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The Maggette-festo

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During the past year, I've posted many, many times on coach Mike Dunleavy Sr's handling of Corey Maggette.  I wrote about it before the season began, while Corey was sitting on the bench, and after he had been re-instated as a starter.  I've always planned to write one big post explaining everything from ClipperSteve's perspective.  But the task has always been too daunting:  where to begin?  Besides, I still don't understand it.  So I could recap what happened, and re-state things I've said before, but what's the point in that?

When a Maggette debate erupted in the comments of an innocuous post recently (as often happens), I felt there were good points being made on both sides.  I started to make a comment myself, but that comment kept growing and growing.  Suddenly, I realized I was writing my big, off-season Maggette post.  My Maggette-festo.  

I'm more or less finished with it now, and here it is before you.  I have to warn you: it's very disappointing.  At least it is to me.  There are no light bulbs.  No 'eureka!' moments.  In the final analysis, MDsr had an interesting idea about putting his best defender in the starting lineup and bringing instant offense off the bench, he seems to have gotten fixated on the idea, and consequently he stubbornly hung on to it way too long.  Was it a battle of wills?  I don't know, but the end result was that the Clippers never started their best team the entire season - the three games after Maggette became the starting small forward and before Livingston was lost for the season, Kaman was sick with the flu.    

Here's how I got dragged into the debate today:

ZhivClip: He played poorly in the beginning of the season because he was the 8th or 9th man and wasn't in the starting lineup.
John R: As soon as someone can explain how this makes sense, I'll be able to hear the haters.  Until then, its all an illogical mess.

From my perspective, it is indeed, all an illogical mess.  And I do mean, ALL of it.  It is in fact, far easier to explain Corey's poor performance as a 6th man than to explain MDsr's behavior last season - stubbornly refusing to start Maggette for two-thirds of the season, driving his value down before the trade deadline, finally inserting him into the starting lineup AFTER the deadline had passed and AFTER Corey publicly blew up for the first time.  Explain that.  I mean, seriously.  He plays a season-low 17 minutes in New York on Feb. 6 (compared to 22 minutes for Doug Christie), trashes the coach to the LA beat writers after the game, and finds himself back in the starting lineup for good 2 weeks later on Feb. 20.  I guess he should have trashed the coach sooner.  How does any of this make sense?

I'm not trying to be argumentative.  I respect both camps in the Maggette debate.  John R, one of his biggest critics, is also one of the best and most insightful hoops analysts we have in ClipsNation.  But it's clear that the situation is not as simple as 'Corey would be an all star if only MDsr didn't hold him back' on one end of the spectrum or 'Corey is a cancer' on the other end.

As for the question as to how Corey's production could have suffered playing against second string defenders without him slacking in his effort, I believe I can sum up the answer in one word: confidence.  It seems fairly clear, in hindsight, that however the '6th man' idea was communicated to Corey, it was not done well.  Nobody ever 'sold' Corey on the concept, yet he was the good soldier in the early going and said he would do it.  I personally find it amazing that MDsr didn't seize on the break that Cat Mobley gave him last October 12 when he offered to come off the bench.  We can preach all we want about how Corey is part of the team and he is paid a lot of money and how should do whatever the coach asks of him - but a big part of a coach's job is managing egos (just ask Phil Jackson), and you ignore it at your own peril.  Cat handed MDsr a 'get out of jail free' card on this one, but he stuck to his dubious vision.

So, going into the season, Corey is not convinced it's a good plan.  We can extrapolate from there that Corey felt slighted; that he believed that MDsr was disrespecting him by demoting him.  Now put yourself in Corey's shoes for a moment.  In case you don't have a Play Corey T-shirt, let me remind you that his points per game had increased every year he was in the league for his first six seasons, peaking at 22.2 in 04-05.  That 22.2 points, by the way, was 13th best in the league that year.  The 12 names ahead of him that year were all all-stars.  When he got injured on Dec. 5, he had been averaging 22.4 points in his first 12 games and the team was 12-5.  Why are we even having a discussion about whether he's a starter?  How many consistent 20 point a game players in the NBA don't start?  But I digress.

It is an adage in sport that a player does not lose his starting position due to injury - yet that is precisely what happened to Maggette.  He spent most of the rest of the season trying to get 100% healthy while coming off the bench.  Then during an admittedly terrific playoff run, Ross started, Maggette was 6th man, and the 'defense first' head coach got fixated on an idea.  

