After a 2005-2006 season in which the Clippers set records for wins and road wins, in which Elton Brand was named an All-Star and Second Team All-NBA, in which Sam Cassell found the Fountain of Youth in Playa Vista, and the team came within one win (3 seconds really) of advancing to the Western Conference Finals, expectations were sky high for the 2006-2007 season. Unfortunately, a 40-42 finish, missing the playoffs by a single game, has NBA writers wearing out the thesaurus looking for creative ways to say disappointing (the season was certainly substandard, unrewarding and unsatisfactory if not exactly decomposed and rancid).
The Clippers now find themselves in a very strange position. They are more or less the exact same team they were a year ago at this time: swap Tim Thomas for Vladimir Radmanovic and the top 8 players in minutes played and total points are identical. But in June 2006 they were a young team on the rise, supposedly in need of nothing more in the off-season than further development in their youngest players (specifically Shaun Livingston and Chris Kaman) in order to take another step forward. Instead, the step was backwards (and a giant step at that), and in June 2007, it's now clear that something must be done in order to keep up in the ever-improving Western Conference. I mean, seriously, other than the Lakers and the Kings, what Western team isn't going to be as good or better next season?
But what are the Clippers needs? Unlike many teams, there's no single thing that really jumps out.
The point guard position is a definite issue, at least in the short term. But even there, it's a strange, crowded field. Cassell was the second leading scorer and clear team leader two seasons ago when he defied his 36 years and played in 78 games, 34 minutes per, and averaged over 17 points. But at 37, those numbers slipped to 58 games, 24 minutes and 12 points. The good news, if indeed there is any, is that Cassell has defied the odds before - his stat line from his final year in Minnesota looks eerily like last season, and everyone wrote him off as too old at that point. Sam is working hard in Houston to get into shape for one more season, and rest-assured he intends to bounce back once again. But is it even possible for a man who will be 38 in November?
Meanwhile, Shaun Livingston has been the starter-in-waiting for 3 seasons, ever since he was taken straight from high school with the 4th pick in the 2003 draft. But tentative play and injuries have delayed his ascension to full-time starter, culminating in the ghastly knee injury suffered on February 26. (In a Clipperian twist, he had played his best game as a pro two days earlier, and had taken over the fourth quarter of a game in late January. Just when it was really looking like he was putting it all together, his knee blew up. That's life in ClipsNation.) Successful reconstructive surgery in March has been followed by a rehab program, and the Clippers have their fingers crossed that he could play in January. That's as good as you could possibly hope for after exploding three major ligaments, but let's face it - it was unclear if Livingston was ever going to be a legitimate NBA point guard before the injury, and it's less clear now.
Jason Hart filled in admirably at the end of the season, but he's (a) a free agent and (b) not that good. Daniel Ewing and Will Conroy were also on the roster at the end of the season, but are long shots to remain with the team.
This draft is one of the deepest in years, but not particularly so at the point guard position. Mike Conley is considered a can't miss prospect, but after that it gets less certain. Of the point guards that may be available with the 14th pick, the Clippers would probably only consider Acie Law. Javaris Crittendon is 19, skinny, and a long term bet (we have one of those); Petteri Koponen might make sense for a team who could leave him in Europe for some seasoning, but the Clippers need help now; Gabe Pruitt is a reach at 14. Law played four years of college ball, is a scoring point guard and is not afraid to take the big shot. He's a good fit for the Clippers if he's available.
As for other needs, the wing position has been widely reported as an issue for the Clippers. Interestingly, I agree that it's an issue, although not necessarily for the same reasons as most. The Clippers actually have three talented wings, who all need minutes. Corey Maggette is the team's best per minute scorer (and has been for four seasons now), Cuttino Mobley is a solid if uninspiring scorer and defender, while Quinton Ross is far and away the teams' best perimeter defender, though limited on offense. It's widely believed that the relationship between MDsr and Maggette is irrevocably lost, and that Maggette will not be a Clipper much longer. However, it would seem to me that if the coach were going to trade Corey, it would have happened last season. Instead, Corey got more minutes (and responded with solid play) after the trade deadline passed. I don't pretend to understand what happened, but I'm hoping that the relationship, which was undeniably strained before, is better now (in fact, MDsr has said as much in recent weeks). But even if Maggette is on the team and playing well, there are issues on the wing.
