Preview and Chat: The Los Angeles Clippers

Kurt —  February 23, 2008

Records: Lakers 37-17 (3 seed); Clippers 19-33 (12 seed)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 113.6 (2nd); Clippers 103.4 (26th)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 106.7 (7th); Clippers 107.7 (13th)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Vladimir Radminovic, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Clippers: Brevin Knight, Cuttino Mobley, Corry Maggette, “some call me” Tim Thomas, Chris Kaman

Lakers Notes: Just a few quick notes looking over the Lakers stats from the last 10 games.

Kobe is taking 18.9 shots, per game, down from his 20.5 average for the season. And he is being very efficient with those shots, shooting 55.5% (eFG%) and getting to the line 8.5 times per game.

Then there is Pau Gasol shooting 65.1% and Lamar Odom shooting 64.5% (eFG%), including shooting 50% from three point range (taking 1.2 shots per game, which should be about the max for him).

The Lakers also have guys doing a great job of spreading the floor. In the last 10 games, Derek Fisher is shooting 37.5% from three, Sasha is at 50% (taking 3.6 per game), Radmanovic is at 43.8% (3.2 per game), and there is Kobe at 36.4%.

The Lakers pace has been a little slower, down to 93.1 possessions per game (about three fewer possessions per game than their season pace).

No doubt, the offense is clicking at a high level, but the defense still needs some work. The Lakers are giving up 108.7 points per 100 possessions, about 2 points higher than their season average.

The Clippers Coming In: This season, a lot of the questions about the Clippers are bigger picture ones for the future. To get some answers, I turned to ClipperSteve from ClipsNation:

1. First things first — what’s the latest and expected return dates for Brand and Livingston? Will we see them this season? Should we, or should the Clippers look for more ping-pong balls?

The Clippers have been very tight-lipped, and very conservative about setting any dates for Brand and Livingston. Basically, although both Brand and Livingston have both uttered the word ‘March’ on many occasions, the organization has never given any date. They are both in the same place right now – they returned to practice within a couple of days of each other, but only in non-contact drills. The best guess is that one or both will be cleared for contacted within 10 days, and we might see them on the court a couple weeks after that.

So, yes, I think we’ll see them this season, if only briefly. Brand almost certainly; Livingston is more in doubt. That has nothing to do with where he is in his recovery (which by all indications is going great) and everything to do with the type of injury. The book is pretty well written on the ruptured Achilles and there’s no reason to doubt that Brand will (has?) recover completely. But Livingston hit the ligament trifecta, and Willis McGahee is the only other athlete I know of to do that. The good news is McGahee made a full recovery and made the Pro Bowl this year. But there’s just not nearly as much data on this injury, and everyone will be super conservative on it, with good reason. Livingston is scheduled to meet with his surgeon the first week in March and we’ll know more then.

Finally, there are those pesky ping-pong balls to consider. The team has plenty of incentive to keep them off the court, above and beyond lottery odds. For instance, why showcase either one of them when they could both be free agents at the end of the season? The best case for the Clippers is that they know these injuries are completely healed, but the rest of the NBA remains in the dark. They’ll play, but not much.

2. Assuming Brand does not opt out (unlikely after this injury, I would think), how is the growth of Chris Kaman this season going to pair with Brand in the future?

That’s a great question. I’ve heard some people say that there won’t be room for Brand and new Kaman to operate – that the post will be too crowded for both of them to be effective, etc. The poster boys for this problem would be Eddy Curry and Zach Randolph, I guess. But I say Brand and Kaman are going to be great together.

Let’s start with defense. The Clippers, even without their best low post defender (Brand) and their best perimeter defender (Livingston) have remained an OK defensive team this season. They have a chance to be a great defensive team at full strength. Kaman is currently 3rd in the league in blocked shots (easily the most surprising improvement in his break out season), while Brand has been a top 10 shot blocker for many years. And neither of them are playing free safety on the weak side the way Camby does. Brand always took the toughest low post assignment, and still blocked shots, and of course Kaman is forced to take the tough assignments this season. They are both very good on the ball defenders in addition to blocking shots. There will be no unchallenged shots against the Clippers next season.

Likewise rebounding is a no brainer improvement. Especially offensive rebounding, where the Clippers have been among the league leaders in the Elton Brand era, and are 29th this season (despite missing plenty of shots).

I’ll admit that there’s potentially less synergy on offense, but one obvious plus is that someone is going to have a mismatch. As defenses adjusted to the Generic Clippers (no Brand) this season, Kaman has seen more and more double teams, and he’s had very few options for the pass out. Brand changes that immediately. But the great low post duos (there haven’t been a lot, but McHale and Parrish come to mind) develop a rhythm and a knack that makes them that much stronger. Can Brand and Kaman develop that feel for each others’ games, that interior passing that leads to easy baskets as the help defender hedges from one to the other? I hope so, but we’ll have to wait and see.