Confidence.  Confidence is a funny thing.  It's certainly easy enough to say that Corey was disgruntled at being the 6th man, and therefore his effort lagged, and that's why he was not as productive in the role.  Even if you don't like the touchy-feely-ness of 'confidence', ask yourself this question:  are you more productive in your work when you are happy in your work?  Does it mean you are intentionally slacking off when you are not?  I watched every game and I never saw the guy 'dogging' it.  Did you?  I saw him make plenty of bonehead plays, but I don't know how you attribute that to lack of effort.  But, at the risk of slipping into psychobabble (a word which spellcheck unexpectedly is allowing), it seems to me that Corey was desperately trying to prove to the coach how good he was, to win back his starting job, feeling the pressure, and making mistakes.  Not only had he been demoted to a backup role without ever being convinced it was the right move - as I've pointed out before, he wasn't even the 6th man in reality.  He was coming off the bench AFTER Livingston and Thomas and playing fewer minutes as well.  He was the 8th man.  So, before your injury, you were averaging over 20 ppg, arguably headed into All Star territory statistically, and suddenly you're coming off the bench, and all the 'good of the team' and '6th man of the year award' talk looks like so much bullshit because you're not even the first guy off the bench!  

John R wrote:  "Having seen Maggette play for so many years, my observation was that Corey WAS dogging it, and often.  Not necessarily physically, because that would hurt his personal stats, but definitely mentally.  It was clear to me that his time spent on the court was filled with indifference."

Was he disgruntled?  No doubt.  But I'm not sure how anyone, even the eagle-eyed John R, can 'see' someone 'mentally dogging it.'  Of course, this is all an esoteric, theoretical and ultimately semantic argument - one man's indifference is another man's lack of confidence.  But I think we're in agreement that Corey was providing plenty of physical effort - his results were sub-par for some other reason.  By way of proof I would point to his rebounding numbers during his time as a 6th man.  Rebounding is without question an 'effort' stat, and Corey's rebounding numbers while he was coming off the bench were easily the best of his career.

So I still maintain that it was confidence, not lack of effort, that was effecting Corey's game.  Can confidence really have that big an impact?  If you've ever actually played basketball, then you know that it can.  But I'll give a couple of recent examples as well.  (1) Last season, Matt Barnes made 106 three point field goals out of 290 attempts (37%), after being 10 for 50 (20%) in his three prior NBA seasons.  Did he work on his three point shot in the off-season?  No doubt he did.  But I would submit that by far the biggest factor in his improvement (and Barnes has said as much himself) is the confidence he had to take the shot, instilled in him by a coach who told him to shoot the ball when he was open.  (2) The 2004 USA Olympic team was roundly criticized for not having enough shooters, and indeed it was a major weakness of the team.  But Iverson, Marbury, Jefferson, Marion, James and Anthony are all more than capable of making a three-pointer, particularly from the international distance.  So why did they shoot a mere 31% from the three point line (their opponents shot 44%)?  Because coach Larry Brown told them not to shoot, and was more than willing to sit someone next to him on the bench for any shot that he determined to be ill-advised.  

[The three-point shooting examples above are also apropos to Maggette's situation last season.  Never known as an outstanding three point shooter, he was nonetheless shooting 32.6% for his career (just below the magical 1-in-3 mark that is the mathematical equivalent of 50% shooting on two point field goals) entering last season.   He proceeded to make just 2 out of 25 three point attempts in the month of November, prompting a chorus of 'JUST STOP SHOOTING' howls from detractors who felt that one month of data was more reliable than 7 season's worth.  As a starter after the All-Star break, Maggette made 8 of 22 threes.  Was he trying to miss in November?  Was he missing because he was 'dogging it'?  Three point shooting is not Corey Maggette's most effective weapon, but to the extent that he has the confidence to shoot it and a green light from his coach, it can help set up the rest of his game when used appropriately.]

But even if we take John's hypothesis at face value that Corey was indifferent, what does it mean?  Well, it would seem to me that one part of a coach's job, a really big part in fact, is motivating his players.  If indeed Corey was ineffective because he was indifferent, MDsr has to share the blame for not motivating him.  Now, if you have 15 guys under contract, and they all want to start, and they're going to be indifferent and unmotivated if they don't start, then you've got a big problem, one that is impossible to solve.  But Corey Maggette was a 7 year veteran, the longest-tenured Clipper, and a starter for the better part of five seasons.  There are reasonable expectations and unreasonable expectations.  If Corey felt de-motivated by his de-motion, it's not surprising.  MDsr had an obligation to find a way to motivate him.