For one thing, Maggette has an opt out after this season, and is one of the few players in the league capable of scoring 20 points per game who is paid less than $8M per - he'll exercise the opt out, whether he remains a Clipper or not. Mobley on the other hand is signed for three more seasons (and $26M), but the NBA is not particularly kind to wings in their 30's, and Cat will be 32 before the season starts. The Clippers will exercise their 07-08 option for Ross (one of the greatest bargains in the league at less the $1M next season), but they'll have to ante up to keep him beyond that.
This draft is deep, deep, deep with athletic wings; don't be surprised if the Clippers draft one of them, even if Acie Law is available. (In 4 seasons as the Clipper coach, MDsr has signed Alvin Williams, Jason Hart, Howard Eisley, Anthony Goldwire, Darrick Martin, Kenny Anderson, Rick Brunson, Doug Overton and Randy Livingston to run the point at one time or another - he likes veterans at that position, so he is likely to pass on Law and sign a veteran free agent, though it's a motley crew out there.) Nick Young, Thaddeus Young, Julian Wright, Al Thornton, Morris Almond, Marco Belinelli and Rodney Stuckey are all possibilities for the Clippers, depending upon who is still available at 14.
As for the Clippers front line, as disappointing (there's that word again) as Chris Kaman's season was, it's too early to give up on him. Or more accurately, it's almost impossible to give up on him, since his new contract is only just kicking in, pays him $54M over the next 5 seasons, AND contains a poison pill to make trades even more difficult. In other words - he's untradeable. So the only recourse is to push forward, and hope that 2006-2007 was the anomalous season (45% shooting), and not 2005-2006 (52% shooting). Elton Brand remains an All-Star, whether he is selected to the team or not. Though last season was not at the same level as the one before, it was his second best season as a pro. He remains the most underrated player in the NBA. Brand, Kaman and Thomas give the Clippers a solid rotation up front, and Paul Davis and Aaron Williams are signed to guaranteed contracts to provide depth.
Moving from specific positions to general needs, the Clippers most glaring problem (and it has been for several seasons now) is three point shooting. While the rest of the league has been hoisting (and converting) more and more treys, MDsr seems determined to compete for the 1984 NBA Title with a bruising low post attack and solid defense, all but ignoring the existence of the three point line. Out of 30 NBA teams, the Clippers were 29th in the league in attempts and makes, and 20th in shooting percentage from the three point line. Worse still, after Tim Thomas (136 threes made) and Cat Mobley (101), the team didn't even have a third legitimate threat from beyond the arc in 2006-2007 (Sam Cassell made 32 of his 109 attempts, under 30%). Whomever the Clippers draft, whether with the 14th pick or in the second round (45th overall), it would be a big plus to draft someone who can shoot the ball.
It's next to impossible to know who will be available at 45. The conventional wisdom would be to draft a point guard at 45 if they take a wing at 14, and vice versa. But if a big man with range (say Nick Fazekas of Nevada) were available at 45, don't be surprised if the Clippers snap him up. If it all comes down to shooting, Ron Lewis from Ohio State may be worth a look. My personal favorite at 45 is point guard Jared Jordan. He led the nation in assists last season at Marist College (go Red Foxes!) and is widely acknowledged as the best pure point guard in this draft. He's thought to be too small and not athletic enough for the NBA - basically, everything the experts ever said about Steve Nash. But a ball player is a ball player (as Nash and John Stockton and others have proven) and Jordan, a natural leader on the court, may have as good a chance as anyone to help the Clippers at the point guard position while giving Sam Cassell's legs a chance to rest, and Shaun Livingston's knee a chance to heal. Unfortunately for the Clippers, Jordan played well enough at the Orlando camp that he may be gone before the 45th pick.
Compounding their issues, the Clippers have a roster crunch. They have 9 players signed to guaranteed contracts, and exercising Ross' option will make it 10. They will certainly sign a veteran free agent point guard (Hart or his replacement), and the guaranteed contract of the first round pick brings the total to 12. They also have the rights to MBFGC and Guillermo Diaz, both of whom played in Europe last season. Basically, it seems they'll have at most a single guaranteed roster spot to offer to free agents to try to address their needs.
What a difference a year makes.