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Point of No Return

Back in November, when the Clippers were 2-0, I wrote a post about the team's surreal history with point guards.  My favorite part of that post was the list of Clipper point guards since 1999.

Starting Clipper point guards since 1999:
Sam Cassell, Shaun Livingston, Jason Hart, Daniel Ewing, Marko Jaric, Rick Brunson, Keyon Dooling, Doug Overton, Andre Miller, Jeff McInnis, Earl Boykins, Troy Hudson, Eric Murdock, Darrick Martin and Sherman Douglas.

Other Clipper point guards since 1999:
Will Conroy, Anthony Goldwire, Howard Eisley, Lionel Chalmers, Kenny Anderson, Kirk Penney, Maurice Baker, Randy Livingston, Eldridge Recasner, Charles Jones, Pooh Richardson and James (Hollywood) Robinson.

Well, add Brevin Knight and Dan Dickau to the list of starters and Andre Barrett to the full list.  And pretty soon we'll be adding Smush Parker to one of those lists as well.

When Livingston went down last February, we knew that this season was going to be pretty tough at the point.  Cassell, at 38, was likely to be limited by age and injuries.  Indeed, he was hurt for about a third of the 55 games the Clippers played before he was waived - played 38, missed 17 and played fewer than 10 minutes in two others.  He barely managed to play more than half of the game when he played at all (24.9 minutes).  

That has meant a pretty steady diet of Brevin Knight and Dan Dickau this season.  Back in November I professed to be OK with that.  And to a certain extent, I'm going to stick with that.  Let's be clear - Brevin Knight backed up by Dan Dickau is a poor solution, but for the Clippers it's a relative embarrassment of riches.  OK, maybe that's an exaggeration, but it's certainly better than Rick Brunson backed up by Lionel Chalmers or Jason Hart backed up by Daniel Ewing.

And like I said, we knew it was going to be bad.  The only hope going into the season was that Sam Cassell was able to stay healthy and play 30 minutes a game.  Obviously that didn't happen.

And I would submit that there was really nothing to be done about it.  With Elton Brand out, this team was going nowhere.  MDsr went public during his feud with Donald Sterling that he tried to get Beno Udrih and that he tried to trade Corey Maggette for Jason Terry.  It's clear now that either one of those guys would be the starting point guard for the Clippers right now, and that they would be a significant upgrade.  So what?  The Clippers wouldn't be in the playoffs.  Udrih would probably be a free agent.  Terry would be on the books for four more years and $40M.  You know what?  If you want Udrih, sign him this summer.  You want Terry?  Sign and trade Maggette for him this summer.  If Dallas was willing to do the trade before, surely they'd be willing now as well.  I really don't see anything the Clippers could have done in the wake of Livingston's injury that would have significantly changed the current situation.

Of course we can go back to the 2004 draft, or the Allen Iverson non-trade, or the Jason Kidd non-trade, but let's not.  Revisiting things that might have been done before Shaun's knee imploded is intellectually dishonest.  No one knew he was going to suffer a career-threatening injury.  

So what is to be done moving forward?  Joe Stevens of the Press Telegram doesn't get to express his opinions very often in his job as the beat reporter covering the Clippers.  But in his interview at ClipsNation he didn't pull any punches: "If the organization believes that either [Livingston] or Brevin Knight could lead this team to the playoffs as the No. 1 point guard next season, it will be dead wrong."  Ouch.

A quick glance around the Western Conference illustrates the point.  Six elite point guards play in the West - Steve Nash, Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Jason Kidd, Baron Davis and Tony Parker.  All six of those teams appear to be headed to the playoffs.  And it's also worth noting that the other two playoff teams, the Lakers and the Rockets, got significantly better when they upgraded at the point (the Lakers with Derek Fisher and an improved Jordan Farmar, the Rockets with a career year from Rafer Alston, especially during the last few months).  

The seven non-playoff teams in the West are all, not surprisingly, struggling at point guard.  Memphis hopes to have their eventual solution in Mike Conley, but as of now, no superstar point guard means no playoffs for you, unless you happen to have a Kobe Bryant-Pau Gasol or a Tracy McGrady-Yao Ming lying around.