We've speculated at length about the bizarr-o way that MDsr refused to start Maggette for two-thirds of the season, then suddenly and without warning inserted him into the starting lineup on a full-time basis for the rest of the season.  Most of the supposed explanations I've heard simply don't ring true.  During one broadcast after his re-emergence, Ralph said "He's getting the kind of minutes he wanted because he's playing the right way."  I'm sorry but, no, it's simply not so.  He played 22 minutes off the bench in the final game before the All Star Break.  He played 40 minutes as a starter in the first game after the All Star Break.  If the increase in minutes were indeed a result of a change in his game, the trend would emerge gradually, with increased minutes off the bench preceding his re-insertion as a starter.  This was a decision, taken for whatever reason, during the All Star Break.  In all likelihood it was on the strong recommendation of Donald T. Sterling.  Obviously Corey responded well to the decision, but the decision to start him and increase his minutes came before any uptick in Corey's productivity.

Steve Springer once wrote in the LA Times that Corey had finally earned a starting role and more minutes by working hard in practice.  A notoriously hard-worker, the implication that he did not ALWAYS practice hard only made Corey shake his head and mutter.  (By the way, this is another indication of the frighteningly poor communications in Clipper-land - MDsr and Maggette communicating via a reporter for the LA Times.)

Finally, during one broadcast, Mike Smith said that MDsr had pulled Corey aside during the All Star Break, and explained that he was going to put him back in the starting lineup, and what he wanted Corey to do.  According to Smith, he discussed the aspects of Corey's game where he wanted to see improvement (defensive rotations, creating opportunities for teammates, staying under control, shot selection, etc.) and asked him to work on those things.  Lo and behold, he improved in all of those aspects as a starter in the final 2 months of the season.  Now this explanation seems at least to be supported by observation, but there's one big question that remains:  What the hell took so long?  If a heart-to-heart conversation in late February was all it took to get this situation resolved, where was that conversation in October?  Five months after training camp, MDsr explains what his expectations are?  No wonder the team was so screwed up!  I would be less inclined to believe this explanation (surely MDsr can't have been that poor a communicator) if the dynamic were not so clearly dysfunctional for so much of last season.  The evidence that was available certainly smacked of a dearth of communication - I myself was pleading for a closed door meeting more than two months into the season.

[As an aside, this latest debate erupted from a comment criticizing Ralph and Mike for adhering too closely to the 'party line' as regards l'affaire Maggette last season.  I don't disagree that their tendency to preach the gospel according to MDsr is lamentable, but it is standard practice for broadcasters.  They are, after all, employed by the team.  To question the decisions of the organization would be to criticize their own bosses.  Ralph and Mike remain far superior to the vast majority of broadcast teams to which I've been exposed (Joel and Stu? Puh-lease), despite their understandable tendency to be MDsr apologists.]

One of the strangest factors in this whole saga is the allocation of garbage time minutes.  Before the All Star Break, when Maggette was coming off the bench, he was always on the floor with Korolev and Davis and Ewing after the game had been decided.  After the All Star Break, it was Ross mopping up.  Now, I suppose this is as simple as saying that the starter is playing the bulk of his minutes in the first and third quarters, while the backup tends to play more in the second and fourth, so it was only logical for Maggette to be on the floor in the fourth quarter while he was coming off the bench.  But surely we can apply a little more common sense to our substitution patterns than that.  I was embarrassed for Corey to watch him playing alongside the scrubs - I can only imagine how he felt about it.  And to pre-suppose that MDsr simply didn't realize that this might be taken as a sign of disrespect is no answer.  Which is worse?  That he would do it knowing full well how it looked, or that he would be so obtuse as to not realize?

So assuming MDsr is NOT that obtuse, the change in garbage time minutes from before the All Star Break to after is perhaps more telling than the fact that Corey was once again starting.  With 12 players in uniform, in theory the last 5 are in the game to mop up, and the top 7 are resting.  On a team like the Clippers, with a well-defined top 8, one of the top guys had to play.  Why was it Maggette?  It's another indication that in MDsr's mind, Corey wasn't even the 6th man - he was the 8th man.  Besides, what better way than garbage time to send a message?  Using playing time to make a point with a player while the game is in doubt is a tricky business - the coach is going to be judged on wins and losses after all, so you risk making a point at the expense of your own skin.  But after the game is decided, you can do any old symbolic thing you want to, risk free.  By playing Maggette during garbage time, MDsr was saying, not so subtly, "You need to work on your game."    

I may be accused of overanalyzing in this case, but it also seems evident to me that Corey's game is especially ill-suited to garbage time.  Corey Maggette is a genius for getting to the basket and drawing fouls.  He's been accused of being a bull in a china shop, and it's not an inapt analogy.  But it is a grueling style of play, and he's suffered his share of injuries as a result.  At the end of a blow out, when the final outcome is no longer in doubt, there is no reason to go crashing into the lane, risking injury in pursuit of a foul call.  Furthermore, NBA refs put their whistles in their pockets during garbage time.  They're not stupid.  No one wants to be there any longer than they have to.  The game is over.  Why prolong it?  When Corey went 0 for 10 in garbage time against Seattle last year, it was embarrassing for everyone.  But let's face it - he wouldn't have taken 10 jump shots in the fourth quarter of a close game.  He would have taken 15 free throws.  

