Eric Gordon, along with rookies Blake Griffin and Eric Bledsoe, have been bright spots, but they cannot carry the load without veterans Baron Davis and Chris Kaman. Photo by Leon Bennett
By Eric Lambkins II
Sentinel Sports Writer
Clipper fans be encouraged, the end is near. The days of playing second fiddle and walking in the shadow of the defending champions Lakers are coming to a close. Sure the Clippers record is a league worst 1-7. Yes, statistically they rank in the bottom half of relevant category. On paper, it would seem as nothing about this Clipper team is any different from any of the obscure teams of the past. Although there are no moral victories to be gained through losing in the world of sports, the Los Angeles Clippers have a glimmer of hope with Vinny Del Negro at the reins. He is unafraid to critique his players, challenge the front office, and most importantly, he has shown the ability to turn a defunct team into a contender before.
Vinny Del Negro will be a candidate for NBA coach of the year…eventually. With Del Negro at the helm, the issue of the Clippers making the playoffs is not a matter of “if,” but a matter of “when.” He’s a hard-nosed coach who demands defensive intensity and team play. He’s more concerned with winning games and player production, than coordinating his pocket square and ties.
Del Negro inherited a horrid Clipper team this summer. He was hired with the expectation that he would produce the same results that he yielded in Chicago when he took an obscure post-Jordan Bulls team to the playoffs in consecutive years. Del Negro took a raw point guard talent in Derrick Rose, and helped transform him into a resounding force throughout the league. He took an awkward forward/center in Joakim Noah, and turned him into a legit big man.
Granted, it will take far more than a 41-41 record to get into the playoffs in a deep Western conference. The Utah Jazz played their way into the playoffs as the eighth seed with a 48-34 record last year.
Offensively the Clippers are rank in the bottom third in the league in points per game, field goal, 3-point, and free throw percentages. Their offensive woes have been exacerbated because where Chris Kaman’s game has gone is an enigma and Baron Davis came to camp out of shape and is nursing a knee injury.
Kaman is shooting an abysmal 36.4 percent from the field, a far cry from his 48.6 percent career total and seems uncomfortable and unsure as of late.
Davis, who is nursing a sore knee, has not seen action since the Clippers played the San Antonio Spurs on Halloween. Davis’ horrors on the court this season have been compounded by poor conditioning throughout the summer. Davis frequently waits until the latter part of the offseason to begin his conditioning regimen. Even when healthy, his shot selection and defensive efforts have been questionable.
Davis and Kaman, if not careful, will have their leadership roles supplanted by Clipper young gunners.
The Clippers are managing to compete and remain in games due to their defensive intensity and board play. They rank 17th defensively giving up 102.1 points per game and are holding their opposition to shooting 45 percent from the field, and ninth in the league in team rebounding with a 43.1 per game average.
They have a strong young nucleus that is perfect for the Del Negro’s touch. With the raw power and athleticism of Blake Griffin, the speed, shooting, and passing of the two Erics, Gordon and Bledsoe, and a bright spot in Al-Farouq Aminu, Coach Del Negro has a plethora of weapons to develop and employ.
Whatever coach Del Negro is selling, the team clearly seems to be buying it. How the Clippers played in a 107-92 win over Western Conference contender, Oklahoma City Thunder, suggests that this is the perfect time to invest in Clipper stock.
Los Angeles clearly got MVP hopeful Kevin Durant frustrated in their only win of the season. Durant left the post-game press conference in mid sentence after being asked about his performance. Durant went 6-of-24 shooting from the field and went 0-for10 behind the arc. The Clippers held the Thunder to 37.8% shooting on the night.
After the game, the entire team echoed the same sentiment-team play and defense. Although Griffin called guard Eric Bledsoe the “MVP of the night,” Bledsoe, a stark contrast to college teammate and now Washington Wizard point guard John Wall, stated that this win “isn’t about me. My focus was to come in and do what I know that I can do to help my team win. My focus is winning as a team.”
Bledsoe, although young and raw, would be a suitable and arguably better replacement for Davis if he is unable to get in shape and out of the dog house. Bledsoe, a silent assassin, is able to stretch the floor with consistent shooting and ardent defensive play. If Bledsoe can learn to manage the rigors of the most demanding and important position in the NBA, parting with Davis will not be an issue; however, finding a suitable team willing to trade for Davis the Clippers will find to be far more complex and problematic.
“We need to get Baron back, get [Chris] Kaman and Blake [Griffin] playing at a high level. We need everybody,” Del Negro said.
If Coach Del Negro can help Kaman find his happy thought and fly his game from Never Never Land and into the arena, and help Davis justify his $13 million a year salary with quality play, the Clippers are going to turn a lot of heads in the league. If these two are unable to contribute to the direction the team is headed, don’t be surprised to hear their names mentioned in trade rumors.