We're running a series of "exit interviews" of the 2011 Los Angeles Clippers. An overview and analysis, player by player, of all 14 Clippers who ended the 2010-2011 season on the roster. In this edition: veteran center Chris Kaman.
Name: Chris Kaman
2010-2011 Key Stats: 12.4 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 1.5 bpg, .471 FG%, 32 games played
Years in the NBA:8
Years with the Clippers:8
2010-2011 Salary: $11,800,000
Contract Status: Signed through next season for $12.7M
In a Nutshell
Now that Baron Davis has been shipped off to Cleveland, Chris Kaman has become the new Rohrschach test for Clips Nation. Fans see what they want to see, and they tend to love him or hate him. Is he the most skilled center in the NBA? Or an unfocused, overpaid, injury-prone source of frustration? How about both?
Kaman is coming off a season he'd probably like to forget. Going all the way back to pre-season, he appeared to be ready to pick up where he left off from his All Star campaign in 2009-2010. He came into training camp in great shape, and the 18 footer that had become his primary offensive weapon last year looked to be completely automatic. He couldn't miss. Then the season started, and suddenly he couldn't make. In the first seven games he made just 30 of his 91 field goal attempts; then he sprained his ankle. He sat out the next eleven games before trying to come back from the injury. In his second game back, he experienced pain landing after a rebound, and it was discovered that the injury was more than a sprained ankle - it was a bone bruise. The injury wound up keeping him sidelined until the game before the All Star break. Consequently, in the first 55 games of the season, Kaman played in only 11, and made about a third of his shots in those games. By that time, most of Clips Nation had decided that DeAndre Jordan was a better fit for the young core of the team, and Kaman was something of a forgotten man.
But the Clippers are not simply going to hand the starting center job to Jordan, nor should they. Kaman remains an incredibly valuable commodity in this league - a skilled big man. And injury aside, he actually had a decent season when he started playing again. He was terrible in those first seven games way back in October and November, but he shot better than 51% since then. If the Clippers want to make room for Jordan, Kaman is highly tradeable, both because he is a significant talent, and because he is in the final year of his contract. The Clippers are certainly not going to dump him at a fire sale price - they'll want real value in return. However, for a couple months now Neil Olshey has been hinting that he intends to keep both Kaman and Jordan next year, creating a three big rotation of Kaman, Jordan and Blake Griffin. Kaman fits nicely with Griffin, in that he can step away from the basket and hit the 18 footer, leaving the low post open for Griffin to operate. Whether he can stay relatively healthy next season remains to be seen; but there's little question that a healthy Kaman can play a significant role on the Clippers' front line.
After eight seasons with the team, Chris Kaman is the longest-tenured Clipper - by five years over Eric Gordon and DeAndre Jordan. He's been the Clippers center for every season of this blog's existence, so we've watched him develop pretty closely around these parts; maybe a little too closely. As we've noted, he was chosen a Western Conference All Star in 09-10, but I would argue that his best season was two years before that, in 07-08. Confoundingly, he wasn't really the same player in those two seasons. In 07-08, he was a rebounding and shot blocking demon - he ranked third in the NBA in rebounds per game and second in blocked shots per game, behind names like Dwight Howard and Marcus Camby. In 09-10, he was a scorer - his new-found confidence in his mid-range jumper made him the Clippers scoring leader at a career-high 18.5 points per game, which was second best among all NBA centers. So we're talking about a guy who in recent years has been at an elite level in rebounding and blocked shots, and at an elite level for scoring bigs - just not at the same time.
It may be a question of where he places his focus (which has at times been itself elusive), but based on the results of this season, it seems like he's more scorer than rebounder at this point in his career. It's understandable to some extent that these statistics would move in inverse proportion - it's a question of where he's expending his energy, in getting shots or in chasing rebounds, on the offensive end or on the defensive end. However, given the makeup of the team at this point, the Clippers would probably be better served by 07-08 Kaman going forward - Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon are going to be options 1 and 1a on offense, and Kaman is necessarily going to get fewer shots next year than he did in 09-10, when he took almost 16 per game.
Regardless of which version we see, we can clearly state that his offensive skill set is a significant strength. Perhaps no other true center in the league has his combination of skills, and aside from Dirk Nowitzki few seven footers. From 18 feet and in, he is a terrific shooter. If opposing bigs don't come out to challenge, he can make them pay consistently. He also has the ability to free some space for his shot with a jab step. Unfortunately, he may have come to rely on his jump shot a bit too much, but he's got many other weapons in his arsenal as well. When he's faced up, he can put the ball on the floor and go to the basket. With his back to the basket, he can fade away, or shoot a jump hook with either hand. He's one of the most ambidextrous players in the entire league - ostensibly right handed, he shoots free throws and jumpers with his right, but he much prefers to finish with his left around the basket.
