Sunday, October 24, 2010

Los Angeles Clippers: What To Look For In 2010-11

2009-10 Regular Season: 29-53
2009-10 Playoffs: N/A
Additions: Ryan Gomes, Eric Bledsoe, Randy Foye, Al-Farouq Aminu
Key Losses: Drew Gooden, Travis Outlaw, Steve Blake, Steve Novak, Mardy Collins
Projected Rotation Players: Blake Griffin, Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, Baron Davis, Ryan Gomes, Randy Foye, Craig Smith, Eric Bledsoe, Rasual Butler, Al-Farouq Aminu

Despite trotting out one of the league’s best starting units, look for the Clippers to struggle (again!), thanks to a sorry second unit and another mediocre coach.

There’s a chance that, man-for-man, the 2010-11 Clippers’ starting five is one of the NBA’s five best. It’s not difficult to envision any of their top four earning a trip to the All-Star Game.

First off, there’s Blake Griffin, who is a maniac. At 6’9”-250, he’s built like an NFL tight end- and plays with same kind of abandon- but is also blessed with great hands, a soft touch around the basket and elite athleticism. As long as he doesn’t hurl his body into another serious injury, Griffin has an excellent chance to average 20-12 as a “rookie” and quickly establish himself as one of the league’s top frontcourt players.

Griffin’s perimeter complement is 2008 first-rounder, Eric Gordon. Gordon’s averaged 16+ ppg in each of his two pro seasons, and should become an even more prolific and efficient scorer playing off of Griffin. He’s an underrated penetrator and an excellent shooter, both coming off of screens and spotting up. He also puts a lot of effort into playing really tough defense on the perimeter.

In the middle is the first of two guys in this unit that’s already been an All-Star, Chris Kaman. After missing a combined 77 games over the previous two years, he suited up 76 times in 2009-10 and enjoyed the most productive season (18.5 ppg, 9.2 rpg) of his seven-year career and earned himself an All-Star nod. Kaman’s one of the few traditional centers remaining in the NBA, and while he’s not quite cut out to be a team’s primary offensive weapon, he should do well as the Clips’ #2 frontcourt option.

Finally, at the point, there’s two-time All-Star (neither as a Clipper) Baron Davis. Davis signed a massive ($65 million) deal with the Clippers in the summer of 2007 and proceeded to lay an epic egg in his first season as a Clipper. Baron recovered in 2009-10, as he turned in a solid season as a playmaker (8 apg, 2.8 asst/TO) and a ballhawk (1.7 spg), while scoring 15.3 ppg (albeit not very efficiently). It’s well chronicled that Baron has a bit of “frontrunner” in him and is more engaged on team’s that are stacked with talent. Given this, he should have a great time running the point alongside his fellow 2010-11 Clipper starters. If he can lay off the outside shot (27.7% on 3’s in 2009-10) and focus on being a facilitator, Baron could averaged 10+ apg (and maybe create a market for a currently immovable contract that’s due to pay him over $41 million through 2012-13.

Meanwhile, either Ryan Gomes or Rasual Butler give the Clippers a solid option at the “fifth man.” Gomes is a bit of a tweener, but is relatively efficient scorer, while Butler is a tough defender and a decent 3-point shooter. If the remainder of the starting five is able to stay healthy, whichever of these two wins the Clips’ final starting spot will get plenty of open looks and could have the best season of his career.

While a foundation of Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon flanked by quality a pair of quality veterans inspires optimism, there’s not much on the bench that does the same. New coach Vinnie Del Negro had a .500 record in two years with the Bulls, is not a great game manager and was let go following a physical confrontation with GM John Paxon. Meanwhile, the Clippers’ backups- Randy Foye, Rasual Butler, Craig Smith, DeAndre Jordan and first-rounders Al-Farouq Aminu and Eric Bledsoe- lack either the experience or the basketball aptitude (in Aminu’s case it could sadly be a bit of both) to make much of a contribution.

Bottom line: Vegas has the over-under on regular seasons wins for the Clippers at 36.5. Based on its first-string talent, this is a team that should smash this figure. With even mediocre backup, this group could carry the Clippers to 45-50 wins and a middle seed in the Western Conference. However, with a woefully undermanned second unit and an awful in-game coach, any time missed by the starters to injury- which is inevitable to some extent - will cost the Clippers W’s. Look for this to be a 36-38-win team.

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