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The Los Angeles Clippers - Season Preview

Here it is, my entry in the Blogger NBA Preview series. This is the fourth time I've represented the Clippers (wow, that's a long time in blog years), and I want to thank Jeff from CelticsBlog for putting it together again. Note that the preview was complete when I found out that Blake Griffin was out for six weeks. I went back and sprinkled some references to it around, but if this feels like a generally optimistic preview with occasional thoughts of suicide, there's a reason for that.

Team Name: Los Angeles Clippers

Last Year’s Record: 19-63

Key Losses: Zach Randolph

Key Additions: Blake Griffin, Rasual Butler, Sebastian Telfair, Craig Smith, Assistant Coach John Lucas, Zach Randolph (addition by subtraction)

1. What Significant Moves were made during the off-season?

The Clippers had such a busy off-season in the summer of 2008 (losing Elton Brand and Corey Maggette, signing Baron Davis, trading for Marcus Camby, and turning over most of the roster) that the summer of 2009 seemed a little boring in comparison. In reality, it was arguably the second busiest off-season for the team in recent memory, and in contrast to last summer, the moves were universally positive. It started while the NBA playoffs were still going on, when the Clippers won the lottery in May. You can't really credit the front office on that one, unless you want to commend their remarkable tanking strategy last year, or you believe that Andy Roeser's fancy jacket did the trick. But with that lottery win came the first overall pick and consensus rookie of the year favorite, Blake Griffin (or as I like to call him, Blake Superior). Griffin had a stellar Summer League in Las Vegas, and a great pre-season as well, and is clearly worthy of his status as first pick. He's a freakish specimen, possessing a combination of size and athleticism that simply should not be. But the reason that he'll be a great NBA player before he's done is that he has a freakish work ethic to go with his physical gifts. This is a player who is going to maximize his talents, and there are a lot of talents to maximize. Unfortunately, on the eve of the season, the Clippers found out that their prize rookie suffered a stress fracture of his left patella suffered in the final pre-season game and will miss the first six weeks of the season. Obviously, this puts a major damper on the Clippers' outlook.

But the off-season wasn't just about the draft. Looking at the key losses above, you'll notice one and only one name: Zach Randolph. Now, when a team trades away their leading scorer and rebounder, it has to be considered a loss at some level - but there are many, many knowledgeable NBA watchers who will tell you that this was addition by subtraction, and you can certainly make a case for it. Z-Bo is clearly a scoring and rebounding machine, but he doesn't do much else for a team, certainly not on the defensive end, and he's never been a great 'locker room guy', though I would stop short of calling him a cancer. Still, the Clippers' team chemistry last season was toxic, so changing the formula a bit seems like a wise choice. But beyond the potential for better team chemistry without Randolph, there are several concrete benefits for the team. For one, it frees up minutes and physical space for Griffin, which is obviously the right decision for the future of the franchise. Moreover, the subsequent trade of Quentin Richardson returned Sebastian Telfair and Craig Smith, two guys that figure to be in the regular rotation off the bench for the Clippers. In addition to the direct assets Telfair and Smith, the Randolph trade also brought Rasual Butler to the team from New Orleans via a trade exception. Butler was a full time starter for the Hornets last season, and will push Al Thornton for the starting small forward position, while also being the primary back up at the shooting guard. He was a crucial acquisition for the Clippers who can play defense on the wing and spread the floor; exactly the type of player they needed.

A less visible move occurred on the coaching staff. Out are three assistants from Mike Dunleavy Sr's staff (Neal Meyer, Jim Eyen and Rory White), replaced by Tony Brown and John Lucas. Lucas is the marquee name. A former first overall pick, a former head coach in the league, a guy who has in recent years run top basketball training programs as well as substance abuse clinics, he's a very high-profile 'get' for the Clippers. Dunleavy has always been a strong X's and O's coach, particularly on the defensive end, and no one in the NBA works harder breaking down film and prepping his team for the opponent's game plan. But he's lacked rapport with his players, which became pretty evident last season when the team seemed to quit on him. Baron Davis in particular, in his first season with his home town team, never seemed in sync with his head coach. Lucas may have joined the staff to be the players' guy, the coach who can relate to the modern NBA athlete. So far it seems that Lucas is acting as a mentor to Baron, and if he can keep the talented but mercurial point guard on the same page with the coaching staff it will be a major contributor to the team's success. It's also worth noting that Mike Dunleavy is currently the only coach in the NBA who is pulling double duty and also serving as the General Manager - and that his team has won a combined 42 games over the last two season, last in the NBA during that span. Did Dunleavy have the foresight to hire a potential replacement for himself in Lucas if the team struggles again this season?