Kaman has earned the nickname Mr. Flippy here at Clips Nation for his penchant for finesse shots around the basket when he should be finishing with a power move. Playing in the same front court as Griffin and Jordan, this tendency is all the more conspicuous - one never finds one's self screaming "Just dunk the damn ball!" at those other guys. It wouldn't be a big deal if he didn't seem to blow so many bunnies. Partly owing to these missed easy ones, and partly owing to his recent reliance on the jump shot, his shooting percentage is not what one might want from a center - a little under 49% for his career, he finished at 47% this year (though he was well over 50% after his dreadful start), and shot just 49% during his All Star season. It would be great if he took fewer shots and made a higher percentage on a deeper squad next year.
He's also turnover prone. Sometimes I wonder if the sheer number of options he has doesn't overwhelm him - should I go left and spin back right, go right and spin back left, fade away, pass? Rather than making a decisive move, he'll try to do way too much and end up turning the ball over. When he became a major offensive force last season, defenses quickly learned that they could double him with great success. He has the ability to punish single coverage, but his decision making in the face of the double team leaves much to be desired. His turnovers per 36 were actually down some this season, but this continues to be an area where he needs to get better.
And then there are the injuries. I'm not sure I believe in the idea of "injury-prone" with one exception - seven footers and their feet. From Bill Walton to Zydrunas Ilgauskus to Yao Ming, we've seen recurring foot injuries threaten/shorten/end the careers of big men. Kaman has missed 133 games in the last four seasons, including 50 games last season and 51 in 08-09. Perhaps more disconcerting, the injuries that have forced him out of the lineup have never seemed particularly severe - his status seems to go from 'day-to-day' to 'out until the All Star break' without any rhyme or reason. He did play in 76 of 82 games in 09-10, so he has had a relatively injury-free season recently. There's no specific reason to believe that the injuries he has experienced will recur or cause him to be more susceptible to similar injuries in the future, but as he's missed almost half of the team's games in the last four seasons, it seems too optimistic to expect him to enjoy uninterrupted health going forward.
Future with the Clippers
More than any other player on the current roster, it's difficult to know how Kaman will fit with the Clippers next season. Will he be the starting center? Will Jordan start leaving Kaman to come off the bench? If so, how will a player who has started 86% of his nearly 500 NBA games react to being demoted to reserve status? Or will Kaman be traded, perhaps as the centerpiece of a deal for the impact small forward that the team so covets? Just yesterday his name was mentioned in a rumor involving Andre Iguodala of Philadelphia (a trade the Clippers would simply have to explore if indeed it is a possibility).
Olshey has consistently implied that the Clippers intention is to keep both Kaman and Jordan. He said as much in a meeting with season ticket holders back in March, and then reiterated the plan last week to reporters covering Blake Griffin's Rookie of the Year press conference, as reported by Eric Pincus. Then again, Olshey also plans to acquire that elusive small forward, and if they have to include Kaman in a trade for the right player at the three, I doubt they will hesitate to do so.
If Kaman and Jordan both return to the Clippers next year, there would seem to be plenty of minutes for the two of them and Griffin. After all, both Jordan and Kaman were well below 30 minutes per game this season even with Kaman's injuries, and there are 96 minutes to split in the front court. As Olshey correctly points out, having Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom has hardly been a burden for the Lakers. But the question of who starts and who comes off the bench remains an issue, and egos get involved in these situations.
One school of thought says that Kaman should come off the bench - as the better scorer, he could provide the instant offense off the bench that many teams like to have, and could be the focal point of the second unit when Griffin and Gordon are out of the game. There's some logic to this idea.
The other school of thought says that Kaman should be the starter because he is the better player. I personally come to this conclusion. If DeAndre Jordan is supposed to be in there for defense, rebounding and shot blocking, the gap is not in fact very significant in any of those areas. Jordan may block shots further and more impressively, but he doesn't actually block significantly more shots than Kaman (2.5 per 36 minutes versus 2.1 this season). Likewise in rebounding, Jordan's per minute numbers this season were only very slightly better than Kaman's. Kaman is also arguably a better post defender than Jordan. So the biggest difference between the two remains their offensive game, where Kaman is significantly more skilled. He's also a better fit for Griffin - having Kaman on the floor with Griffin to begin the game will open the lane for Blake, while also keeping defenses honest if they try to double team.
Beyond this season it gets decidedly more difficult to predict where Chris Kaman fits in with the Clippers. He's currently the highest paid player, but no higher than third in terms of importance to the team. As it happens, his current contract will expire just when Eric Gordon will become a restricted free agent and eligible for a big time raise. Would the Clippers re-sign DeAndre Jordan one summer, then re-sign Gordon and Kaman the following summer, all to significant money? The history of the franchise would suggest that it's unlikely.
But for the coming season, regardless of who starts, the Clippers seem to realize that re-signing the restricted free agent Jordan is a priority, and that it doesn't preclude keeping Kaman. A front court rotation of Kaman, Jordan and Griffin would give the Clippers one of the most potent inside games in the NBA - that is if they can remain relatively healthy.