Last night during the broadcast of the Clippers-Bobcats game, Ralph Smith uttered, for the first time I believe, a specific target game for Chris Kaman to return to action from his foot injury. Ralph set his return for March 10, against the Cavs. Now obviously that could turn out to be incorrect. We've seen this injury defy logic, not to mention our understanding of the very nature of time itself, on several occasions. But Ralph is a company guy, and pretty circumspect with disseminating information. If he said it on the air, it's because he's heard MDsr say it first. He didn't just take the 'two more weeks' statement from Feb. 24, add 14 days and come up with March 10 (which works, by the way). No, this is a target game, the first one we've had.
As it happens, that Cleveland game is only nine days away, with a mere three games intervening. Which means that Kaman's return to the lineup is imminent. Which all begs the question... Chris who?
You see, it's been a LONG time since we've seen the guy. The last time Chris Kaman played for the Clippers, George W. Bush was president. He's missed the Clippers last 45 games, and if indeed he returns against the Cavs, that number will be 48. Plus he missed 26 of the final 43 games last season as well. Which will, again assuming he actually returns on the 10th, have him playing in a measly 32 of 106 Clippers games - that's 30%. He did manage to be a pretty consistent presence for Team Deutschland over the summer though, so it's not like he hasn't been playing at all. Taken in the context of all the time he's missed, the 19 games he might actually play in March and April become pretty significant in his career. In fact, he hasn't played more than 15 consecutive games since calendar year 2007.
We've almost completely forgotten about the guy around here. When we talk about the team being at full strength, we mean Camby and Zach and Baron back out there (and now Gordon is the one we need). We lament the Clippers weak interior defense against a guy like Emeka Okafor, realizing only as an afterthought, oh yeah, Kaman's actually our best post defender. So with his return getting closer to reality, let's reacquaint ourselves with some of the key questions (bearing in mind that with Kaman, there really are no answers).
Question 1 - Is Chris Kaman injury-prone?
You may be asking the wrong guy. You see I'm not convinced that there is such a thing as "Injury-prone." There's clearly a difference between body types, so I'm willing to accept that a Shaun Livingston because of his lean frame. But then again, Tayshaun Prince is arguably the most slender player at his position in the league, and he has never missed a game due to injury in over 500 career games. So short of being LeBron James or Kobe Bryant, guys that defy categorization, I'm not even convinced there's an ideal body type for durability. If you're too frail, you're susceptible to more punishment at the hands of your opponents. If you're too bulky, you're carrying around extra weight that may over time cause joints to wear out. (By the way, LeBron may be the Bruce Willis character from Unbreakable - an actual superhero, impervious to injury. But I don't think any of the Mr. Glass types get drafted in the NBA to begin with.)
Speaking of Kobe, there's also an element of determination and tolerance for pain that plays into injuries. Kobe won't sit out where others might. But it's apples and oranges when you're talking about a team whose season is already over. There's little or no reason to play with pain or to risk further injury.
Guys that are labeled injury-prone prove otherwise all the time and for years at a time. Zydrunas Ilgauskas was the post-Bill Walton poster child for'big white dudes whose careers were ended by foot injury.' Z missed NBA games before he was 26. And then he averaged 78 games per season for the next six seasons. Antonio McDyess, Marcus Camby, Grant Hill - all of these players were the very definition of injury-prone - every basketball fan in the nation knows that there is no way they can avoid a serious injury for an entire season. Except that McDyess has for five consecutive seasons, Camby has for three, and even Hill has played in over 90% of the Suns games the last two seasons. And that's for a bunch of guys in their mid-30s. Kaman is 26.
So no, I don't think Chris Kaman is injury-prone. Nor do I think that he is un-injury-prone (injury-unprone?, injury-supine?). Because I don't believe in injury-prone. Either a guy's injury is healed, and his body is once again sound, or it's not. Do particular injuries leave a player more susceptible to re-injury? I'm no exercise physiologist, but sure, probably so. But it's worth noting that Kaman has missed these 70+ games not with some chronic recurring injury, but with a combination of problems - a shin bruise, a bad back, and now a partially torn tendon in his arch.
Question Number 2 - So how many games can we expect Kaman to play next season?
See Question Number 1.
Question Number 3 - Who will start for the Clippers when Kaman returns?
