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The Clipperblogger Summit - Part Six

Here's the sixth installment of the Clipperblogger Summit, the ongoing conversation between Kevin Arnovitz of Clipperblog and myself about the current state of the Clippers.  I'm leaving for some canyoneering in Utah today, so there won't be another entry from me until late in the week.  But rest assured, there will be more.  We haven't  explained everything yet. 

The conversation so far:  Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five

To:  Kevin Arnovitz
From: Steve Perrin
Date: June 14, 2009

Kevin -

I'm going to push back (a little) on the Randolph trade.  Your point is well taken that if you're not seriously contending, you're re-building (a variation on Ricky Bobby's "If you ain't first, you're last.")  But you have to take chances sometimes also.  Mobley/Thomas were certainly not a part of the Clippers' future, and Citizen Zhiv correctly points out that trading Mobley sparked the one glimmer of hope for the 08-09 edition of the LAC, Eric Gordon.  Given that Mobley+Thomas make the same amount as Randolph and are signed through this coming season, the additional liability wasn't 32 months and $45M (or so) but rather 1 year and $17M.  Not insignificant, I'll grant you, but you can't get something for nothing.  So I've always maintained that you can't call the Randolph trade a mistake - yet.  Might the Cavs trade Ben Wallace and his expiring deal for the scoring machine that is Zach Randolph?  They might - or there might be another trade out there that leaves the Clippers no worse off from a 2010 cap standpoint than they were with Mobley/Thomas.  Now, MDsr's attitude seems to be "Why would I be looking to 'salary dump' 20 points and 10 rebounds?" so it's probably not going to happen.  But I'm going to wait until next off-season before I pass judgement on the trade.  The team gave up nothing but cap space - and they haven't actually given that up yet.

I'm also not convinced that the Portland rebuilding method is replicable.  On their 08-09 roster, a team that played great and made the playoffs, all but three players were on rookie deals.  So you can credit them for drafting incredibly well in recent years - and that Paul Allen piggy bank they use to buy Suns picks has come in handy - but it's not a sustainable formula, "Let's get rid of all the vets and win with young guys."  Nine times out of ten, that roster isn't going to get you to the playoffs, and eventually those young guys have to be re-signed as well.

But more to the point, let's look at why the future looks so bright in Portland and (to a less extent) Oklahoma City.  It's because they have young players with star potential to build around.  They each have one can't miss mega-star, and are hoping that one or more of their other youngsters can make it to an all star level to complement the top guy - call it the Batman and Robin theory. 

Before Blake Griffin has ever played an NBA game - indeed before he's even been drafted - there's reason for optimism that he and Eric Gordon can be the Clippers' dynamic duo.  And there are still some other guys on rookie deals that can help.  We've discussed the need for an alternative to Al Thornton, but he remains nonetheless an incredible bargain for two more seasons as a mid first round draft pick.  DeAndre Jordan and Mike Taylor are not as productive as Thornton now, but are younger and both have intriguing potential.  I'm very much looking forward to watching Taylor, Gordon, Griffin and Jordan play together next month in Las Vegas.  That's an exciting foursome.

I think you and I are in agreement on this season - be opportunistic on trades, but by no means be desperate.  If the right deal is available, take it, but don't take on any bad contracts.  (Deng's contract is borderline in my book.)  Worst case scenario, if you enter the season with this group, that's not a bad thing.  Could this team 'win now'?  Actually, yeah, they could.  But it would involve Chris Kaman returning to his Kaman 2.0 form of the first half of 07-08, and Baron Davis returning to, well some form of point guard. 

Davis is the key.  But the good news is that there's no uncertainty.  The Clippers' fortunes are tied to Baron as much as his fortunes are tied to the Clippers.  The team has no choice but to stick with Baron for a while at least.  The last time he was traded it was for Speedy Claxton and a 36 year old Dale Davis and his stock is lower now than it was then.  Besides, even if the Clippers could move him for salary relief, they'd still need someone to play point guard.  This remains a point guard driven league, and it wasn't that long ago that Baron Davis was in the upper echelon.  Last season he was by many measures the worst point guard in the league.  Surely he wants some redemption as much as the Clippers want some leadership.  So what happened last season?  Was he out of shape?  Was he hand-cuffed by his coach?  Was he sulking?  And where was the explosiveness of the man who was one of the most physical points in the NBA?  Was he injured, or did he just get old?  Whatever the case, the guy who detonated in the muzzle of AK47 a mere two year ago had a measly three dunks all season as a Clipper, none of them memorable.

Baron has evidently been working out on a daily basis since May 10th, an indication that perhaps he is indeed looking for that redemption.  Given how good Gordon is, and how good Griffin could be, if Baron Davis can return to his Golden State form, the Clippers actually have a chance to be competitive.  If on the other hand Baron really has lost it, it bodes very badly for the team.  Talk about a millstone - Randolph's deal runs two more years; Baron's runs until 2013 (a year that seems like the setting for a science fiction movie). 

Immediately following the lottery, the entire Clippers organization began talking about playing up tempo.  Andy Roeser brought it up the night of the lottery.  Neil Olshey mentioned it more than once, without even being asked, at his press conference the next day.  Unfortunately, it had the feel of spin, like a political campaign getting on message; this was a talking point.  And of course it would make sense - season ticket holders might be more inclined to renew if they believed the team was going to run more. 

I hope it's not just spin, because I happen to be a big believer in pushing the pace.  It can be very difficult to score against an NBA defense once it's set.  A few easy baskets in transition can do wonders for a team's shooting percentage (one of the reasons the Clippers have been near the bottom of the league in shooting percentage is that they don't get nearly enough easy scores.)  Even if it's not a pure 'fill the lane' fast break, if Kaman (or whichever big) can hustle down the floor, and get good post position and the team can get him the ball early in the possession, that's a much better situation than running that cross screen to get probably worse position, this time with only 8 seconds left on the shot clock.  With premium athletes joining the team three drafts in a row, it only makes sense to get them out and let them run - especially when you consider the particular talents of Baron Davis.  Fast breaks start with rebounding, which the Clippers did incredibly poorly last season (29th in the league in rebounding differential at -4.2).  With Blake Griffin joining Chris Kaman, Marcus Camby and Zach Randolph, the Clippers should be monsters on the glass (and it would help if Al Thornton and Eric Gordon weren't such terrible rebounders for their positions and obviously there's no reason they shouldn't be better than they are).  If you're looking for a bellweather stat for the 09-10 Clippers, that's my candidate: rebounding differential.

In general, next season will be a success if Eric Gordon and Blake Griffin develop and if Baron Davis re-emerges even slightly, regardless of what else happens.  Neither Gordon nor Griffin have reached the legal drinking age in California - so you're talking about some kids who can get a lot better.  The 10-11 season becomes crucial though.  The other rookie contract players (Thornton, Taylor and Jordan) will all be in the last year of their rookie deals - after that, they either get much more expensive or they're gone.  So it's vital to know who those guys are by then.  If, say two out of those three pan out, and assuming that Gordon and Griffin are for real, the Clippers will be one of those up and coming teams once again.

In all of this, I feel like we're kind of taking Gordon for granted.  I tended to write one rave review per month about him last season, so I think everyone knows what I think about the guy - I think he's easily the second best rookie from last season after Derrick Rose.  But am I looking at him through 'Gordon' colored glasses: how good is the kid?