Clippers missing Kaman's presence
For all the grieving in the Clippers' camp this week over the loss of rookie Blake Griffin to season-ending surgery, center Chris Kaman's absence has been felt most profoundly. Kaman missed his third consecutive game because of a sore back Friday night, as the Clippers got shellacked, 126-86, by the Lakers at Staples Center.
Kaman averaged 22.3 points and 11.5 rebounds over the team's recent 4-0 homestand that included big wins over Portland, the Lakers and Miami. In the process, he earned Western Conference player of the week honors for the second time this season.
Then, on Tuesday night in Memphis, Tenn., Kaman tweaked his back during warmups. He hasn't taken the floor since, and the Clippers have reeled off three straight losses, reversing their upward trajectory toward the .500 mark.
Kaman has left a void on both ends of the floor. He's a linchpin of the Clippers' offense. The team's possessions routinely run through Kaman, a formula that enabled the offense to flow more freely over the course of the winning streak.
"Chris has been an anchor for us," coach said before the game. "When things aren't going great and you need a bucket, he's a guy you can go to in the low post to get a score or a double-team. You can create shots off him. You can run pick-and-roll for him."
Without Kaman on Friday, the Clippers struggled again to move the ball in their halfcourt offense. Although they hung with the reigning champs in the first half as the Lakers' bench scored 11 unanswered points to start the second quarter, the Clippers faded quickly after halftime. Apart from a driving slam by Rasual Butler in transition, the Clippers didn't convert a basket in the paint in the second half until the 3:43 mark of the third quarter.
"In the second half, I thought offensively we struggled scoring," Dunleavy said. Without Kaman, we didn't have our low post game to go back at them.
That low post game has been carrying the Clippers lately. Without it, the offense stagnates. Those pick-and-rolls initiated by Baron Davis? They don't have the same effect in the halfcourt with DeAndre Jordan or Marcus Camby. Those double-teams Kaman commands in the post that produce shots for the Clippers' perimeter players? Nobody else on the roster can destabilize opposing defenses that way, which means fewer easy looks for Eric Gordon, Davis or Butler.
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"Chris opens up a lot especially when I'm out there penetrating," Davis said. "We miss his inside presence. He's someone we can throw the ball in to to get a bucket."
Other than Kaman, the Clippers don't have much of a low-post threat. Camby has been an effective role player for the Clippers, but he's more of a high-post facilitator than a primary offensive option in the paint. He's especially good at finding a cutter beneath the basket. But this week, Camby has sorely missed his favorite target.
"We have a lot of plays with high-low action where I'm hitting Chris and getting him some easy looks," Camby said. "He's not out there. I'm looking to my right and to my left, but there's no 35 out there. It's tough."
Kaman might not earn a spot on the NBA's all-defense team, but the Clippers give up five fewer points per 100 possessions when he's on the court. He can block shots and, seven years into his career, he's a reasonably effective pick-and-roll defender.
"Defensively, he does a pretty good job most nights," Dunleavy said. "He moves his feet well. He knows all the rotations. Overall, he's a pretty good defender."
Although Camby does most of the heavy lifting as the Clippers' ace protecting the basket, the team's twin towers have established a chemistry on the defensive end that makes life easier for both big men.
"We've been playing together for thirty something-plus games and we know where each other is going to be out there on the court," Camby said. "We tend to play off each other. I know that if [Kaman] is in the pick-and-roll, I have to be his rotating guy because his man is going to be coming to the basket."
With Kaman's back still ailing, he's questionable for Saturday's game against Cleveland. Just as they encountered in losses this week to Memphis, New Orleans and the Lakers, the Clippers will see a steady rotation of big men from the Cavaliers. If Kaman is unable to suit up, it could be another long night.
If the Clippers want consolation, they can look at the strong impact of Kaman's absence as a measure of his value. He's unquestionably a difference-maker, something a team should want from its 27-year-old franchise center.
Kevin Arnovitz is an NBA contributor for ESPN.com and ESPNLosAngeles.com and the author of ClipperBlog.