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An Actual Reason for Clipper Optimism

While the 11 and 13 record is a vast improvement over last season, and the very early playoff picture is surprisingly manageable (3 losses separating the Clippers from the fifth seeded Jazz), I've found it very difficult to generate any real optimism about the team so far.  The schedule has been too soft, the wins have been too unimpressive, the 7-8 home record simply not what playoff teams do.

When Milph pointed out last night that the Clippers were 7-7 with Eric Gordon in the lineup, implying that it was an indication of the real strength of the team, I was once again unimpressed.  Seven-and-seven?  Big deal.  A .500 record still won't get you into the playoffs.  If that's the best statistical evidence of an actual playoff contender about to emerge, then the team is clearly in trouble.  They've got 4 road wins versus 8 home defeats.  That's usually a better indication of the strength of the team than the 11-13 overall record.

But then I looked at the Gordon factor some more today.  The team is now 8-7 with Gordon in the lineup.  Of the seven losses, six were:

  • at the Lakers
  • Phoenix
  • at Utah
  • Dallas
  • Orlando
  • San Antonio

Those six teams are among the eleven best records in the league.  And although you might like to think that Utah and San Antonio were beatable this season, those two teams just happen to be among the toughest opponents for the Clippers, owning long winning streaks against LA for whatever reason.

The seventh loss is clearly one of the more disappointing losses of the season at Indiana. Of course, that also happens to be the first game Gordon played upon returning from his groin injury, and he was limited to 27 minutes and shot 2 for 7 - a decidedly non-EJ performance.

With Gordon in the lineup, the Clippers are 8-1 against teams with losing records, 3-1 on the road, the one loss being that Indiana game where he was still hurting. 

I'll be the first to point out that at some point a good team actually has to beat some teams with WINNING records, particularly at home.  The Clippers played well enough to beat the Suns, and were in games against Dallas and Orlando until fourth quarter meltdowns, but they'll simply have to win some of those games going forward to have a shot at the playoffs. 

The Clippers have yet to play Houston, Oklahoma City or New Orleans with Gordon in the lineup or to play Portland or Sacramento at all.  It just so happens that those are all on the short list of teams the Clippers realistically need to finish ahead of to make the playoffs this season.  So seeing how the Clippers fare against them with Gordon playing will be key.  By the way, we should get our first look in five days when the Clippers play the Rockets in Houston.

So while it is certainly true that the Clippers must play better against the top teams, even with Gordon in the lineup, we shouldn't overlook the other side of this equation.  The Clippers are winning the games they are supposed to win provided EJ plays.  That's pretty significant.  While the team has a slew of bad losses this season (by 28 at home to the Hornets, home against the Thunder, home against the Raptors, at New Orleans playing without Chris Paul, by 15 at Memphis, at Indiana playing without Danny Granger, by 17 at home to the Rockets) Gordon missed six of those seven games, and was far from 100% in Indiana.  With Gordon playing, the team has been competitive in almost every game.

A team that wins games against sub-.500 teams and steals a few against the good teams is a playoff team.  A low seed, to be sure, but a playoff team.  Look at the 2005-2006 Clippers that made the playoffs.  That's essentially what they did.

If they are good enough with Gordon to consistently beat the weaker opponents it's a major accomplishment.  Because it may mean that they'll be good enough with Gordon and Griffin to beat some of the better teams.

While I'm on this Gordon-fueled optimism high, let's take a moment to review how solid he's been in this his second season.  We knew he was good.  And we knew he was likely to get better, still a week shy of his 21st birthday.  He hasn't disappointed.

Without forcing the issue, his productivity is up almost across the board.  On a per minute basis, his scoring, rebounding and assists are all up.  His steals are up a lot.  His turnovers are down.  His shooting percentages, already stellar for a perimeter player in his rookie season, are way up.  He's shooting 49.5% overall compared to 45.6% last year, his effective field goal percentage is up to 57.4% from 52.9%, and his total shooting percentage has gone from 59.3% to 61.3%.  The only thing that's down is his free throw shooting, which certainly seems like a temporary anomaly for such a great overall shooter. 

Watching him play, the advancement in his game is obvious and impressive.  He's more aggressive going to the basket, and finishing better when he gets there.  He's also added a post up game, something he simply didn't have last season.  Playing next to Baron Davis, this is a signficant development.  Teams with smallish point guards may be tempted to switch the defensive assignment; but now Gordon is just as capable as Baron of punishing a small defender in the post.  And not just small defenders either - Monday night against the Wizards he converted a key three point play posting up DeShawn Stevenson, a supposed defensive stopper on the wing.

And as always, I can't rave about Gordon without comparing him to his more heralded draft class mates in the back court.  Derrick Rose (the ROY), OJ Mayo (the runner up) and Russell Westbrook all finished ahead of Gordon in Rookie of the Year balloting and all made first team all Rookie compared to Gordon's second team selection.  But take a look at this list of second year players playing more than 500 minutes with PERs over 14.  Sort the list any number of ways (PER, points per game, any and all shooting efficiency measures) and Eric Gordon's name appears near the top, long before those other guys.  Gordon's PER of 18.2 ranks him behind three centers, and he's the only player below 6'9" in the top 10.  Westbrook, Mayo and Rose come in at 11, 12 and 13 in PER.

However,when we get hung up on comparing Gordon exclusively to the other sophomores, we may lose track of just how good he really is.  He's not just putting up great numbers for a second year player.  He's putting up great numbers, period.  Here are the guards in the league averaging more than 15 points per game, sorted by total shooting percentage.  Gordon is third, behind Steve Nash and Chris Paul.  Ahead of Chauncey Billups, Kobe Bryant, Joe Johnson, Tony Parker, Deron Williams, Dwyane Wade... well, the list of guys he's ahead of goes on and on.  So he's not just good for a second year player.  His scoring efficiency ranks him near the top of a list of All Star guards.

So while the Clippers' body of work on the young season is fairly unimpressive, I can find some real reason for optimism in the results with Eric Gordon on the court and with EJ's overall play.  Now factor in the absence of Blake Griffin, and the prospects for this season get significantly better, assuming Griffin returns relatively soon.  Now factor in that both Gordon and Griffin are only 20 years of age, and the prospects for the future look incredibly good.