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Can They Compete?

The 2007-2008 season was a disaster.  With 320 games lost to injury (not to mention the loss of Sam Cassell to a buy out for the final 27 games, which in it's own right was the fallout of injuries), the Clippers were missing the equivalent of 4 players for every single one of their 82 games.  And not just random players, either.  It works out to essentially 3 starters (including their best player) and 1 other guy for every game.  In that context, 23 wins seems downright extraordinary.  MDsr for COY!

The oft-repeated good news is that a few players were able to emerge given the opportunity.  Chris Kaman was putting up revelatory numbers before his own injury.  Al Thornton showed the potential to be a go to scorer the likes of which the Clippers have not seen in a long time.  Corey Maggette had the best season of his career.  Josh Powell proved that he can provide quality minutes if he is (hopefully not) called upon.  Even the acquisition of Nick Fazekas, who appears to have a legitimate chance of making the roster and contributing in 08-09, is a positive byproduct of this otherwise lost season.

But the bad news is that we have learned nothing about the team as a whole.  As regards forecasting the team's ability to compete for a playoff spot in 08-09, this injury-plagued season is totally worthless.   The key elements (Brand and Kaman) have literally not played a single game together.  The other most important position, point guard, is likewise a cipher.  With the 07-08 minutes split liberally between Cassell and three journeymen, there's little indication of what the position will be like next season.  Look at it this way - in December 2006, when Allen Iverson was on the trading block, the Clippers made it known that there were three untouchables on their roster - Elton Brand, Chris Kaman and Shaun Livingston.  Those three combined to play a total of 64 games out of a possible 246 games, and no two of them were ever on the floor together.  It's hard to evaluate your team when the crucial pieces literally never play.  It's very clear that the injuries were the reason the Clippers were so bad this season - what's less clear is if they can be good at full strength.

Nonetheless, MDsr told Brian Kamenetsky that he likes the teams chances in next season's playoff race if they can stay healthy.  One of the team's beat writers recently characterized that position as 'delusional'.  Another one said that it would be 'dead wrong' to assume that Livingston can lead the team to the playoffs.  Not an overly optimistic bunch, the Clippers beat writers.  Of course, the job ranks slightly below "Suicide Hotline Operator" on the depressing scale.

But if you think that the Clippers need to do more in order to be competitive in the west, I have a question for you.  What more can they do?  Realistically, you're talking about adding three starters to the team, plus a key reserve in the form of a lottery pick.  And maybe they pick up a solid contributor with the mid-level exception.  Are they supposed to add 4 starters this summer?  Why not 5?  It's just not realistic to turn over the entire team.

The point is, the team would be flying blind on any significant shakeup.  Which pieces do you keep?  Which do you give up?  Because, last I checked, it's impossible to acquire an all-star for a bunch of spare parts, draft picks and retired guys (or at least it should be).  Given that the team has basically not played together, and that you can't get something for nothing, it would seem to be premature to make major moves this summer.  Sure, we'd all trade Mobley and Thomas for Gilbert Arenas.  But would you trade Kaman and Thornton and the lottery pick for him?  Because that's what the Wizards are going to ask for.

The optimistic argument goes something like this:  in the 2006 playoffs, the Clippers were one last second three pointer away from the Western Conference finals with this team.  Cassell is the only significant piece that is gone, while Thornton, Kaman 2.0 and another lottery pick have been added.  Why shouldn't they be able to return to the playoffs and make some noise there?

That's pretty compelling.  Of course, it also ignores the fact that the 05-06 Clippers were 47-35 in the regular season - a record that would be good for 10th place in the West in 07-08.  

Here's a partial list of players that have joined Western Conference playoff hopefuls since the Clippers made their Conference Semi appearance: Amare Stoudemire (he was hurt, remember?), Shaquille O'Neal, Jason Kidd, Pau Gasol, Allen Iverson, Peja Stojakovic, Stephen Jackson, Al Harrington, Brandon Roy and Greg Oden.  And let's not forget the significant improvements in players like Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer, Monta Ellis and Andrew Bynum.

So it's not enough to say that the Clippers were in the playoffs in 05-06 and that they plan to be as good or better next season.  All the other teams look to be a lot better as well.

The wild card in any playoff aspirations is clearly Livingston.  The Clippers' front line, if in fact it is ever healthy and in tact, appears to be formidable to say the least.  Kaman (3rd in the NBA in rebounds and blocked shots per game), Brand (2nd team all pro in 2006), Maggette (11th in the NBA in scoring) and Thornton (the second leading scorer among NBA rookies behind Kevin Durant) form an impressive front court, to be sure.  And although I'm not a huge fan of Cat Mobley, as the fourth or fifth scorer on a team, he's more than adequate - he plays solid defense, doesn't make a lot of mistakes, can stretch defenses, and is fully capable of heating up and having a big game.

But the Clippers point guard play this season has been abysmal.  Livingston, if he is physically able to play, is an immediate upgrade.  He's a top notch defender and distributor, and has the size that the Clippers teeny, tiny point guards this season so sorely lacked.  So if Livingston has indeed recovered from his injuries, and can play anywhere close to as well as he did before he was hurt, it's a major improvement.

But he needs to be more than that if the Clippers are actually planning to make the playoffs.  He needs to take the steps toward stardom that Chris Paul and Deron Williams have taken.  I'm not saying he has to be as good as those guys (although it certainly wouldn't make me mad).  But he has to be significantly better than he was.  He has to take over games.  He has to dominate on both ends.  In short, he has to fulfill the promise that made him the fourth overall pick in 2004.  It's a lot to ask of a guy who's going to go over 20 months between NBA games - but it's what needs to happen for the Clippers to compete.

Should the Clippers be relying on so fragile a hope?  Shouldn't they instead be planning on another solution at the point guard?  Well, short of landing the first or second pick in the draft and selecting Derrick Rose, I just don't think there are a lot of other options out there.  It's really nice to think that they could acquire a terrific starting point guard this summer, but it's not going to happen, even if they were willing to give up one or more of their other key pieces, like Kaman.  And whereas Beno Udrih would likewise be an upgrade over Brev-Dan-Smush, he's not good enough to take the team to the next level.  Livingston might not be as good as Udrih next season - but he might be a whole lot better.  Frankly, who do we expect the Clippers to get?  The ideal acquisition might be a young point guard with a lot of upside - like Crittendon or Lowry or Rodriquez.  Well, guess what?  We already have one of those.

So, by all means, reach out to the Wizards about Agent Zero.  Check with the Raptors about TJ Ford.  Call Calderon's agent to see what his asking price is.  But don't trade the farm for any of those guys.  And if Shaun Livingston is the starter on November 1, 2008, well maybe it'll turn out that he's exactly the right guy for the job.  Does it seem unlikely?  Maybe.  But I ask you this - wasn't it even more unlikely that Kaman would have the season he had?  Besides, what other choice do the Clippers have?