Going into the 2008-2009 season, the Los Angeles Clippers were seen as a team that had a shot to make the playoffs. Yeah, their best player had spurned them to go to Philadelphia, but they made a ton of moves in the off-season, most notably adding proven players Baron Davis and Marcus Camby. After a horrible 23-59 season playing without the injured Brand, it was reasonable to expect an improvement in the win column.
Unfortunately for Clips fans, the team actually ended up winning four less games than the previous year. Davis, Camby, Chris Kaman, and Zach Randolph (acquired from the Knicks in November) all had significant injuries and the team never had a chance to click. For everyone involved, it was like a bad dream. They were a pain to watch, as they didn’t play hard, didn’t play smart, and lost games in every way imaginable. Coach (and GM) Mike Dunleavy didn’t implement a game plan that suited his personnel and, to an outsider, it seemed as if he failed to gain the trust and respect of his players. And then there was this. The only real positive to be gleaned from this season is that the Clippers appeared to have a keeper in rookie 2-guard Eric Gordon.
I could go on describing last year’s disastrous season, but it’s been done to death. I will just say that I was a bit miffed that they were rewarded for that season with the #1 pick in the draft. Especially after reading this article about owner Donald Sterling.
The #1 pick, obviously, was Blake Griffin. This guy is a stud. He dominated opposing defenders in the NCAA last year and should be able to come in and start in the NBA right away. Some of us were worried, though, when we pictured the Clippers’ projected line-up for 2009-2010. In Griffin, Camby, Kaman, and Randolph, the Clips had 4 starting-calibre frontcourt players. Randolph in particular was a problem, as he is known as a ball-stopper and a volume shooter. If the Clips wanted to develop Blake Griffin, they’d need him to be on the court as much as possible and taking lots of shots. Randolph was just about the last player in the league that would fit in, here.
Shockingly, the Clippers found a taker for the much-maligned power forward. The Memphis Grizzlies agreed to take him in exchange for Quentin Richardson and his expiring contract. Later, Q-Rich was sent to Minnesota for a package of Sebastian Telfair, Craig Smith, and Mark Madsen. After this, they were able to acquire Rasual Butler from New Orleans for essentially nothing.
A series of moves that make sense. A series of moves that make the Clippers a deeper, better team going into next season. We might have to stop making jokes about them. Seriously. This team has quite a bit improved on paper this off-season. We should expect much, much better than a 20-win season next year. In addition to this, with the contracts of Camby, Madsen, Smith, Ricky Davis, Mardy Collins, and Steve Novak coming off the books after the season, this franchise will have a good chance to solidify their core for the next few years.
With that said, there are a few key things the Clippers must do to in order to make some noise next year:
1) Get Blake Griffin touches. As I stated earlier, Zach Randolph’s departure was necessary to give Blake Griffin room to breathe next season. This guy has to be established as a primary option on the block. He’s got to be able to use his strength and quickness to become an offensive force immediately. He must be given the kind of minutes and the kind of touches that allow him to make some mistakes and figure out what works. He’s got the talent to be a big factor right now, as long as the team puts him a position to succeed.
2) Get Baron Davis healthy and in shape. Yes, I know, Baron was unhappy last season. He didn’t get along with Dunleavy and was (understandably) frustrated with the style of play in Clipperland. Sure, it’s nice that he’s been chummy with his coach recently, but this alone is not enough. Even if they were best friends last season, Baron would have been ineffective due to his conditioning alone. I don’t want to rag on the guy for being injured, but he also showed up to training camp out of shape. This wasn’t the first time he’s done this, by any stretch, and that’s why it’s inexcusable. There are rumblings coming out of L.A. that Baron has been taking this summer very seriously, but this is the kind of thing you always hear in the summer. Clips fans have to hope it’s true this time.
3) Coach this team properly. This means, in short, they have to run. With Baron Davis, Eric Gordon, Al Thornton, Blake Griffin, and Marcus Camby, the Clippers have a starting line-up built to run. Dunleavy has to relinquish his control of the team and let Baron Davis push the ball and call a lot of the plays himself, so his star point guard doesn’t feel the constant pressure to look to the sideline. Honestly, I don’t have any insider information about last year’s squad. I don’t know exactly what the players thought of their coach, but, judging from their body language, it didn’t seem like a happy family. What I do know for sure is that these guys were playing the wrong style. There needs to be a different game plan next season.
The Clippers have the talent to make a run for the playoff spot in the West. They should be able to make a significant jump in the standings when compared to last season (although that’s what we all said a year ago). It seems foolish to bet anything on a franchise as historically bad as this, but after this summer, things seem to be looking up. I’ll be watching to see a hopefully much more exciting brand of Clipper basketball next season. Unfortunately, there will be some people watching at the same time who are just waiting for the Clipper Curse to rear its ugly head again.