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Why Now?

In the first 53 games of the 2006-2007 season leading up to the All Star break, Corey Maggette started 4 times.  He has started all 7 games since the All Star break.  It may or may not be more than a coincidence that 6 of those games were after the NBA's trading deadline.  In the last 7 games as a starter, Maggette is tied for the team lead in points per game (19.1, same as Elton Brand), which is not particularly surprising since we all knew he could score.  What is a surprise is that he is also leading the team in field goal percentage (48.2% compared to the slumping Brand's 46.5%) and steals (2 per game) since the All Star break.  He's also averaging 3.7 assists, which is above his career season high, and also, sadly, leads the team.  So all the things we thought we knew about Corey (if only because MDsr continued to remind us) - that he's a poor defender, exercises poor shot selection and doesn't share the ball - have turned out not to be true, at least for these seven games.

Corey is just as confused as I am.
Corey Maggette
                                           © Henry Chen, all rights reserved
It would be too easy to say "I told you so."  And of course, the bottom line is wins and losses, and the team is only 4-3 in those 7 games, 6 of which happen to have been at home.  So it's nothing to get excited about.  But with Shaun Livingston going down 5 games ago, Sam Cassell out for the last 3, and Elton Brand slumping, it seems reasonable to ask, where would this team be without Corey Maggette these last seven games?

Which all begs the question, why now?

The timing is particularly curious, given that a mere 6 games earlier, after playing only 17 minutes in New York, Corey unprofessionally blasted his coach to the LA beat writers.  It was the most egregious public airing of their seriously damaged relationship to date.  It seemed obvious that his situation could only get worse from there.  So what happened?  After missing the next two games with the flu, Corey has started 8 out of 10.  Go right on ahead and try to see if maybe you can figure.

In the ongoing and obvious feud between Maggette and the coach, it's often overlooked that MDsr built his Clippers around Brand and Maggette, not just Brand.  When the coach was hired during the 2003 off-season, the team featured 5 restricted and 2 unrestricted free agents.  All but two were allowed to walk without a word.  Sure, Corey was a bargain compared to Lamar, and Andre Miller didn't fit well in his only season in LA.  But the new coach, essentially wielding carte blanche regarding personnel, chose to keep Maggette.  It says something about how he felt about him at the time.

And indeed in the first two seasons under MDsr Maggette thrived, averaging 20.7 points per game the first season and 22.2 the next, leading the team both times.  So there are at least two mysteries before us - (1) why did MDsr stop playing Maggette in the first place, and (2) why has he started playing him again now?

I will admit up front, I have little idea on either front.  It makes no sense to me.  The best I have ever come up with on (1) is that when the team played well during Corey's injury last season he didn't want to mess with a good thing; then he became enamored of the 'Corey as 6th man' idea, and stubbornly stuck with it, even as the team struggled and clearly needed more offensive punch.  

Of course, if stubbornness explains why Corey didn't start 49 of the first 53 games, how does one explain why he is starting now?  

The irony of this is that MDsr has played the entire situation exactly wrong.  Corey's a veteran and has twice been a 20 point scorer in this league.  (I realize that scoring is not the 'be all end all', but let's put this into NBA perspective.  Since 2000, 40 players have averaged over 20 for multiple seasons - this gets rid of a few one hit wonders like Mike James for Toronto last year.  Of those 40 players, 37 have been all stars.  Only Corey, Jason Richardson and Zach Randolph have not.  Of course Richardson and Randolph have 8 figure contracts and plenty of minutes to keep them warm at night.)  If you simply don't like the guy and want to get rid of him, for FSM's sake play him.  This does two things - it keeps the guy happy, mitigating a chemistry problem for the team.  More importantly, it increases the guy's trade value so that you can get something in return, if you really do want to trade him.  

Instead, MDsr did the opposite.  He benched Corey (and at the same time disparaged him in the press and around the league) before the trading deadline, thereby ensuring that the Clippers would only get low-ball offers for his services, while also creating a toxic situation in the locker room.  He then started playing him only after the trade deadline had passed.  It's a lose-lose situation (really lose-lose-lose, since the team was losing too).  

