- Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN Staff Writer
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Taking inventory of this season's Los Angeles Clippers squad isn't an easy task.
All of the big names have exceeded expectations. The restoration of Baron Davis from a miserable 2008-09 campaign has been impressive, and Chris Kaman has bounced back in spectacular fashion from last season's foot injury. Second-year guard Eric Gordon continues to progress nicely, while third-year forward Al Thornton has refashioned his game to become a more efficient player. Then there's 35-year-old Marcus Camby, who is posting some of the best numbers of his career.
These individual improvements have produced a 14-18 record, putting the Clippers on pace for 36 victories, which would almost double their win total from 2008-09.
That's undeniable progress.
With rookie Blake Griffin scheduled to return before the All-Star break, the Clips might even flirt with the .500 mark, something few prognosticators predicted for the team going into the season.
Yet if you ask loyal Clippers fans how their team is faring, you're likely to get a response that begins with a long sigh. They'll tell you how the Clippers have blown leads of 20 points on three separate occasions and how frustrating it is to watch a team that appears to be above-average at almost every position struggle to find shots (the Clippers rank 22nd in offensive efficiency).
Although the Clippers still have aspirations to qualify for the postseason, the remainder of the season will focus more on answering some big questions about the future:
1. Can the Clippers succeed running their offense through Chris Kaman?
The emergence of Kaman as a bona fide offensive weapon has been among the most positive developments for the Clippers this season. He's the leading scorer among NBA centers, has slashed his turnover rate to a career low, and expanded the range on his jumper. Kaman is the focal point of the Clippers' offense. In fact, no team uses its center on more possessions than the Clippers (provided you consider Tim Duncan a power forward).
For Kaman, a slow-it-down offense works best. "I'd rather play in the half court where I can see everything come together," Kaman said earlier in the season when asked what kind of offense he prefers. "I know where I'm going to be and where my teammates are."
Kaman has a valid point. His ability to create shots for himself against one-on-one coverage in a deliberate offensive scheme has worked wonders, particularly against smaller clubs. When Kaman is focused, he not only has the ability to beat smaller and inferior defenders in the post, but he can step out and drain that jumper at a respectable 43 percent clip.
Unfortunately, the overall numbers don't lie. Something is amiss with the Clippers' offense. Only a handful of NBA teams have more trouble scoring in the half court than the Clips. Kaman has a good on-court rapport with Clippers point guard Baron Davis, but when you ask Davis the same question about what kind of offense the Clippers should run, he'll tell you something entirely different.
"We need to pick it up," Davis said on Dec. 14 when told the Clippers had fallen to the bottom third of the league in pace factor. Picking it up would mean pushing the ball and allowing Davis -- along with the Clippers' perimeter players -- more opportunities to improvise.
Would the Clippers be wise to rely a little less on isolating Kaman in the post, or would they be foolish to mess with a good thing? That's a tough one, but achieving that proper balance will be among the starting unit's top priorities. When they do, the Clippers are certain to be a more efficient squad.
2. What kind of impact will Blake Griffin have?
Any discussion about the Clippers' identity has to include the team's No. 1 pick, forward Blake Griffin. In many ways, Griffin is an ideal hybrid who can bridge Kaman's slow-it-down and Davis' let's-pick-it-up styles. At 6-foot-9, Griffin is a strong inside force with the ability to embarrass bigger defenders down on the block. He's also a dynamic athlete who can run the floor like a gazelle and finish with authority. When Clippers fans fall asleep at night, they dream of Baron Davis-Blake Griffin fast breaks that culminate with thunderous dunks by the rookie.
That versatility is a big part of Griffin's appeal. The Clippers feature a conventional collection of personnel in an NBA game that's evolving rapidly. They field a "twin towers" frontcourt of Kaman and Camby -- the former a decent defender and shot-blocker, the latter a premier basket protector. When confronted with new-school big men such as Carl Landry and Paul Millsap, the Clippers' big men struggle, which is why Griffin is so valuable. He has the mobility and muscle to challenge just about anyone inside of 15 feet on either end of the floor. Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy has even suggested that he'll experiment with Griffin at the small forward spot to leverage his prized rookie's diverse skill set.
Most of all, Griffin's athleticism will help a team that's in need of some zip inside. Despite the Clippers' size, they're only a middling rebounding team. With his ability to fly around the floor and crash the boards, Griffin should be good for a couple of easy putbacks per night. Once he gets into the flow of the offense, there will be more opportunities. "Name three bigs in the league who can guard him," one NBA executive said recently. For a team that has trouble finding easy buckets, those are beautiful words.
3. Do the Clippers deal Marcus Camby before the trading deadline?
Expiring contracts are extremely valuable in a league governed by a salary cap. Wily veterans who play a smart, team-oriented style of basketball are also worth a lot -- particularly to squads that might be only one piece shy of contention. Draw a Venn diagram of those two qualities and you'll find Marcus Camby squarely in the overlapping area.
