- Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com
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Five days ago at his first pregame news conference, Clippers interim head coach Kim Hughes charmed reporters with uncolored style. His flat Midwestern accent was a departure from former Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy's coarse Brooklynese. Whereas Dunleavy sometimes came across as combative, Hughes spoke in soothing tones. In the 20-minute question-and-answer session, Hughes took friendly jabs at Chris Kaman that had the press corps giggling. He pledged to shred much of the old playbook and plainly admitted that the Clippers had tuned Dunleavy out. Above all, he wanted to implement an up-tempo offense, one that would free Baron Davis from the shackles of strict play calling and allow the Clippers point guard to run the show.
With each successive loss over the past week, Hughes and -- to a lesser extent -- Davis have qualified their commitment to a free-flowing offense. After getting shellacked by San Antonio 98-81 on Saturday night, Hughes conceded that he might not have the playmakers and ball handlers to fully execute the running game. Meanwhile, Davis preached patience. The tactical shift from formalism to spontaneity would take time. The team would have to get in shape and hone its collective instincts.
By Tuesday night, Hughes began to back off his initial game plan. Structured sets would now represent approximately 60 percent of the Clippers' offense, but they'd still get out and run 40 percent of the time. The Clippers dropped to 0-2 under Hughes with a 109-99 loss to a hot Utah team, but they played much better. Both players and coaches cited the hard-fought effort as evidence of that improvement. Reinvention rarely comes without adversity and the loss, while disappointing, demonstrated that this project could work.
If ever there was a laboratory for the Clippers' experiment as a running unit, Oracle Arena in Oakland for a game against the Golden State Warriors was it. The Warriors operate almost exclusively in transition. If you want to run, Don Nelson's team will gladly oblige. It averages more than 103 possessions per game. No other team in the NBA tops 100.
Wednesday night, the Clippers lasted about six minutes before falling behind by double digits to a depleted Warriors unit playing with only seven healthy players and a sick Devean George. The 132-102 drubbing to Golden State was arguably the most humiliating loss in a season with plenty to choose from. The new transition-oriented Clippers were outscored on the break 38-13. In the third quarter, the Clippers allowed the Warriors to convert on 21 of 25 possessions.
The debacle in Oakland Wednesday brought into focus the fallacies of the Clippers' new strategy. Hughes and Davis have been diplomatic with regard to Dunleavy, but both men seem to subscribe to a syllogism that goes something like this: (A) The Clippers' offense under Dunleavy was a failure. (B) Dunleavy's offense was very structured. (C) Therefore, a structured offense is a recipe for failure.
It's bad logic. The best course of action for the Clippers would be to accept their strengths and seek to exploit them. Whatever tonal issues they had with Dunleavy, the Clippers were generally most successful utilizing their superior size and Davis' ability to feed fellow scorers in the half-court game. The staleness that grabbed hold of the offense under Dunleavy can be remedied without throwing out those basic principles.
A two-man game with Kaman and a perimeter shooter like Eric Gordon or Rasual Butler presents a difficult choice for defenses. During the team's strongest stretch of games around New Year's Day, Davis and Kaman were tormenting opponents with a well-tuned pick-and-roll action, while Gordon shot a blistering 61 percent by taking advantage of the space afforded him by those schemes. Among power forwards, Marcus Camby leads the league in assist rate, and has been a master of the high-low game. Burly reserve Craig Smith can brutalize defenders one-on-one from 15 feet in, but he's not much help in the open court.
Davis fashions himself a master of improvisation, a point guard who works best in a transition offense. He stated last Friday that the Clippers hadn't had much fun in the previous system. In the three games since the changing of the guard, Davis has amassed 14 turnovers against 25 assists and only 10 field goals. There are a variety of causes for this: carelessness, an inability to flatten defenses on the break (and nothing resembling a secondary break), teammates who don't fill up the lanes in transition as quickly as they need to, and Davis' failure to finish at the rim.
Davis is a talented point guard, but he's also stubborn in not recognizing the full range of his game. However much fun he has running the break, Davis would be smart to maximize his most valuable assets. Davis is bigger and stronger than most of his counterparts at the point and has the opportunity to post up opposing point guards at will. He also has an uncanny ability to find angles and make the late pass. These are two gifts that can be realized most effectively in the half court.
There was a lot that didn't work under Dunleavy -- the Clippers ranked 23rd in offensive efficiency. But the proper remedy isn't to toss out the playbook. The Clippers should come up with an abridged version -- and give Davis a strong voice in that process. And they must commit themselves to the prosaic tasks that create opportunities. Just because the messenger was overbearing doesn't mean the message lacked value.
For a team that wants to run, the Clippers are awfully pokey getting back into their transition defense. Wednesday night against Golden State, the Clippers surrendered transition bucket after transition bucket to Stephen Curry, who outpaced Davis virtually every trip down court and scored a career-high 36 points.
"In order to run, you have to go from offense to defense in your mind in a split second," Dunleavy said in a conversation on Tuesday. "You can't take one step back to go forward in a 90-foot race."
An up-tempo game can't be achieved on just one end of the floor. After three games, there's little indication the Clippers have either the conditioning or desire necessary to make it work. Since Hughes took over the coaching duties, the Clippers have surrendered a ghastly 118.5 points per 100 possessions. The league average is 104.2 and the Clippers' season average is 104.1. For obvious reasons, it's extremely difficult for a unit to get out in transition if it's collecting made buckets and inbounding the ball on the opposing baseline. That's the primary reason why, fanfare and bold declarations aside, the Clippers have been outscored on the fast break 60-40 in the Hughes era. Much of that deficit came at the hands of the Warriors, but the Clippers weren't terribly successful against the more orthodox squads they countered recently. Against a slow-it-down Spurs team, the Clippers' margin in fast-break points was a meager 16-12. Against Utah, a middle-of-the-pack pace team that prefers to pick teams apart in its half-court offense, the Clippers won the fast-break battle by a single point, 13-12.
After the loss to the Spurs Saturday night, Davis walked to the other side of the Clippers' locker room once he was through addressing the media. He stood in front of Butler's locker and reassured teammates that, despite the poor results in its maiden voyage, the new free-flowing offense would find its bearings under his direction.
"I'm not trippin'," Davis said. "We're going to be all right. We just got to stick with each other."
Davis is a talent who has always trusted his instincts to guide his on-court play, even when challenged by coaches and teammates. Hughes has repeatedly stated the Clippers' new program is not a reaction to anything in the past, but a manifestation of who he is as a person and a coach. Both men have been given the freedom to pursue their common vision.
The early results have been damning.
Kevin Arnovitz is an NBA contributor to ESPN.com and ESPNLosAngeles.com and the author of ClipperBlog.
The Clippers are running. The result? Three losses by more than 10 points