No team demonstrates this better than the Nuggets.  Not everyone loves Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony, but they did start in the All Star game, and they are joined by the Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Camby and former All Star Kenyon Martin.  Sub par point guard play may be the one and only thing that keeps them out of the playoffs this season.  

The Clippers with a healthy Elton Brand joining Chris Kaman, Al Thornton and possibly Corey Maggette, certainly hope to slot into that Rockets/Lakers category - solid if unspectacular point guard play on a team that has enough talent elsewhere to compensate.  However, it's worth noting that Kobe and TMac are on a different level as wing players - no they're not point guards, but they handle the ball as much or more than the actual points on those teams, especially late in games.  When you look at it that way, the Western Conference is 8 for 8 with All Star caliber point guards OR All Star wings who do a significant share of the ball-handling. 9 for 9 when you add Denver.  10 for 10 with Brandon Roy and Portland.  I'm starting to notice a pattern here.

Shaun Livingston seems to have replaced Corey Maggette as the most controversial player in ClipsNation.  Will he be an effective starter?  Will he be able to avoid serious injuries?  I'm not as pessimistic as Mr. Stevens, but I realize there's an issue here.

But I will say this - it's too early to give up on Livingston.  He's still only 22 - 21 months younger than Al Thornton.  

As for the injury history, I would submit that one simply can't tell on that front.  Neither the severity of the injury, nor the pattern of injuries, is necessarily predictive of future problems.  Baron Davis torn an ACL at the age of 19, and has had myriad injuries as a pro.  But he's played in every game this season and remains one of the most explosive players in the league.  Marcus Camby never played in more than 63 games in his first SEVEN seasons - missing 190 games in that time.  And like Livingston, he was said to be too frail to ever withstand the rigors of an NBA career.  But he's  enjoyed his four healthiest seasons in the last five years, and this season he's played in 61 of 64 games.  And then there's Antonio McDyess.  The very definition of 'Done' after back-to-back-to-back knee surgeries, he appeared in 10 NBA games from April 2001 to December 2003, missing essentially two full seasons.  Since signing with Detroit, he's played in 302 out of 310 games, including consecutive 82 appearance seasons, which he'd never done before.    So you never can tell.

Livingston was already a top tier defensive point guard when he was hurt.  Quick enough to stay in front of most opposing points, his crazy length makes him tough to shoot over and a menace in passing lanes.  And on a team almost completely devoid of passers, Livingston is a passing savant.  He's so good, that when he throws the ball out of bounds, I just assume that he made the right pass, and that somebody else made the wrong cut.  (That's always been the case whenever I throw the ball out of bounds.)  And then there's the P word.  The first time I saw Livingston play, I assumed he would eventually be the best player to ever wear a Clipper uniform.  Yes, better than Elton Brand.  Obviously we're a long way from there now, and I shouldn't even admit I thought that.  But a guy with that size, and that handle, and that court vision... well, there never has been.  His potential is unlimited.

So it's too early to give up on the guy.  And besides, what are the alternatives?  Udrih?  Carlos Arroyo?  Jason Williams?  Overpay for Calderon?  (He's restricted, so you'd have to significantly overpay to pry him away from Toronto.)  Sure, you draft a point guard if you get the chance in the lottery.  Rose would be great but would require lottery luck.  Bayless and Mayo seem like legitimate combo guards, which makes them particularly intriguing.  And a sign-and-trade of Maggette for a quality point remains a possibility.  But if we're looking for a point guard that might be able to compete with the Nash / Paul / Kidd / Williams / Davis / Parker monsters in the West, there is no easy answer.  And the one with the best chance to someday join that club is ... Shaun Livingston.

So it's March, the team is 21-42, and Smush Parker is practicing with the team for the first time today.  Could Smush be the number 2 point guard next season?  Sure, he could.  Maybe being waived by the worst team in the league will serve as a wake up call.  Maybe he will mature as an NBA point guard like another former playground legend nicknamed Skip to my Lou.  But if he's the starting point guard next season, then we'll be having this discussion again next March.