I tend not to talk about what could happen or might happen. Anything can happen, so that kind of hypothetical talk, while entertaining, is ultimately pretty pointless. Instead, I like to look at what has happened in the past, as a way of framing the future.
There's no denying that the Clippers were beset by injuries in 2007-2008, and a 23-59 record, including 4 wins in their final 30 games, was the result. But is it merely wishful thinking to assume that this team, at full strength, can actually compete in the Western Conference? After all, 23-59 is truly horrible. Surely it's not possible that a team can turn around that kind of a season, no matter what the reason.
There's ample historical evidence that yes, indeed, it is possible.
The best case scenario has got to be the 96-97 Spurs. Injuries limited their best player, one David Robinson, to just 6 games that season. In addition to Robinson, their second best player, Sean Elliott, suffered a season ending injury in February and played in only 39 games. Combined with myriad other injuries (Chuck Person missed the entire season, former Clipper Charles Smith played in only 19 games in his final NBA season), the Spurs, a team that was 59-23 and advanced to the Western Conference Semifinals the season before, went 20-62 in 96-97, the third worst record in the NBA. But fortune smiled on them in the draft lottery, they won the first pick, drafted Tim Duncan, won 56 games the next season, won the NBA title the season after that, and well, you know the rest.
The Spurs analogy is particularly poignant for Clippers fans, since the 96-97 Clippers squeezed into the playoffs with 36 wins behind Loy Vaught and Malik Sealy, thus taking themselves out of the Duncan Derby.
It's also pretty easy to see the similarities between the teams. The simple fact of the matter is that Brand and Kaman each have a chance to be in the top 10 in the NBA in rebounding and blocked shots - and the only teammates that have accomplished that feat in the last 25 years are Tim Duncan and David Robinson. And, sure, the Clippers backcourt looks suspect. But is it any worse than Avery Johnson and Vernon Maxwell? Two key contributors to the Spurs championship in 1999 were Mario Elie and Antonio Daniels - guards who had been less than impressive elsewhere in their careers, and were acquired for next to nothing (Elie was a free agent signing, Daniels came in a trade for Carl Herrera and Felipe Lopez).
Of course, the big difference is Duncan. It's unlikely that the Clippers will win the lottery, and even if they did, Derrick Rose isn't Tim Duncan (and neither is Michael Beasley). Still, it does show that a good team can become a bad team because of injuries, and then become a great team when the injuries heal and some pieces are added.
If you don't want to go back quite so far, there are a couple of interesting turnarounds this season that I think are worth examining.
The New Orleans Hornets won 39 games last season. They've won 56 games this season with essentially the same team. Injuries likewise played a part in the Hornets poor performance in 2006-2007. Chris Paul and David West, both all stars this year, missed significant numbers of games, while Peja Stojakovic played in only 13. Now, you're no doubt saying, 'Hey, 39 wins is a hell of a lot more than 23 wins.' And you're right. But guess what? CP3 missed 18 games, West missed 30 games and Peja missed 69 games. Which is a big number for three starters, but a hell of a lot fewer than Brand (74), Kaman (56) and Livingston's (82) total of 212. So here we have an example of a team that went from the lottery to elite status because they got healthy (and yes, because Paul made great strides).
And although it guarantees nothing, it's also encouraging to see a team that suffered an epidemic of injuries one season follow up with an almost completely injury-free season. The Hornets five starters each played in at least 76 games this season.
Finally, I think it's interesting to look at the Boston Celtics. Unlike our other examples so far, this one has much less to do with injuries of course. But if the question is, can a team change enough in one season to move from the bottom of the league to the top of the league, the answer is clearly yes. Pierce suffered some injuries in 06-07 (although many were no doubt of the phantom/tank variety) and missed 35 games.
By adding Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to Paul Pierce (while subtracting second leading scorer Al Jefferson and their third, fourth and fifth best scorers as well), the Celtics went from 24 wins to 66 wins. Are Brand, Kaman and Livingston as good as Garnett, Allen and Pierce? Of course not. But the Clippers' supporting cast would seem to be much, much better - Cassell is the only significant subtraction. Interestingly, although Brand, Kaman and Livingston are the bodies that are essentially being added, in this analogy it makes much more sense to equate Livingston to Rajon Rondo. Did anyone expect Rondo to have the year he did? To have a great year playing point guard for the best team in the NBA? Absolutely not. Expectations are certainly low for Livingston, but you'd have a tough time convincing me that he doesn't have more potential than Rondo.
The other lesson from the Celtics' turnaround is that contributors are out there, if you can find them and use them correctly. Boston gave up almost all of it's depth in the Allen and Garnett deals, while at the same time going way over the cap. Judiciously using their cap exceptions, they added Eddie House and James Posey. They also found a contributor in the second round in Glen Davis, drafting almost exactly where the Clippers will be drafting this June.
The other major move the Celtics made last off-season was the hiring of defensive Coach Tom Thibodeau. Coupled with the defensive intensity of DPOY Kevin Garnett, the Celtics went from being a bad defensive team (17th in the league in defensive efficiency) to a great defensive team (first, by a wide margin). I am certainly no expert on the subject, but one wonders if there is not an offensive basketball whiz kid out there who might be able to inject some pizzazz into the Clippers' stultifying attack. Of course it would require MDsr to recognize that he has a problem there, which is far from certain. Still, one can hope.
I'm not predicting that the Clippers will have a turnaround similar to the 97 Spurs or the 07 Celtics. I am saying that it can happen because it has happened before.