It's highly unlikely that the Clippers will be in contention come March and April. In fact, their most important priority will be integrating Blake Griffin into their offensive and defensive playbook. Given that Camby logs 32 minutes per night in the Clippers' frontcourt, might it be advantageous for the team to deal Camby to clear room for Griffin (and young center DeAndre Jordan)?
That all depends.
With Camby, Rasual Butler, Craig Smith, Ricky Davis and others coming off the books at the end of June, the Clippers have the potential to be major players in the 2010 free-agent bonanza. Trading Camby for a player with a long-term deal would muck up those plans. Furthermore, Camby's presence on the court makes the Clippers a far better team, especially on the defensive end. Trading Camby between now and February would probably dash any hopes of finishing the season in the .500 range.
On the other hand, teams around the league jockeying for the likes of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and other max players might be willing to part with some nice assets in exchange for Camby. While it's true that the Clippers might have the money to spend this offseason, there's no guarantee that they'll find a taker. If the Clippers can add a player who could help them in the long-term along with a draft pick or two, they might be smart to act on such a deal.
Either way, Mike Dunleavy's phone will be ringing a lot between now and the Feb. 18 trading deadline.
4. Do the Clippers need to upgrade at small forward?
No Clipper has had a more tumultuous season than Al Thornton. After a wretched early stretch, Thornton was banished to the bench at the beginning of November in favor of Rasual Butler.
Whether it was the demotion, an improved diet or the recognition that he's not a very good jump shooter, Thornton reinvented his game on the fly. For the first time in his career, he began to move with purpose off the ball and work aggressively in the post. These adjustments boosted his offensive efficiency. With Butler struggling to find his 3-point stroke through most of November, Thornton was reinserted into the starting lineup in short order.
Thornton's progress has plateaued in recent weeks, a period that's coincided with Butler's draining 48.3 percent of shots from beyond the arc. With Butler the superior defender, Dunleavy has been opting for Butler over Thornton in crucial spots.
Dunleavy's ambivalence over the course of the season might be the product of cold, hard truth: Neither Butler nor Thornton is the long-term answer for the Clippers at small forward.
With Baron Davis, Eric Gordon, Blake Griffin and Chris Kaman, the Clippers have built a solid core at four of the five starting positions for the foreseeable future. Davis, Gordon and Kaman each has a PER (player efficiency rating) above the league-average of 15 -- and Griffin is a good bet to exceed that number as well.
Butler is a free agent following this season and is more of a "3-and-D" role player. Meanwhile, even with Thornton's smarter shot selection, there are a few immutable truths about him that can't be avoided: He has limited range for a small forward in today's game. He ranks 56th out of 58 small forwards in defensive rebounding. And he's a defensive liability.
For a team that desperately needs spacing, can't afford to give up additional shots and needs someone who can defend the wing, these are tough deficiencies to swallow. As the Clippers mine the free agency and trade markets over the next nine months, a more complete small forward might be at the top of their shopping list.
5. Can the Clippers ride their defense to respectability?
Dunleavy has had a bumpy tenure as the Clippers' head coach, but one of his most enduring achievements was turning a troop of iffy defenders -- which included an aging, laterally challenged Sam Cassell, a young Chris Kaman and a scattered Corey Maggette -- into the eight-ranked defensive squad in the league in 2005-06, a season that ended in the Western Conference semifinals.
As recently as a few weeks ago, this team was bordering on the top 10 in defensive efficiency. After a rough road trip before Christmas, the Clippers now reside in the middle of the pack.
Despite his short stature, Gordon has earned the confidence of Dunleavy on the defensive end and routinely does solid work against the league's most potent perimeter threats. Kaman's defensive on-court/off-court numbers have been very good. He's already a natural shot-blocker. With his quick footwork, he's graduated into a decent pick-and-roll defender.
As a team, the Clippers are among the league's best at defending the arc and do a good job protecting the basket -- the two areas on the court where NBA offenses do the most damage. The Clippers tend to be vulnerable against unorthodox big men like the aforementioned Landry and DeJuan Blair (who went 7-for-9 against the Clippers recently by squeezing his way to the basket past the Clippers' bigger bodies).
Assuming he moves on, Camby will be missed sorely on the defensive end, but that doesn't mean the Clippers can't mature into an effective defensive unit along the lines of that 2005-06 team. The addition of Griffin will give them a defender with a unique combination of size and speed, and one that can defend multiple positions. If the Clips can add a defensive ace on the wing to pair with Gordon, continue to get shot-blocking and adequate pick-and-roll defense from Kaman, keep Baron Davis motivated and keep the perimeter rotations tight, they might just be able to do it.
Kevin Arnovitz is the author of ClipperBlog and is an NBA contributor for ESPN.com and ESPNLosAngeles.com
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