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Just How Bad Has Baron Davis Been This Season?

Yesterday we examined how bad the Clippers have been this season (conclusion: really, really bad).  Now it's time to examine some of the reasons for their struggles.

We know that injuries have played a part in the debacle, but we also know that they don't explain everything.  We know that the Clippers are rated last in the NBA in offensive efficiency (points per possesion), last in the league in effective field goal percentage (taking into consideration their far below average three point shooting) and 29th out of 30 in field goal percentage.  Offensive numbers like that (and you can read 'offensive' a couple of different ways there) go a long way to explaining the teams' cellar dwelling.

But if we can say that their poor efficiency on offense explains their poor results, it begs the next question.  Why have they been so bad on offense? 

Remember that the team is 6-6 in games that Zach Randolph has started and finished.  (They're 6-8 with Randolph overall, but he didn't start his first game with the Clippers when they almost beat Denver, and he missed the fourth quarter of the loss to Toronto.)  So they're 2-24 in their other games.  The general consensus is that there is talent on the roster.  Kaman has been hurt the longest, but was shooting 57% before he went down.  Marcus Camby is leading the league in rebounding and second in blocked shots, and would be getting serious all star consideration if he played for a team with more than 8 wins.  Eric Gordon has been everything you could possibly expect from a 20 year old rookie.  And Al Thornton has been good (averaging 17 points per game on 44% shooting) if not great. 

Hmmm, someone is missing from this list of key Clippers?  Who could it be?

Dealing with the minutiae of Clipperdom on a daily basis, it's sometimes difficult to see the forest for the trees (or in this case, the beard for the whiskers).  But on a recent podcast, Phoenix Stan from Bright Side of the Sun asked me how Baron was working out, and I had to say it - he's been terrible.  Simply terrible.

How terrible?  Of all qualified NBA players (those on pace to make 300 field goals this season), Baron Davis is dead last in field goal percentage.  Of course, Baron takes a lot of threes, so that's going to affect his shooting percentage, right?  So what about effective field goal percentage, taking threes into account?  Dead last.  (As it happens, his three point shooting is not elevating his eFG much, because he's 113th in the league out of 118 qualified players in three point shooting.)  Still, there are other ways to score, like free throws.  What about points per shot, taking into account free throws made?  Dead.  Last

Now Baron has never been a high percentage shooter.  We knew that going in.  And so we will overlook a relatively low shooting percentage.  But he is, by any reasonable standard, the worst shooter in the NBA this season.  The worst one!  And this is the face of the franchise, the highest paid player on the team, the marquee free agent and point guard we never thought we'd get, the guy that was going to change everything. 

This helps to explain why the Clippers have been so bad in games without Zach Randolph.  Because although Chris Kaman was shooting a career high 57% from the field before he was hurt, he is not, and never will be, a high volume shooter, taking 10.4 shots per game as compared to Baron's 17.2.  Marcus Camby of course is limited to put backs and spot up jumpers on offense, and is averaging only 9.4 shots per game.  Zach Randolph, on the other hand, was averaging over 19 shots in his 14 games as a Clippers, and shooting 50% while starting for the team.  In other words, with Zach Randolph in the lineup, the offense is generating the most shots for a good shooter.  Without Zach, the worst shooter in the NBA was taking by far the most shots on the team.  It doesn't really take a genius to realize that that is a bad plan.

It's like if a chef used the worst tasting ingredient in most of his dishes.  Or if a store dedicated the most shelf space to the worst selling items.  In any endeavor, you want to accentuate the positives, play to your strengths.  For Baron Davis, shooting is not a strength; not this season at least.  Did I mention that he was dead last in every shooting category?

I'm sure that someone else could point to some advanced statistics to better illustrate this point.  There's no question that Baron is going to have a poor Win Score, for instance.  On the other hand, someone else might point out that his PER of 15.7 is better than average.  But here's the thing - forget the fancy metrics.  Putting the ball in the basket is the most fundamental part of the game.  The Clippers are the worst offensive team in the league, and their team leader is the worst shooter in the league.  We don't need the CSI team to tell us what's happening here.  Cause - effect.

You may have seen a recent blog post pointing out that Baron has yet to shoot over 50% in any single game this season - it made the rounds, with links from the LA Times blog and on ClipperBlog.  But for me, that's far from the issue.  After all, 12 for 24 with 4 threes, as he was against the Nets, is a fine shooting game, and is a eFG of 58% when you take the threes into consideration.  The problem isn't the individaul games; it's the accummulation, the overall shooting percentage, and the ominous fact that he's getting worse, not better.  36% shooting from the field is terrible - I mean, out-of-the-league terrible.  Consider this - there are currently 79 players in the NBA shooting a higher three point percentage than Davis' overall shooting percentage.  Moreover, when he shot an ice cold 38 percent in November, we thought it was just a slump brought on by the finger injury and that he would soon snap out of it.  Then he shot 34% in December.  His New Year's Resolution was apparently to stop missing so many shots in 2009 - but the only way he could figure out how to do that was to stop playing.

By the way, when you open up the criteria to include all NBA players, not just those on pace to make 300 field goals, Baron is NOT the worst shooter in the NBA.  Among starting NBA point guards, Rafer Alston is worse.  And there are a couple of other interesting names behind Baron on the point guard list: Clippers Mike Taylor and Jason Hart.  So his job remains relatively safe for the time being if only because the other options are so bad.  When Mardy Collins, a career 37% shooter in the NBA, is your best option at the point guard based on shooting percentage, it is a sad, sad state of affairs.

So, is there any good news?  Some.  He's done a good job distributing this season, and is seventh in the NBA in both assists and in assist to turnover ratio.  It's also possible that he was hurt worse than we knew the first two months of the season and that it was adversely affecting him.  We know that he partially tore a ligament in his finger in training camp, and the injury that has him out of the lineup now was originally suffered in the second game of the season.  So it's reasonable to assume that he's been dealing with one or both of those injuries all year. 

But the other 'good' news, if you dig deep enough, is that Baron Davis has gone through bad shooting slumps before.  His first season in Golden State he shot under 39% for the season, but he bounced back the next year with the best shooting percentage of his career at almost 44%.  So there is a precedent for a difficult adjustment period followed by a marked improvement, a fact that Baron himself alluded to last month.  Of course, the Warriors did change head coaches in the interim, from Mike Montgomery to Don Nelson, and we know that the Clippers coach has more in common with Montgomery than with Nelson (and I'm not just talking about his first name).

The emergence of Eric Gordon is a positive factor as well.  It gives the Clippers another legitimate, relatively efficient scorer to put on the floor with Baron.  While Baron has been out, we've gotten a feel for what it's like to have Gordon shoot 16 times per game - and frankly, it's better than having Baron shoot that much. 
But it would also be good if EJ didn't have create everything himself as is the case currently.  When Baron returns, a healthy lineup with Gordon, Thornton, Randolph and Camby (and later Kaman) around him can be very effective, if Baron will fully embrace the pass-first distributor role. 

But leading the team in shots while leading the league in misses is a bad thing.