There's one more off-season move that needs to be mentioned. The Clippers opened a state of the art training facility just before the start of the season last year, and this is the first off-season that the facility has been available. Before the training center opened, the team held their practices in an athletic club near the LA airport, sharing weight machines with business men on their lunch break and scheduling limited court time in the gym. This summer, the players had their own facility available to them 24x7, and they took advantage of it. Griffin, a fiend for working out, was in the gym constantly and his example seems to have rubbed off on the rest of the team, because most of his teammates were in there with him. As a result, Dunleavy has been raving about the team's conditioning as compared to last season (Baron Davis is about 20 pounds lighter than he was last season). Perhaps more importantly, the players were running full court five on five games for a month before training camp opened. The chemistry that was sorely lacking among the dozen new faces on the team last season should be much improved.

2. What are the team’s biggest strengths?

This is a strange situation. We're talking about a 19 win team here, but on paper, they look really strong. I think you'd have to characterize their biggest strengths as depth and versatility. With the addition of Telfair and Butler, both of whom were full time starters last season, and first overall pick Griffin, joining essentially five returning starters (Baron Davis, Eric Gordon, Al Thornton, Marcus Camby and Chris Kaman), you've got a team of eight starter-quality players. (You can certainly dispute whether or not Telfair should have been a starter last season in Minnesota, but the simple fact of the matter is that he was, if only by default.) In addition to those eight, Craig Smith has looked great in pre-season, and second year center DeAndre Jordan, the 35th pick in the 2008 draft, has made a huge step forward in his development. So the roster goes ten deep in quality. Obviously that depth will be tested right away in Griffin's absence.

In addition to being deep, it is a versatile lineup. They can go big - Kaman is a legitimate NBA center with a major offensive arsenal, Camby remains one of the top shot blockers and rebounders in the league even at age 36, and Blake Griffin is quick enough to play some small forward. They can play small - slide the versatile Griffin over to the four or even the five and the Clippers have a major quickness advantage in the post without really giving up a lot of size. They have post scoring from Kaman and Griffin and Smith. They have outside shooting from Gordon and Butler and Baron Davis and specialist Steve Novak. They have slashers on the wing in Thornton and Gordon. They have leadership at the point in Baron, with a solid backup in Telfair. They have veteran team leadership in Baron and Camby and Kaman. They have youth in Griffin (20), Gordon (20), Jordan (21), Telfair (24), and Al Thornton (25). They can run with Camby and Kaman rebounding, Baron or Telfair pushing the tempo and Gordon, Thornton and Griffin filling lanes. They can play half court basketball, dumping the ball into Kaman or Griffin, or perhaps posting up the ultra strong Baron Davis against a smaller point guard. This team has the versatility to play any style.

3. What are the team’s biggest weaknesses?

One of the team's weaknesses is a direct result of one of its strengths. If the roster is so versatile that it can be anything, then the question remains, what kind of team is this? Are they a running team? Are they a walk it up team? Are they a young team building for the future? Are they a veteran team looking to win now? Most good NBA teams have an identity. It's great in theory to say that the team can adapt to any style and be successful, but the reality is different - it's easier to adopt a single style and get REALLY proficient at that one style, and then force your opponents to adjust to you. So what is this team's identity? I don't think anyone knows that yet.

It remains to be seen how effective the team will be on defense, but I anticipate that it will be a weakness as well. Al Thornton is a poor defender, particularly on reads and rotations. Eric Gordon, while strong and effective on the ball, is a bit undersized at shooting guard, and will have trouble with the Kobe Bryants and Brandon Roys of the Western Conference. Baron Davis can be a terrific defender - if he's motivated and focused. Up front, Chris Kaman and Marcus Camby are top tier shot blockers, but have their own defensive limitations as well. As for Griffin, the coach has been raving about the way he's been picking up defensive rotations - for a rookie - but the operative word there is 'rookie'. Butler will help, as he's a better defender than Thornton, but we're talking about a team that was 27th in defensive efficiency last season - so while some of the changes would indicate a better defensive team this season, they've got a long way to go to get into the top half of the league.

I'm also not sure who on this team is going to take the big shots, the possessions where the team really needs a basket. The balance and verstility on the roster is great for about 46 minutes of a game - but in the final two minutes, it can be really nice to give the ball to someone and have some level of confidence that they'll get you a good shot. The obvious candidate for that role is Baron, but he was so abysmal shooting the ball last season (an obscene 37%), that you wonder if can do it. I mean, he has never been a high percentage shooter, but before he got to LA, it sure SEEMED like he was hitting a bunch of big shots. If it's not Baron, is it Eric Gordon? He averaged over 18 points per game as a starter last season, and has all the tools. He can shoot with range, he can take the ball to the hole, he can get to the line, he can beat people off the dribble. Maybe he's the man. Or is it Thornton? Or Kaman? When will it be Griffin?

Oh, and the fact that the entire franchise is cursed by an evil from the very depths of hell is a bit of a weakness as well.

