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The Post-Vacation Newsflash - The Clippers Have Issues

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Hello again.

I had a very nice time in Mexico.  It was all quite relaxing.  Hanging out with the family, some beach time, some pool time, snorkeling, reading.  And no Clippers.

Before I jump back in, I wanted to thank everyone who pitched in during my trip.  Thanks to citizens moKi, bystander, D.J. Foster and ClipperChuck for their excellent recaps.  And thanks to Citizen Zhiv and mikey p for a couple of terrific posts.  And really, thanks to everyone.  I'm actually pretty amazed at what has become of this little blog.  The single biggest strength is the community itself, which means that I can go away for a week or so, and ClipsNation keeps chugging along.

Sometimes it's a little overwhelming staring at the blank page after an absence.  There's so much to write about: where to start?  That's certainly the case here, but the difference is that it would seem that we have plenty of time.  With the draft lottery still 4 weeks away, we'll be left to talk about draft prospects and the playoff performances of other teams and little else.  That is, unless Sterling and Roeser decide to do the obvious thing and fire MDsr.  But if that hasn't happened yet, five days after a 41 point season-ending loss to the Thunder (on Fan Appreciation Night, no less), it would seem unlikely.

I thought I'd piggyback on MP's thought provoking post here.  For the most part, I thought his analysis was spot on.  19 wins is an embarrassment, with or without injuries.  Something has to be done.  But the fact is, there are no easy answers.

I thought MP's categories were more less correct, but at a more macro level, the vast majority of the Clippers fall into one of two categories - minimum guys (making either the actual minimum salary, or the mandated salary for a first round pick in the cases of Thornton, Gordon and Collins) and overpaid guys.  Of the 14 players on the closing day roster, everyone but Marcus Camby falls into one of those two categories.

This makes the prospects for improving the team via trade exceedingly difficult.  You can't trade overpaid players and get value in return.  And you don't want to trade minimum guys, who for the most part are young and quite productive compared to their salary.  On the other hand, players like DeAndre Jordan and Mike Taylor (not to mention future picks) might be the pot-sweeteners necessary to move a big contract and get a big name in return.  But that sort of 'win-now' approach has certainly not served the franchise well recently.

This all leaves the team in a very strange situation.  They finished with 19 wins, tied for second worst in the NBA, with a core featuring five players over 25 (i.e. it's not exactly a young team); and the most likely scenario right now is that the team will remain largely unchanged for next season.  MDsr said as much in several outlets last week.

At some level, I get it.  Or maybe I'm just acknowledging how hopeless the prospects are for making substantive changes.  Let's face it - to move Chris Kaman or Baron Davis or Zach Randolph, even in a straight salary dump, would be difficult to say the least, and would likely require the inclusion of a prospect/pick or two.  It might in fact be the right decision, but it would be painful.

Looking at the situation another way, you can see the makings of a decent team here.  Kaman, Baron and Zach are all overpaid, there's no question about that.  But none of them is completely useless.  Nor do they seem to be at the irretrievable stage like a Steve Francis or a Stephon Marbury (not yet, anyway).  So if the choice is between trading Baron for pennies on the dollar, or hanging onto him for one more season and hoping that he can bounce back, it's understandable to choose the latter (particularly if you're the GM that signed the guy in the first place).  The big question: was Baron's 08-09 season an anomaly brought on by a combination of factors, or simply the beginning of the end of his career?  Similar questions exist for the other immovable objects.  Will Kaman return to full health and re-emerge as the Kaman 2.0 of late 2007?  Can Zach's on court productivity compensate for his off-court distractions?

I've said it before and it seems truer now than ever: the Clippers are the anti-synergy team.  The whole is less (significantly less) than the sum of the parts.  And that's the problem with examining only the parts.  The parts look fine - a little flawed, but not without value.  But as mikey p correctly pointed out, the chemistry and injury and conditioning excuses are all just that: excuses.  We saw plenty of this team, and they stunk.

So where does that leave us?  With a choice between staying more or less with a roster that looks solid on paper, but that was consistently terrible in reality, or going into full rebuild mode around Eric Gordon and the first round pick - a process that would be long and difficult and has no guarantee of success.  Given that Sterling and Roeser are apparently not going to fire MDsr, and that MDsr has more incentive than anyone else in the world to stick with the status quo (after all, he's the GM that put this mess together, and he's the coach that has to win now in order to save his job), it's pretty obvious what is going to happen.

Baron and Zach are here for the coming season at least.  Baron has four years and $54M left on his contract, just finished easily the worst year of his career, and turned 30 in the process.  He is at the nadir of his trade value today.  As for Zach, the good news is that he has only two more seasons left on his contract, so he'll be semi-tradeable as an expiring deal in one more year.

Kaman and Camby are a different story.  The fact that Kaman has played in only 48 of the Clippers last 125 games is obviously a huge red flag for potential trade partners.  But, he remains a big man with skills, and as such he has value.  And while we may view him as wildly overpaid, he would be underpaid for his actual per game productivity of the past two seasons, as compared to peers like Sam Dalembert and Eddy Curry.  Big men make big bucks - and there may well be a decent deal out there for Kaman.  It largely hinges on how other team's view his injury history.  Camby is the best trade asset.  He remains productive even at his age, and is still among the league leaders in rebounding and blocked shots.  His contract is not too onerous, particularly given that it has only one season left.  He would be of use to any number of teams - whether they are looking for help in the middle to make a playoff run, or looking to shed salary for the 2010 free agent bonanza (or even both).  His name came up multiple times in association with the Knicks, and one wonders if a sign and trade for David Lee might not be of interest to New York - allowing them to preserve 2010 cap space without losing Lee without any compensation (unfortunately base-year compensation rules would make Camby for Lee a complicated transaction if not impossible).

At any rate, it would seem that either Kaman or Camby will be moved this summer.  For all the talk of having enough minutes for three highly-paid bigs (when in fact, minute distribution never proved to be a problem with all three players out of action so frequently), the situation was never ideal.  For one thing, there are times when it's difficult to play even two bigs who are reluctant to venture out of the lane on defense.  More importantly, DeAndre Jordan needs a role on the team going forward, assuming he continues to develop.  It only makes sense to move either Kaman or Camby.

Beyond that, the team is simply going to look very much the same.  There are nine guaranteed contracts, which is already a big number.  A tenth, that of Ricky Davis, has a player option which he is certain to exercise, given that he has zero value on the open market at this point.  (By the way, he still has value to the Clippers as an expiring contract to be included in trades for the purposes of salary matching.  They should not cut him - his contract is worth more to the team than his roster spot.)  Two more - Steve Novak (restricted) and Fred Jones (unrestricted) - played well in specific roles for the team, and would no doubt be back next season at the right price.  Taking out the roster spot that goes to the first round draft pick, that leaves a trade of Kaman/Camby and a single roster spot earmarked for (at most) a mid-level exception free agent signing as the likely moves this summer.  Hardly a major overhaul for a 19 win team.

So what are the odds that the Clippers can compete next season given their limited flexibility?  Slim and none.  The one thing I will say (and it's a backhanded compliment at best) is that this season's team showed all the signs of simply quitting.  So I suppose the best case scenario is if they can be motivated to not quit next season, they can be much improved.  November and December were inexcusable by any measure, but when the team played almost the entire month of January with $40M worth of salary on the inactive list it's not very surprising (though nonetheless severely disappointing) that they more or less shut down the rest of the way.  It can't be easy to get motivated when you begin February 28 games under .500.

So there you have it.  The good news is that this team is made up of a bunch of quitters.  You know you have issues when that's the good news.