And don't lump me in the anti-Ross camp simply because I think Q should be on the floor during garbage time instead of Maggette.  Maggette is a 7 year vet making $7M per.  Q is a 3 year vet making $700K.  Call it the privileges of rank.  Besides, in contrast to Maggette's game which is ill-suited to garbage time, Q benefits greatly from touches and scoring opportunities in game situations.  I love Ross, and think there continues to be an incredibly valuable role for him on the team.  I could easily make an argument that Q should be starting - but it would be in Mobley's spot.

I could toss out lots of statistics to support the 'Maggette should be a starter' position, but of course statistics can be made to support almost any position.  Besides, I don't even think that's the discussion we're having at this point.  There simply is no debate that Corey played better as a starter than he did coming off the bench last season, in almost every way, nor is there any debate as to whether or not he will be starting.  I must say though, one advantage to MDsr making the switch precisely at the All Star Break - it's really easy to look at his splits from before and after.  

Of course he was more productive in basically every category, but a 31% increase in playing time (from 27.4 min per game to 35.9) will do that for you.  But when you look at the numbers per 48 minutes, a few things really jump out.  For one thing, he was scoring at a similar clip - 26 points per 48 pre-ASB, 27.1 post ASB.  (He led the team in points per 48 all season.)  But, he was significantly more efficient as a starter - shooting 49.6% versus 42.5%.  So he scored more, in fewer shot attempts.  Meanwhile, he significantly increased his assist numbers, to a career best 5.5 assists per 48, versus 3.5 before the all star break.  His rebounding numbers actually suffered, but that has more to do with how well he was rebounding before.  He remains a great rebounder at the 3 (even better at the 2 of course), averaging more rebounds and more rebounds per minute than the much taller Tim Thomas last season and more than most taller 3's including All Stars like Carmelo Anthony and Rashard Lewis.  His turnovers remained identical per 48 minutes, and clearly this is an area where we would all like to see improvement.  But the nature of Corey's game on offense is always going to create a high number of turnovers, both on offensive fouls and by simply losing the ball.  It's an area that needs work, but it comes with the territory.  Look at Dwyane Wade's turnover numbers.  

Finally, after all of that craziness last year, MDsr came out and declared to Bill Plaschke that Corey would be a starter, fully 2 and half months before training camp:  

He and Dunleavy have long clashed about Maggette's defense. Dunleavy has decided to swallow his tongue and leave him in the starting lineup anyway. It's up to Maggette to reward him by becoming a more complete player.

"He will be a starter, for sure," Dunleavy said. "We're fine. Things ended up well for us."

After all that.  We're fine.  We're fine thanks.  How are you?  It's a little like Rosanne Rosannadanna:  'Never mind.'  

To say that the Clippers would have made the playoffs last season had Maggette been a starter from the beginning is pointless and childish.  I may think they would have, but we'll never know because it is unknowable.  Ultimately, there were issues with the team, and the rift between Maggette and MDsr certainly contributed, but to what extent is yet another thing we'll never know.  Of course a measly two extra wins would have put them in the post-season, but they weren't getting out of the first round with Jason Hart at the point.  

It will be particularly interesting to see what happens in the early part of this season while Brand is out rehabbing his Achilles.  Not only will Corey be a starter, he'll be the featured scorer on offense, the 'go to' guy.  Unfortunately, it's always difficult to correlate individual statistics directly to team success.  It's very likely that Corey's offensive numbers will be through the roof, while the team loses a lot of games.  If that's the case, the Maggette debate will rage on.  

In a realistic best case scenario (not a pie in the sky, Clippers lead the Pacific despite Brand's absence and Maggette makes the All Star team fantasy), I'd like to see this team back together before the end of the season.  I'd like to see Livingston, Brand and Maggette on the floor at the same time.  Because if, as I suspect, Corey averages 20+ points per game this season, he's going to opt out of his contract and expect a raise (from someone).  The Clippers might be willing to give him that raise if they've seen the core group together again, and liked what they've seen.  Remember, Corey is still only 27 years old.  But fate (and MDsr) have conspired to keep us from seeing a healthy and motivated Maggette and a healthy Livingston on the same floor for two seasons and counting.  It may be of course that Livingston will never be whole; but the real shame would be if this core group of young, talented and SIGNED players that Elgin Baylor and MDsr first put together in 2004 (Brand, Maggette, Kaman and Livingston) are broken up before they've ever really had a chance.