3. Corey Maggette is one of the few players on the Clippers in his prime and playing great this season, showcasing for a new contract with a career year. Should the Clippers resign him, and at what cost? Or, do you move another direction?

It’s pretty clear that Corey will opt out of the final year of his current contract. He’s playing the best ball of his career right now (he’s 12th in the league in scoring at 21.8 per game, but is actually scoring over 24 per game in 2008), and he turned down an extension from the Clippers last summer. So he’s obviously planning to get paid this summer. What isn’t clear to me is, who is going to pay him? There aren’t that many teams with cap space, and of those I really don’t see Memphis or Seattle or Charlotte making a huge offer to Corey Maggette given the personnel they have already. So although he stands to be the second best free agent on the market (after Antawn Jamison, and depending of course on what happens with all those other option guys like Arenas and Marion and yes, Brand), I don’t see where the big offer is going to come from.

The situation is further complicated by the internecine battles on the red and blue side of Staples Center. Mike Dunleavy has spent the better part of 3 seasons trashing the guy, and has tried to trade him on at least three occasions. But owner Donald T. Sterling loves Maggette, has vetoed at least one and probably two of those trades, and has said he wants to re-sign Corey. Which leaves me without a clue as to what will actually happen.

I’m hoping they don’t bid against themselves for his services. They have Al Thornton ready to step into the small forward position right now, and although you could do worse than having Thornton come off the bench for a couple years, $50M+ would be a lot to pay when you’ve got a much cheaper alternative. Don’t be surprised if he ends up leaving the Clippers via a sign-and-trade, that gets him the pay day he’s looking for on a team that needs his unique talents.

4. The Clips offense has held them back this year. When they are winning and competing well, what are they doing right on offense?

Oh you noticed that, huh? Yeah, it’s a problem. Mike Dunleavy is a very good defensive coach and extremely prepared for each game. But the Clippers offense, which relies heavily on isolations, is unimaginative in the extreme. So frankly, the offense ends up being almost completely dependent on the existence of exploitable matchups, and the degree to which an individual player is ‘on.’ So if Mobley or Cassell is being defended by a smallish guard, then they’ll go into the post six plays in a row. And if the shots are falling, then the Clippers have a chance. (If Cassell plays Saturday, watch for him to go to work if he’s defended by Farmar.) Recent Clipper wins against Toronto and New Jersey and Atlanta were all about Al Thornton winning his matchup in the fourth quarter.

That’s not to say that the team doesn’t run the occasional set, and at times they look pretty good doing it. But it’s all pretty ‘Arthur Murray’ by the numbers. If they run the set and it works, great. If the defense denies the first option, then they go to an iso and stand around. The team’s spacing is rarely good, and they don’t have enough shooters to take advantage when they force double teams. Spacing seems like such a basic concept, you would think every NBA player would be in the right place all the time. But the simple fact is that very few teams actually do it well (the Lakers, Suns and Spurs come to mind), so it must be harder than it looks. The Clippers’ spacing sucks.

All teams are better when they run, but all coaches want to be in control. Still one key for the Clippers is definitely early offense. If they can push the ball (just a little), then good things happen. Maybe they get the ball to Kaman in deeper low post position because the defender hasn’t had a chance to push him off the block. Or maybe they just get into their set that much earlier, giving them more time to re-set if they need to. But instead what tends to happen is that they make an entry pass with about 14 seconds into the possession, and by the time they pass out of the double team, there’s not enough time for anything other than a desperation heave with 2 on the shot clock. The Clippers probably lead the league in those.

Keys To The Game: The Lakers had better not sleep on tonight’s game — the Clippers destroyed Utah last night. (Yes, the final score was just a 4 point differential, but that’s because of a late 11-0 Utah run, the Clippers dominated from the middle of the second quarter on.) The Clips are 5-5 in their last 10 and playing decent ball.

Part of that is how well Corry Maggette is playing — he is shooting 59.1% (eFG%) in his last 10 games, including 53.8% from three. As Kevin at ClipperBlog points out today, when Maggette is hitting the outside shot he’s very tough to stop because he is such a good penetrator and so strong doing so (sort of how it is hard to stop LeBron’s drives because of his strength). It’s hard, but try not to foul this guy in the paint.

Two other Clips playing very well right now — rookie Al Thorton (27 points in 29 minutes last night, going 10 of 18 from the floor and getting to the line 9 times) and Chris Kaman. Kaman is running the court well and setting up deep position early in the clock, the Lakers need to get back with him and not let him get the ball too deep.

Looking at notes from the previous meetings of these teams, the Clippers have focused their defense on Kobe, doubling him quick and often (especially on the pick-and-roll). The way the other Lakers are playing right now we should be able to make them pay if that strategy doesn’t change. Other guys should be getting good looks, they just need to knock them down.

Where you can watch: The game is at 7:30 (Pacific) on KCAL 9 in Los Angeles if you want the Lakers broadcasters, KTLA 5 for the Clippers quality broadcast team and League Pass nationally.