4. What are the goals for this team?

Again, it seems very strange to say this of a 19 win team, but these guys intend to make the playoffs (or at least they did before they lost Griffin for six weeks). And while every NBA team has the playoffs as a goal, in this case most NBA observers seem to agree that the team is at least in the conversation. With the injury to Yao Ming and the uncertain recovery status of Tracy McGrady, Houston would seem to have excused themselves from the playoff table, leaving an empty seat. Phoenix is the logical choice to replace them, having won 45 games last season. But the simple fact is that the Suns traded an all star (people forget that Shaquille O'Neal was an all start last year) for nothing, so while it's nice for the Suns that Amare Stoudemire is back, it seems self-evident that Pnoenix took a step back over the summer, with Nash and Grant Hill each getting a year older and Shaq joining the LeBrons. Even if it's too much to ask to make up a 26 game difference (Clippers 19 wins, Suns 45 wins), the simple fact is that there's almost always at least a couple of teams in contention for the final playoff spot until late in the season. The Clippers, on paper, appear to be the logical choice at least to be on the cusp.

Eric Gordon and Blake Griffin each have the talent to be major stars, and there's a distinct possibility that one or both of them will arrive this season (my money is on Gordon). And of course the team is counting on a return to health after losing hundreds of player games to injury yet again last season. Kaman missed 50+ games, and Baron Davis played hurt much of the season even when he was in the lineup, among myriad other injuries for the team. If they can enjoy even an average level of health this season, it will be a major boost to their win total. Actually avoiding injury and staying healthy, while perhaps too much to ask, would be a major windfall. Of course, the season hadn't even started before they lost Griffin, so there goes that idea.

But I believe that Baron Davis is the key. He was a difference maker for Golden State in their 2007 playoff run, but somewhere between mediocre and atrocious last year for the Clippers. Why was he so bad? There are a lot of theories. Maybe he was just happy to be home and lost interest in basketball. Maybe he was just happy to get the payday, and mailed in the season. Maybe he had significant differences with his coach that affected his game. Maybe he quit on the season early after an 0-9 start. Whatever the reason, Baron Davis is a proud man, and he is self-aware enough to know that he stunk last season. He also knows that it's much easier to be a big shot movie producer in Hollywood if you're an all star level NBA player than if you're a barely average NBA player. He has said all the right things about this being a new season; he's done the right thing by working himself into great shape; he seems to be on the same page with the coaching staff. Now he just has to play. And his play will likely determine the fate of the team.

5. Will the team make a move at the trade deadline, and if so, what kind?

One aspect of the Zach Randolph trade we haven't talked about is the salary it freed up going into the summer of 2010, the summer of LeBron James. Now, despite what Bill Simmons says, the Clippers don't have enough room under the cap next summer as it stands right now to make a max offer to James or any other free agent - not with the current projections for the cap. They'd have to move one more big salary like Baron Davis or Chris Kaman to make that happen. But even if they don't make another move, they still figure to have a lot of room next summer.

They also have a slew of expiring contracts of varying sizes. Camby ($7.6M), Butler ($3.5M), Smith ($2.5M), Ricky Davis ($2.5M) and a couple other smaller deals are all in their final seasons, giving the Clippers enough expiring assets to match almost any salary in the league. So if they want to, the team can be a player for whatever superstar winds up on the block (and it seems like every year there's at least one).

As the trade deadline approaches, if the Clippers are still in playoff contention, will they hang onto everyone for the stretch run, while also hoarding their cap space? Or will they swing for the fences and try to make a move for a name player, even if it means taking on long term salary?

Conversely, if they're out of contention, will they look to clear MORE salary for the 2010 free agency market by moving Kaman or Baron Davis? Or will they try to move Camby to a contender that's looking to add a veteran big for a playoff run in exchange for prospects and picks?

The Clippers have incredible roster flexibility at this point - expiring deals, a trade exception, their full mid-level exception - basically all the tools a GM needs. So it will be very interesting to see what they do. But a lot will depend on how the team plays.

Projected Finish:

In the first draft of this preview, I had the Clippers at 42-40. That draft was time stamped 9:37 PM, October 26th. At 9:45 PM, the Clippers sent out a press release about Blake Griffin's stress fracture. Six weeks represents about one quarter of the season - if Griffin was a big reason for optimism in Clips Nation, then losing him for a quarter of the season is a major blow. (Not to mention that Clipper injuries have a tendency to last quite a bit longer than the original estimates.) It also tends to be true that once an NBA team drops out of contention, they stay out of contention. If the Clippers are 6-14 after 20 games, it's unlikely that they're going to play .500 ball over the final 60, even after they get Griffin back.

There are still a lot of things to like about this team, and if indeed Griffin is back in six weeks, there will still be three quarters of the season ahead of them, hopefully at full strength. But the simple fact is that there's not a major rush on here - after all, what's the best case this season? An eighth seed and a date with the Lakers in the first round? With young talent and cap space, the window is still pretty wide open (for everyone except Dunleavy, perhaps) so they can afford to miss the playoffs this season. Could the team take advantage of its relatively friendly early season schedule and manage to play .500 waiting for Griffin to return, and then use his addition to the lineup to improve beyond that? Sure, it could happen. But I think it's more likely that they drop off the pace, which may trigger a series of events - loss of intensity, trades, etc.

30-52. Dammit.