The Back Story (Clippers lead season series, 1-0)
The Big Picture:
The Clippers have played the second most difficult schedule in the league so far this season. They just returned from a two-games-in-two-nights trip to play the Timberwolves and the Thunder. Seven of their last eight games have been against teams with winning records. So a visit from the 4-7 Kings is theoretically a nice break in the schedule for them. Unfortunately, in their four games against team with losing records this season the Clippers are just 2-2, and they didn't exactly look impressive in the two wins. Basically, this team has appeared to have trouble with their focus and motivation at times this season, and they get into trouble when they expect to win games. The Clippers have built some big leads this season, especially at home -- but they have yet to have a great performances on both ends of the floor for 48 minutes. It would be nice to start now.
The Kings beat the Clippers twice in pre-season, which was not so very long ago. They are also on a two game winning streak, doubling their season total, even if both of those wins did come against a Phoenix team playing without Eric Bledsoe. The Kings have DeMarcus Cousins in the middle and some pretty good depth on the roster -- but they don't appear to have enough quality around Cousins to really compete at this point. Still, Isaiah Thomas can light it up, as the Clippers found out at the beginning of the month, rookie Ben McLemore is going to have a breakout game at some point. Strange things happen during afternoon games in STAPLES, and the Clippers had better be ready to play from the opening tip.
- Comparison of key metrics. The Kings were 29th in the NBA in defensive efficiency last season. Yet somehow the Clippers have a worse defensive efficiency than the Kings so far this season. That's not good.
- Matinees back to back. The Clippers always play a lot of day games in STAPLES Center. They choose last for game times among the three STAPLES tenants, so when the building is double scheduled, it's usually the Clippers playing the matinee. This weekend they have the rare back-to-back matinee, Saturday against the Kings, Sunday against the Bulls. These day games can be more than a little funky -- the games often lack the energy of the normal evening games, as if the players are just sleepy. After a lackluster showing in Oklahoma City Thursday night, the Clippers can ill afford to start sluggishly in either game this weekend.
- Three point shooting. The Clippers made a concerted effort to add shooters to the roster during the off-season. Unfortunately, other than Jamal Crawford who is shooting a career best 44% from deep, the entire team is struggling to make threes. J.J. Redick is making 36%, which is OK, but below his career rate of 39% and certainly not what we were expecting. No one else on the roster to have taken more than four attempts is making as many as one in three of their long range shots. As a team the Clippers are at .347, thanks primarily to the volume of Crawford of Redick, who have taken almost half of the team's threes this season. But that's below league average, and worse than they shot last season, and frankly not what we were expecting.
- Streaks. Chris Paul has opened the season with an NBA record 13 straight points/assists double/doubles and he'll look to extend that streak today. Blake Griffin has an impressive streak of his own, as he's gone for 20 points and 10 rebounds in six consecutive games.
- Bad blood. Does the entire league hate Blake Griffin, or have the Clippers just played an inordinate number of personal rivals to begin the season? It seems like a scheduling quirk, with two games against Serge Ibaka, two against Kevin Love, the Lakers, the Grizzlies, and now his second game against Zach Randolph in less than four weeks. But yeah, Cousins doesn't like Griffin.
- McLemore. When the Clippers played the Kings three weeks ago in the third game of the season, I asked Aykis of Sactown Royalty when he thought lottery pick Ben McLemore would crack the starting lineup in Sacramento. Well, it turns out that the correct answer is Game 7 of his rookie season. He hasn't exactly been a world beater in the NBA so far -- he's shooting 38% from the field -- but at the same time, they like him and they expect him to be a big part of their future, so why not get him in the lineup sooner rather than later? I like it.
- New starters. McLemore isn't the only chance the Kings have made since the start of the season. Since these teams met at the start of November, only DeMarcus Cousins and Greivis Vasquez remain in the starting lineup. Patrick Patterson has been replaced by Jason Thompson -- in his sixth season with the Kings and still looking for a role -- at the power forward and John Salmons has been replaced by Mbah-a-Moute -- who wasn't even in the rotation to begin the season -- at small forward.
- The Matchup. Look no further than the center circle when the ref tosses the ball today for the marquee matchup. DeMarcus vs. DeAndre is the game within the game. Jordan, who has been slurping the help defense Kool-Aid since Doc Rivers' arrival, will have to do that job while also handling the Kings' top scoring threat. Cousins had 24 and 10 in the first meeting and his season averages are 21.5 and 9.9. DMC's true shooting percentage is .515 -- which is not great for a big man.
- Vasquez. Kings summer acquisition Greivis Vasquez is the only King other than Cousins to start every game this season. He's a solid distributor and takes good care of the ball. Isaiah Thomas is their scoring point, but Vasquez is the floor general.
- Isaiah Thomas. Thomas scored 29 points on 13 shots in the first meeting between these teams, and got the Kings back into the game almost single-handedly. It was his best game of the season, but he's scored in double figures in every game, and is Sacramento's second leading scorer by a wide margin. Cousins and Thomas are the only Kings averaging as many as 11 points per game.
- The departed Tyreke Evans. The fact that the deal wound up being a sign-and-trade makes this less stark, but I have Tyreke Evans as the only NBA Rookie of the Year in the CBA era to become a free agent and leave at the end of his rookie deal. Rookie scale contracts are crucial in the modern NBA for providing cheap productivity; Rookie's of the Year are therefore amazing assets usually. Plenty of ROY's have left via trade -- Damon Stoudamire, Mike Miller, Elton Brand, Chris Webber -- but those were all blockbuster trades while the player was under contract. Never before in my recollection has a rookie fallen so far as to be allowed to become a free agent and not retained.
- New coach in Sacto. Mike Malone has been a highly regarded assistant in the league for many years, and in fact was an assistant in New Orleans when Paul played there. There are some who credit Malone more than Mark Jackson for Golden State's improvements last season. He takes over for Keith Smart, who took over for Paul Westphal -- who each had their run-ins with Cousins. By all accounts, Malone is a great X's and O's coach, but how he does in his first head coaching gig may come down to how he handles his volatile star player -- a player who now has the security of a $62M contract.
- Connections. Travis Outlaw (who has been surprisingly productive off the Kings bench) was briefly a Clipper in 2010 and he was signed by the Kings after being amnestied by the Nets last season. Matt Barnes played high school basketball and football at Del Campo High in Sacramento. Darren Collison and Luc Richard Mbah-a-Moute were teammates at UCLA for three years -- the first of which was spent with Ryan Hollins as well. Willie Green and Kings rookie Ray McCallum are the two active NBA players from Detroit Mercy (Go Titans!).
- Get the Kings perspective at Sactown Royalty.
- Shakespearean reference:
Sonnet XXIX (29)
When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess'd,
Desiring this man's art and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
. For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings
. That then I scorn to change my state with kings.