- Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN Staff Writer
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Interim Los Angeles Clippers coach Kim Hughes refuses to claim credit for Chris Kaman's progress, but the work Hughes has performed mentoring Kaman in the Big Man Arts has helped to elevate the seventh-year center's game.
On Thursday, that improvement earned Kaman his first All-Star appearance. He'll replace injured Brandon Roy on the Western Conference roster. Kaman's invitation to Dallas is the first extended to a Clipper since Elton Brand was voted onto the Western Conference squad in 2006.
Kaman has been indispensable to the Clippers' limited success this season. He leads the team in scoring and is the focal point of the Clippers' offense (he's the team leader in usage rate, the percentage of possessions used by a player). The Clippers are also winless in the six games Kaman hasn't been in uniform, which might be the most telling number of the bunch.
Kaman has expanded the range on his jump shot, and his footwork and ambidexterity make him a formidable post presence. That combination of skills riddles opposing defenses, which certainly have taken notice. Opponents must attend to Kaman at 17 feet -- something that hasn't traditionally been the case in past seasons.
Many teams have taken to double-teaming Kaman when he catches the ball below the foul line. Although Kaman still has room for improvement as a passer out of those double-teams, he's far more capable at finding shooters on kickouts, which helps explain his career-best assist rate this season. Then there's his plummeting turnover rate, down to 13.6. Kaman's previous best was 16.4 in 2006-07.
While still Clippers coach, Mike Dunleavy summarized Kaman's expanded skill set a few weeks ago.
"Part of it is that he's as versatile a big man as there is in the league," Dunleavy said. "Some guys are post-up guys. Some guys are pick-and-roll guys. Very few guys are guys who can do both. He can put the ball on the floor and make a pass, too."
On the defensive end of the floor, Kaman has made tremendous strides. Although his blocked shots are down, he's a far more effective pick-and-roll defender and has mastered the Clippers' defensive rotations. Statistical analyst Aaron Barzilai, who works for the Memphis Grizzlies, measures the disparity between a team's performance when a specific player is on or off the court. According to his data, Kaman ranks as the most effective defender in the NBA. Although these metrics might not be airtight (they might say as much about the Clippers' reserves as about Kaman), there's no denying that the Clippers are a far superior defensive unit when Kaman is on the floor.
Statistics aside, Kaman has grown into a far more confident, decisive player. Dunleavy was asked about the single most noticeable improvement in Kaman's game.
"His head," Dunleavy said. "Better understanding of what's going on around him, better reads, taking what the defense gives you. In past years, he always had this penchant for wanting to get closer to the rim. 'I got to get closer. I got to get closer.' I told him, 'If you have open shots, just shoot them. We'll live and die with your percentage. We're comfortable with that. Nobody's gonna bark at you for shooting open 15- to 17-footers.'"
For all the accolades, a healthy debate has accompanied Kaman's All-Star candidacy. Critics are quick to point out that Kaman's per-game averages of 20.2 points and nine rebounds are misleading because no center in the NBA has attempted more field goals per game. In addition, Kaman's true shooting percentage ranks in the bottom half of the league among qualified centers, and his rebounding rate is the lowest of his career since his rookie season.
Supporters of Memphis center Marc Gasol -- another snub when reserves were named two weeks ago -- would argue that their guy tops Kaman in player efficiency rating (PER), rebounding rate, every measure of shooting percentage from the field, assist rate, steal rate and block rate.
Despite Gasol's impressive résumé, Kaman was given the nod Thursday, presumably for reasons Dunleavy brought into focus just before his departure from the sideline.
"[Kaman] has changed his game around obviously because, in the past, he wasn't the primary guy to go to in the low post," Dunleavy said. "He played off of Elton Brand a great deal."
Brand's presence during the Clippers' halcyon days in the mid-'00s might never be replicated, but Kaman has embraced with vigor a role as the Clippers' No. 1 scoring option, something that seemed unthinkable just one year ago.
Kevin Arnovitz is an NBA contributor to ESPN.com and ESPNLosAngeles.com and the author of ClipperBlog.
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