shown, Kaman all by himself can fix the team's shooting woes.  
  2. The whole team will have to play with the same energy and effort as last season.  This sounds simple, but truthfully, if they haven't done it for 54 games, why would they start now?  They look a lot like a group that isn't listening to their coach anymore.