- Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN Staff Writer
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There are seminarians who have been subjected to fewer questions about their religious views than Los Angeles Clippers head coach Mike Dunleavy.
Since the moment he arrived to coach the team in 2003, Dunleavy has routinely been asked whether the Clippers' misfortunes can be attributed to a supernatural force that governs professional basketball.
Dunleavy has repeatedly said he doesn't believe in curses, but each setback for the franchise -- from Elton Brand's season-ending Achilles tendon injury in the summer of 2007 to the team's miserable 19-63 campaign in 2008-09 to Blake Griffin's fractured patella -- has escalated that line of inquiry.
If nothing else, the Clippers' 103-87 loss Wednesday night to a New Jersey Nets team that had won only three of 43 games proved the team's failures aren't related to the occult.
The Clippers lost to one of worst teams of the modern basketball era (a historically bad team playing without its starting backcourt) because they beat themselves.
Identifying the particulars of the loss doesn't require any advanced analysis. The Clippers turned the ball over every fifth possession. Their lazy defensive rotations allowed the only team in the league with a true shooting percentage under 50 percent to compile a clip greater than 60 percent Wednesday night. And the Clippers' perimeter shooters drained fewer than a third of their attempts from the floor, many of those impatient, contested shots.
The specifics are certainly damning, but the broader takeaway from the embarrassment in the swamp speaks to every Clippers fans' fears about the team -- and none of that despair has to do with magic or witchcraft.
The anxiety speaks to doubts about the team's collective character.
For all the talk about the new attitude that has infused the gleaming training facility in Playa Vista and the locker room at Staples Center, skeptics wonder whether this team has the leadership needed to succeed. Why can't a Clippers roster with this collection of talent and savvy bring the energy it exhibits against the NBA's elite every single night? Though the Clippers have endured their share of sporadic injuries to key players, these ailments don't compare to those sustained by Portland and Houston, teams that have rallied in the face of adversity.
Why can't the Clippers?
These questions underscore how difficult it is to evaluate the Clippers' season. It's hard to be too critical of a team that already has exceeded its win total of a season ago. Should this fact alone satisfy the Clippers faithful?
That all depends on where you set the bar.
Teams like the Lakers, Spurs, Cavaliers, Celtics and Magic have a well-defined goal: the Larry O'Brien trophy. For the rest of the league, success is a moving target, and that's particularly true for the Clippers. For the organization and the team's fans, assessing the team's overall performance is an exercise fraught with peril.
Coming into the season, the Clippers had postseason aspirations. But in a stacked Western Conference, that goal was probably a little too ambitious. What the Clippers should have had instead was a more modest to-do list, including:
• See a recommitted Baron Davis -- the playmaker who electrified Golden State a couple of years back.
• Establish No. 1 draft pick Blake Griffin as a catalyst for the team on both ends of the floor.
• Continue to develop promising second-year guard Eric Gordon.
• Restore Chris Kaman -- who missed much of the 2008-09 season with a foot injury -- as a dependable low-post option.
• Shore up a defense that finished 27th in the league in defensive efficiency.
• Use their added depth (Rasual Butler, Craig Smith, Sebastian Telfair) to cushion the blow of unanticipated injuries.
Forty-five games into the 2009-10 season, the Clippers have been relatively successful at achieving those objectives. Davis and Kaman have reversed their setbacks from a year ago and have established themselves as a solid pick-and-roll tandem. The Clippers' team defense now ranks 15th in efficiency, a marked improvement. Although Gordon hasn't had a breakout season, he's learning new tricks and improving his defense. Smith has given the Clippers a monster one-on-one scorer off the bench, and the team has compiled a record of 9-2 with the starting lineup featuring Gordon and Butler at the wings. Apart from the unfortunate loss of Griffin to season-ending surgery, the Clippers have gotten what they wanted out of their principals.
Yet somehow a precariousness perpetually surrounds this team. Every time the Clippers build some momentum, another shoe drops. The news of Griffin, whom Davis called "the heart and soul" of the squad, left an emotional void. Then Kaman's absence due to a sore back extinguished the team's longest winning streak of the year. More recently, Gordon's toe injury and Telfair's strained groin left the Clippers short-handed as they embarked on their longest road trip of the season.
And now a mortifying loss to the NBA's laughingstock.
The symbolic nature of Wednesday's loss can't be understated, but it's a single loss in an 82-game slog.
Just as a closer in baseball can quickly erase the trauma of a meltdown with a big save in his next outing, the Clippers will have opportunities over the next week to notch some character-building wins on the road at Minnesota, Cleveland, Chicago and Atlanta, and put the debacle in the Meadowlands behind them.
If they can summon the fortitude to win a couple of those games, they can get back to the business of meeting expectations whatever those happen to be.
23mMichael C. Wright