We're still two months from the start of training camp and almost three months from opening night September 27th against the Blazers, but with 14 players under contract, there's a strong possibility that the Clippers will go into the season with these 14 players. Neither Willie Warren nor Marqus Blakely have a fully guaranteed contract, but the Clippers bothered to sign them, and one has to presume that at least their agents believe they are going to be able to stick.
The Clippers won 29 games last season with a starting lineup of Baron Davis, Eric Gordon, Rasual Butler, Marcus Camby and Chris Kaman. Now, it goes without saying that they played the final two months of the season without Camby, but it also goes without saying that the season was already lost by that time. Let's also come to grips with the fact that while injuries are a constant excuse for the Clippers, those five were not in fact particularly injury prone last season. Gordon missed 20 games, and no one else among the starters missed as many as ten. Some teams have fewer injuries than that - most teams have more.
So as we've stated, that group won 29 games. And there's a distinct possibility that the Clippers first unit will be more or less the same, with Blake Griffin replacing Marcus Camby.
The key reserves will also be very similar. If we figure that the Clippers will have a nine man rotation, Craig Smith and DeAndre Jordan as the two bigs off the bench are the same as last season. Ryan Gomes and Randy Foye step into the roles previously filled by Al Thornton and Sebastian Telfair and later by Travis Outlaw and Steve Blake. It's a matter of opinion as to whether Gomes and Foye is an upgrade or a downgrade over the previous pairings. But I hope we can all agree that we're likely not talking about significant positive difference makers here. There's a crazy-optimistic best-case scenario in which Gomes and Foye each come into their own and respond well in a new environment, but in all likelihood, these are placeholders - players that are capable NBA rotation guys, who can provide solid reserve minutes and the occasional start (or perhaps more than occasional in the case of Gomes), but if you're counting on them to provide significant improvement over Thornton and Telfair, you're probably going to be disappointed (and in all probabillity, they're a step down from Outlaw and Blake).
Barring a last minute surprise deal, that's your top nine for next season:
- Baron Davis, Eric Gordon and Randy Foye in the backcourt (with Rasual Butler picking up some minutes at the two)
- Rasual Butler and Ryan Gomes at small forward
- Chris Kaman, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Craig Smith in the frontcourt.
So can we expect a lot more than 29 wins based on that? Obviously, we all hope that Blake Griffin is a major upgrade over Marcus Camby, and it's not unrealistic to expect that eventually Griffin, as the former first overall pick in the draft, is indeed going to be a star in the league. But don't forget that Camby was still very productive last season in terms of rebounding and blocked shots. Griffin's offensive game (when last we saw it) was still pretty unrefined - so the one place where we might eventually expect him to surpass Camby is the one place where he still has work to do. In short, we all love Griffin, but it's hard to imagine that he's a massive upgrade over Camby in this his rookie season.
As for the rest of the top nine, we've already discussed Gomes/Foye versus Thornton/Telfair. In short, no upgrade there. The other six in the main rotation were all with the team last season. Can any of them be expected to make major improvements over last season?
Chris Kaman is coming off an All Star season, the first such selection of his seven year career. By many (though certain not all) measures, it was a career year for Kaman, so it's not realistic to expect additional productivity there. For me personally, I'd love to see different productivity - less scoring, more rebounding and blocked shots, like the original Kaman 2.0 from 07-08. Regardless, it's hard to ask for a lot more from him.
Baron Davis is coming off a reasonably productive year - certainly, last season was significantly better than his first season in LA. Was he more productive during his stay in Oakland? Absolutely, and we might hope to see a reemergence of that Boom Dizzle, but it seems unlikely to happen for the now 31 year old point guard.
Rasual Butler, also 31, is who he is. It would be great if he made a higher percentage of his three point shots this season, and specifically if he can avoid the long slumps that plagued him last year. But for the most part, his productivity in LA last season was right around the numbers for his seven year career, so we can expect more of the same in most positive scenario, with an alternative negative scenario that he starts a major decline.
Craig Smith and DeAndre Jordan are going to be in rather limited reserve roles in the best case. Smith does a good job of compensating for his limitations, but that doesn't change the fact that he's limited. As for Jordan, we've been waiting for awhile for him to break out - it could happen, but it probably won't.
That leaves Eric Gordon. Griffin and Gordon, the two 21-year-olds, are the exciting nucleus for the future, and hopefully they're already good enough to be major contributors today as well. Gordon backslid in his second season as compared to his rookie year. Hopefully he can bounce back and get onto an upward trajectory. That's a subject for another post, but clearly he's a guy from whom we might expect major strides.
And of course you're all saying, what about the rookies? The Clippers had a lottery pick, they grabbed another first rounder, don't forget about those guys. Well, I watched them in Las Vegas, and it's my semi-expert opinion that the rookies are not going to help much this season. That's not to say that they're bad players or bad picks or bad people. Al-Farouq Aminu and Eric Bledsoe are 19 years old and they're simply not ready to help this season. Wille Warren was a late second round pick for a reason. I love Marqus Blakely (in fact, I actually think he's closer to contributing this season than the others), but he's an undrafted 6'5" college power forward trying to transition to the wing. Anything the Clippers get out of the rookies this year is an unexpected surprise. It would be gravy, but I'm not counting on a lot of gravy.
On the other hand, it's pretty easy to argue that the final five roster spots this season are at least more interesting than they were last season. Brian Cook notwithstanding, having four rookies who you're not really expecting much from is at least building for the future. Brian Skinner, Steve Novak, Ricky Davis, Mardy Collins and Bobby Brown - these are players that aren't a lot of help now, and won't be a lot of help in the future either (in fact, as of now it looks like they'll all be out of the league this season). So there's an upgrade in the team's future and the team's potential - but nothing much measurable for this season.
So in the end, what improvement can one expect over last season's 29 wins? It is worth pointing out that the team was 17-18 before they discovered that Griffin was lost for the season, and had a precipitous drop off when they lost hope for the season at that point. So even if Griffin is not a major productivity upgrade over Camby, it's possible that he'll represent a reason to play the entire season. So if you project that almost .500 team, with Griffin being better than Camby and Gordon having a better year than last year, I think you come to a best case scenario of a slightly better than .500 team. But even that's a stretch.