Another point that I've made in the past that bears repeating is that minutes are what really matter, as opposed to starts.  Unfortunately, MDsr seems incapable of managing this level of complexity.  In Corey's 11 starts, he has averaged 35.4 minutes per game.  In 43 games off the bench, he has averaged 26.5 minutes per game.  That's a one third increase in minutes when he starts - so realize that in this case, starting equals minutes.  (I haven't done the math for Ginobili or Ben Gordon, but I find it hard to imagine that Popovich and Skiles have not done a better job than this of getting their weapons on the court even when they come off the bench.)

There is also the question of simple respect.  For almost four months, Corey was on 'mop up' duty, playing garbage time minutes with Ewing and Davis and Korolev at the end of blowouts against Denver, San Antonio and others.  Seeing Corey Maggette (8th season in the NBA, $7M per) in the game while Quinton Ross (3rd season, $770K) sat on the bench with the stars of the team was galling to me, so I can only imagine how Corey felt.  Corey didn't seem to respond particularly well to this; if it was designed to help him pad his stats, it often backfired - he was actually 0 for 10 in the fourth quarter against Seattle.  In last week's Indiana game, bizarro world had been replaced by the rightful order of things.  Corey sat on the bench in the fourth as Ross wielded the mop next to Will Conroy and Comrade Korolev.

Maggette's game is far from perfect.  He has many detractors, and they have valid issues with him.  And I'm certain that many will look at his recent play and accuse him of malingering before.  "Why didn't he play this well coming off the bench?  This only proves he has a bad attitude if he's not willing to work to help the team in whatever capacity he can."  To this I say two things:  (1) I've never seen Corey loaf.   I've seen him make plenty of dumb plays, and I've seen him space out, but he always hustles.  (2) Is there anyone among us who isn't more productive when we're happy?  You can try, but it's hard to be at your best in a bad situation.  Why would we expect it to be any different for him?

But the real question remains, why now?  Why did MDsr finally insert Corey into the starting lineup?  I have some theories:

  1. The Play Corey petition has yielded dividends.  Never underestimate the power of 75 signatures in a metropolitan area of over 10 million people.  
  2. It's a mirage - injuries to Livingston, Cassell, Mobley, Kaman and Thomas since the All Star break have forced MDsr to put more scoring on the floor, against his will.  When he gets Cassell back, Maggette will return to the bench.
  3. He 'earned' the starts by playing hard in practice.
  4. DTS and Elgin Baylor laid down the law over the All Star break and told the coach they wanted Maggette on the court (this seems unlikely, although some sort of 'Paul on the road to Damascus' moment does seem to have occurred).  
Here's the thing: I don't think it's a mirage.  The injuries have had an impact, but it certainly doesn't explain the 2/28 Seattle game, where Ross started to guard Ray Allen and Maggette started over a healthy Mobley (healthy enough to play 31 minutes at any rate).

As for the question of 'earning' the minutes in practice, MDsr alluded to this after Corey's strong performance against Golden State.  Of course, as Steve Springer reported in the LA Times, the implication that he did not ALWAYS practice hard only made Corey shake his head and mutter.  

As for the potential for MDsr suddenly 'seeing the light' I suppose it's possible.  We are after all talking about a miracle of biblical proportions, so I believe it goes beyond the purview of my humble blog (the Gospel according to ClipperSteve).

Frankly, I think he just ran out of other options.  For almost four months, the coach tried almost EVERYTHING except putting Maggette into the starting lineup.  It was willful, bizarre and unnatural the way he refused to start a player whom he had started 132 out of 139 times in their first two seasons together.  But he was obviously becoming less and less enthusiastic about the QRoss experiment even though it seemed like a big success (a strange thing that will have to wait for another time).  And no coach could possibly remain happy with Tim Thomas indefinitely.  So when Doug Christie snubbed his advances (as Bill Simmons put it in ESPN the Mag "When a reality-TV star can't handle the dysfunction, you know you're in trouble") he was left with no other choice.  Of course the choice seemed obvious to most of us from training camp, but whatever.

Finally, there is this cynical possibility.  He failed to move Corey at the trade deadline because no one offered a package that DTS would sign off on.  So in order to increase Corey's value for an acceptable off-season trade, he's giving him starts and minutes now.  If his ultimate goal is simply to be rid of Maggette, this could all backfire of course, say if the Clippers get hot and begin to play well down the stretch with Maggette in the lineup.  Then he could be stuck with the guy, horrifying as it seems.