The reality of an Elton Brand return is finally looming for the Clippers. After practicing full-court, and full-speed on Monday, even MDsr gave a fairly concrete date for a return to game action - targeting the final 'five or six' games. In an AP story from Dallas the next day, MDsr increased that number to 'as many as eight.' There are only 11 regular season games left. Based on these statements, Brand could be playing as early as next Wednesday in Sacramento, and I'll be very surprised if he's not on the court for the final homestand, which starts Sunday April 6 against Houston. MDsr has been ultra-conservative and tight-lipped on setting dates, as part of a not-so-subtle tanking strategy. But it will be very tough for him to wiggle out of playing Brand now, at least in the home games.
EB's imminent return raises some interesting questions.
For instance, if you could choose, would you rather have the third worst record in the NBA (with the ping pong balls and higher draft pick that go with it) or a six game winning streak against playoff teams and the seventh worst record? And then there's the worst case scenario - what if Brand returns, and the team DOESN'T play well? With the final 6 games scheduled against Western Conference playoff contenders, and the final 3 on the road, wins are far from guaranteed. But it's a lot tougher to make the case that Brand's presence next season fixes everything if the team doesn't get some wins down the stretch with him.
There are other potential issues as well.
Back in December, Brian Kamenetzky wrote on SportsHubLA about an elephant in the room for the Clippers. But I think it was a case of mistaken pachyderm identity. Kamenetzky said that the elephant in the room is Elton Brand's contract and whether or not he'll be back with the Clippers next season. I've never shared that concern, and EB's recent comments seem to indicate that this is just not an issue. Elton will be back - certainly for the final year of this contract - for reasons I've pointed out in the past. Suffice to say that Elton has the luxury of making the loyal choice AND getting paid the most money at the same time. The fact that Elton must be as excited as anyone to play next to Kaman 2.0 only makes it more obvious.
And that, my friends, is the actual elephant.
It is not unreasonable to suggest that Chris Kaman would not have had the first half he had (before his injuries) sharing the low post with Elton Brand. Obviously he's getting more touches - though it's more difficult to suggest that he's getting easier looks given that defenses are able to key exclusively on Chris. He's probably getting more rebounds - though not as many as you might think. Yes, Elton will grab more rebounds per game than Tim Thomas (duh) - but those rebounds are coming from 8 other players on the floor, not just Kaman.
Still, there are those who suggest that the post will get too crowded to support two monsters and it's not a ridiculous suggestion. For one thing, it very rarely happens. Think of the various 'Twin Towers' lineups over the years (am I still allowed to use that term in a post-9/11 world?) - Sampson and Olajuwon made it to one NBA Finals together, but were not particularly good beyond that. Of course Sampson was never much of a low post presence, and his knees didn't hold up, but still. Duncan and Robinson won two titles and had a nice run, but let's face it - the Spurs have been as good or better putting perimeter players with Duncan. Parish and McHale worked. And before that Unseld and Hayes. But it doesn't happen a lot, and as in the case of Sampson and Olujawon, sometimes it fails pretty miserably.
Not to mention that this isn't 1975, or even 1985. The game is faster and more perimeter oriented, owing in large part to rules changes intended to favor perimeter players.
Taken together, you can understand when people wonder if it's going to be all gravy when EB and Kaman try to set up on opposite blocks. In some ways, isn't Tim Thomas spreading the floor the more logical complement to either one? How's that two post up guys thing working out for the Knicks?
So while I understand the concern, I don't share it - not entirely at any rate. Here's why.
The Clippers are currently the 20th rated defense in the NBA based on points per possession. That number has slipped steadily on the season, especially as Kaman has missed games. They were around 10 at the end of November, around 15 at the all star break. And now their 20th. Now remember that Elton Brand is the Clippers best low post defender, and Shaun Livingston is their best perimeter defender. When those guys get back on the court along with Kaman 2.0, this is going to be a pretty scary good defensive squad (as in fact they were two seasons ago).
Randolph and Curry doesn't work in New York because neither of them is even a passably good defender. To make matters worse, neither of them blocks a lot of shots, and Curry is a horrible rebounder for a center. These deficiencies are major contributors to the Knicks' last place defensive ranking.
By contrast, a Kaman/Brand anchored defense could be formidable. Kaman is 3rd in the league in blocked shots, and Brand has finished in the top 10 in the league for 5 consecutive seasons. They are each exceptionally good rebounders. (Only the Spurs, with Duncan and Robinson, have had top 10 rebounders and shot blockers on the same team in the last 20 NBA seasons.) Most importantly, they are both good on ball defenders - especially Brand. Nowitzki is a tough cover for anyone, and Marion is really a three - but Brand probably plays better defense on more power forwards than anyone in the league with the exception of Kevin Garnett. Simply put, a Clipper defense anchored by Brand and new Kaman has the potential to completely eliminate the opponent's inside game. They were good together in 05-06 when the Clippers finished in the top 5 in many significant defensive categories - there is little question that they will be better when Brand returns to team with the new and improved Kaman.
I'm certainly less confident that 2+2=5 or even 4 on the offensive end. The simple fact is, the easiest way to expose the double team is to spread the floor with shooters. Still, a talented tandem of low post players can take advantage of opportunities not available to lesser players if they develop a rapport to go with interior passing skills (think Parish and Mcale). Every hedge by a helping big presents a lane to the basket on the weak side. Yes, it's crowded, but it's not impossible. And one plainly obvious advantage is offensive rebounding. If your power forward is standing at the three point arc he's less likely to be getting a lot of put backs. And of all the statistical fingerprints of this horrible season, offensive rebounding is the most obvious. The Clippers have been a top 5 offensive rebounding team throughout the Elton Brand era - this season, they're 28th.
For all of the Spurs vaunted shooting (and it is very good) it's not as if Oberto has much range. In fact, he is no better a shooter than Brand or Kaman (new Kaman). So when Duncan is playing with Oberto (which is still most of the time) the Spurs have less range (and significantly less talent) on the weak side than a Kaman/Brand front line would have. Sure, Oberto gets out of Duncan's way to allow him to operate - but if the double team leaves him open, he's diving to the rim, not fading to the arc. And it works fine for the Spurs. How much better will (should?) it work for the Clippers, when they can start on either side with either player, depending on who's got the more favorable matchup or the better post position?
It will be more important than ever to have shooters at the other three positions to spread the floor. Shaun Livingston is supposedly working on that jump shot - let's hope it pays off. Assuming Tim Thomas has not completely lost his stroke despite his struggles these last few months, the Clippers might actually have enough shooters for the first time in a while with Thornton and Maggette joining Thomas and Mobley. Obviously I will also assume that the lottery pick will be able to shoot as well.
Still, maybe there's just not enough room in the post for two back to the basket scorers to put up huge numbers. Maybe Kaman's first half was all a mirage, that will be lost in a combination of injuries and passivity due to Brand's return. If the final 5 or 6 or 8 games don't go well, the off-season has a completely different vibe - Maggette is less likely to stay, free agents are less likely to come, etc.
Put it this way. It's the most important stretch of games this season by far.