This one I know for certain. In the first game of Kaman's return, Camby and Randolph will start, and Kaman will come off the bench - because MDsr always works guys back into the lineup that way. After that, it's less clear.
Obviously, all three of these guys think of themselves as starters. So there are ego issues involved. The 'working him back in slowly' approach may present an opportunity. If the team happens to play well in the first few games with Kaman coming off the bench, there will be an argument for leaving it that way. If the team continues to struggle, then maybe you try something different. In Detroit, the answer to a similar problem has become pretty apparent - with Rip Hamilton coming off the bench, they lost 8 straight. With him back in the starting lineup, they won two straight against top teams. So sometimes results dictate an obvious answer (and in the case, the Answer is not the answer).
In a vacuum, without the benefit of actual game results, there are several factors. Let's just establish right off the bat that they can't all start. I'm not certain they can play any minutes together, but they certainly won't be on the floor together much. Randolph would seem too important to the offense at this point to limit his role. I think he remains in the starting lineup. MDsr has been enamored of the idea of bringing a scorer off the bench in the past (see Maggette, Corey). So in the classic Ross/Maggette tradition, it is easy to imagine Camby, the defender, starting over Kaman, the post scorer. Of course, Camby will turn 35 in three weeks, so it's also reasonable to want to reduce his role going forward.
Question Number 4 - Does it make sense to have Randolph, Camby and Kaman on the same team?
Well no, not really. There's nothing inherently wrong with having three starter quality players for two positions - we've done the math, we know that tthere are 96 minutes to share, we know that injuries and foul trouble are going to be such that many nights there will be no log jam at all.
And they can be effective together two at a time, I'm convinced of that. Thinking back to the beginning of this season, there was ample consternation over the perceived problem of having Kaman and Camby play together. But as it happens, for the measly dozen games that they were together, they were the best thing about the Clippers. The problems in the first month of the season were frankly everywhere else. Likewise Camby and Randolph have meshed well. The simple fact is, Camby is a complementary player, and can fit in well in almost any situation because of his skill set - he doesn't need the ball, so he can co-exist with anyone. The wild card is of course Kaman and Randolph. But I think that will work as well. Randolph has more range than Brand, so he will be able to space the floor better than the 2006 playoff Clipper bigs. He's also a good, if not overly enthusiastic passer. The Brand-Kaman model is apropos on defense as well. Back then, Brand often defended the bigger opposing big, while Kaman defended the quicker opposing big. It wasn't always ideal - Kaman on Nowitzki for instance wasn't pretty. But he has the quickness to defend most fours. Whether Kaman and Randolph develop any rapport remains to be seen, but two skilled big men is not going to be a bad thing.
The more basic building-an-NBA-Team-101 question is, do you want $34M in salary tied up in three bigs? That's the real problem, but we are where we are. Each individual move probably made sense by itself - extending Kaman is a bargain if he plays like he did in 07-08. Acquiring Camby for essentially nothing was certainly a good move. And trading for Randolph, given the fact that neither Tim Thomas nor Cat Mobley were difference makers for the team, is a good move also. But do all the moves work in concert with one another? And what is the opportunity cost of NOT being able to trade Thomas and Mobley now, of NOT having the money that was given to Camby? These are tougher questions.
Question Number 5 - Will Kaman be traded this offseason?
There are several good reasons to want to get Chris Kaman back on the floor this season. One of them is to figure out if and how this team actually fits together, and if it has a chance of being competitive in the Western Conference as currently constituted. Unfortunately, the answer to that second question is probably no. Which brings up the other reason to want Kaman back - to showcase him for a trade.
Players with Kaman's combination of size and skills are few and far between. There's little question that he has value on the trade market. However, that value was at an all time low leading up to last week's trade deadline, given the fact that he'd missed 70+ games in the recent past. If he can play well for the final month of the season, he'll boost his value, at least a little. MDsr likes Kaman a lot, and always has. He may have an unrealistic opinion of how good he is, and of what he should bring in trade. But he'll happily move him for the right offer.
And just as was the case before the deadline, Camby will be in even more demand. His extremely cap friendly contract and his consistent production make him a coveted addition to any playoff team in need of front court help. So assuming the experiment is actually conducted, and assuming the results are less than impressive, either Kaman or Camby will be moved this summer.
Those are the big questions. There are many, many more of course. But it's looking like we'll actually be getting some answers - finally - beginning next Tuesday.