The Clippers have lost 7 straight, equaling their longest losing streak of the season. They've also lost 15 of their last 17. Of their 13 remaining games, 10 are against the nine teams in the West battling for playoff position. Of the three other games, two of them are on the road (at Seattle and at Sacramento). The Clippers will be underdogs in at least 11 and possibly 12 of their remaining 13 games. There is a very real chance this team will finish 3-27 in their final 30 games.
It's worth noting also that the one game where the Clippers are likely to be favored, at home against Memphis, is one they need to lose for lottery positioning. With Miami, Seattle and New York just as tanked up as the Clippers, only Memphis (winners of 3 of their lat 4 for some unknown reason) and Minnesota (6-3 in their last 9) appear to be within reach at the bottom of the standings. Losing to Memphis could be a key step in almost doubling LA's lottery odds - from 6.3% with the 6th worst record to 11.9% with the 4th worst. Not to mention that picking 4th likely means having the choice of Bayless or Mayo, rather than taking the one that's still left.
Have the Clippers been in active tank mode? Here's a long-forgotten fact: Elton Brand was cleared for running and jumping on January 24. Two months ago today. TWO MONTHS AGO TODAY!
All this whining about no time in the schedule for 5-on-5 practice. I ask you: have you ever before heard any team use that as an excuse for delaying a player's return? And coach doesn't want to play him if he has minutes restrictions... um, why not? That is complete nonsense. The code words "There's no reason for us to take any risks" simply means "It is more in our interest to lose than to win" which is fine and happens to be true.
And of course we've now added Chris Kaman to the list of players being withheld for fear of the massive risks involved (the biggest risk being that you might win a game). Given that the Generic Clippers are 2-15 in games without Kaman, with the wins coming against the even-more-lowly-Heat and the Hawks when Thornton scored 33, it's a pretty simple formula for tanking, as Citizen John R points out in his Diary. Send out the rest of your teeny, tiny team, coach 'em up, let them work hard, and watch them get utterly destroyed on the boards in an inevitable loss.
The question remains, what impact, if any, does this have on NEXT year's team, which is after all the one that matters now? A couple weeks ago, I would have said it was almost impossible to catch the Wolves or the Grizzlies in the lottery standings. Now it seems almost probable - so maybe the ping pong balls are the reward in and of themselves.
But for a team with a long history of losing, how will closing the season 3-27 (or some such record) affect their collective psyche?
The good news, I think, is that the reasons for optimism will be self-evident on the practice floor in training camp. The team we have been watching lose night in and night out bears almost no resemblance to the team that will open the 08-09 season (or at least we certainly hope not). The two highest draft picks on their roster (Elton Brand #1 overall and Shaun Livingston #4 overall) have been missing all season. The next highest (Kaman, #6) has missed 17 games and been less than 100% in the other 13 since Jan. 25.
Instead, we've been exposed to large doses of Dan Dickau, Josh Powell, Smush Parker and Nick Fazekas, players who may or may not be a part of the team, let alone the rotation, next season.
Still, I think there are a few reasons for optimism, even in the debacle that has been the last month.
- The players are playing hard - It would be really, really easy to go on the court, run up and down, and go back to the locker room 2.5 hours later with the pre-ordained loss. But I don't see this group doing that. You expect the scrubs to play hard - Josh Powell and Dan Dickau and Smush Parker and Nick Fazekas are getting a chance to show that they belong in the NBA - a chance they may or may not deserve. Their contract status next season depends on how they play now. But Corey Maggette took a cortisone shot in his shoulder in order to be able to play Saturday night - he didn't have to do that. And Cat Mobley has been as intense as I've ever seen him in the last few games.
- Younger players develop - Ralph and Mike have been raving about Josh Powell, and have admitted that early in the season they thought he couldn't play. Well, I'm not completely sold on Powell, but the simple fact is that if you do anything enough, you'll get better at it. Powell will never be a great NBA player - I think his size and his hands preclude that - but by playing starter minutes for the second half of the season, he has improved. He kind of had no choice. And there's no question that actual game experience makes you more effective in games than practice alone. Powell will be a more effective player when called upon next season than he would have been had this opportunity to play not presented itself.
- Al Thornton - Al has clearly also benefited from the increased opportunity to play. But unlike Powell, who hopefully will be relegated to limited minutes next season, Thornton figures prominently in the Clippers future at this point. He's having a rough March - shooting 39%. But opposing defenses have been able to focus on him much more than they will with Brand and Kaman on the floor. If he can work through the 'sophomore slump' in March and April of his freshman year, he'll be ready to go in November. And obviously Thornton's development gives the team more options this summer as regards Corey Maggette's free agency.
- Corey Maggette - Speaking of Maggette, I believe that his career year statistically is going to end up helping the Clippers one way or the other. Had Corey struggled this season, he might have been inclined to accept a lesser offer in free agency, perhaps even signing with a contender for the Mid Level Exception. Entering free agency after averaging a career high, while shooting a career high percentages from the field and from the arc, I see no way he'll accept the MLE. Which makes it far less likely that Corey will leave LA without the Clippers receiving something in return. Maybe he'll stay in LA to get his payday - in which case his strong stats will have cost the Clippers some money. But he's priced himself out of the market for most teams, and those who can afford him don't seem to need him (Grizzlies, Sixers, Bobcats). That leaves him with the Clippers, or departing in a sign and trade. At any rate, the Clippers have much more leverage in the wake of his strong season. As cut-throat as it may seem, they may not even have to pay him that much, if other teams are scared off by the price tag. Let's hope that the Clippers don't bid against themselves to retain his services.