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Clippers Starting To Roll

When I last covered the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center, in May, they were weary and defeated, having been eliminated in six games by the Thunder in the Western Conference semifinals. Their future was cloudy, the litigation over the Donald Sterling mess threatening to drag on into this season.

And then, Sterling was deposed, Microsoft billionaire Steve Ballmer pulled $2 billion out of his pockets, promptly signed Doc Rivers to a five-year extension, and a new era, Clippers A.S. (After Sterling) began. Overnight, the culture changed; this was a team expected not just to contend, but to win, the kind of winning that culminates with parades in June.  You don’t fork over two bil to squeak into the playoffs as an 8th seed; this year, the nucleus is there to get the Clippers deeper into the Western Conference playoffs than they’ve ever been.

Of course, one could argue the nucleus was there last year, but it was obvious during the Thunder series that the Clippers still had some maturing to do.

Which brings us to Saturday night’s game at Staples Center against the New Orleans Pelicans, and their prodigiously talented 21-year-old phenom, Anthony Davis, a 6’10 gazelle with lightning speed and the wingspan of an Airbus. The Clippers wanted to get physical with Davis, push him out of the paint, wear him down, and things couldn’t have started better. Blake Griffin, displaying a defensive prowess not often evident a year ago, leaned and pushed and hounded Davis, and he managed just one shot in the first seven minutes.  By then, sparked by 13 points by JJ Redick, he Clippers had a 13 point lead, en route to a 34-18 first quarter.

“That first quarter of defense was as good as you can get,” Rivers would say later.  “Hands in the right place, deflections – our guys are starting to understand that the more stops you get, the more into a rhythm you get.”

Then it all went to pot. The second unit came in and lost whatever momentum the starters had built up, the Pelicans shooting 73% and, with Davis starting to make his presence felt and Ryan Anderson going off for __ points, outscoring the Clippers, 36-20, to tie the game at 54 heading into the half.  From all reports, the locker room was not a happy place.

“That’s the most upset I’ve seen my players at halftime,” said Rivers. The lesson for the second unit was make your own day. In the fourth quarter, the second unit came in and finished the job this time."

A year ago, or even six weeks ago, when the Clippers stumbled through a 7-5 start, it might’ve been the kind of game the Clippers might not have recovered from, letting frustration and emotion get in the way.  Instead, they locked down the Pelicans in the third and got the running game going, overwhelming the Pelicans with a 39-24 third quarter.  The lead ballooned to 25 midway through the fourth, and the party was on. Griffin, who surpassed 7,000 points earlier in the game, sat out most of the fourth. The Clippers won their seventh straight, 120-100, and are beginning

Davis wound up with 26 points, but they were quiet points, and most tellingly, with Griffin draped over him like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, grabbed only three rebounds. 

"To go against a guy like that is fun," Griffin said of guarding Davis. "Just keep a body on him. It was a team effort."

On this night at least, the singular talents of Davis were no match on this night for the guile of Paul (18 points, 16 assists), the brute force of Griffin (30 points, 7 rebounds), the domination in the paint by Jordan( 18 rebounds, 5 blocks), the instant offense off the bench by Jamal Crawford (20 points). 

The Clippers rained down 17 three-point shots, and more tellingly, tallied 34 assists.  “When we move the ball, it makes JJ and Jamal lethal weapons,” said Rivers.

As the Clippers grow and mature, a more formidable kind of team has emerged, one that stresses tough defense, spreading the court, and making the extra pass. Maybe not as flashy as Lob City, but more substantial, especially if the Clippers hope to be playing deep into May. 

“It’s not the margin that we’re winning by,” said Griffin meaningfully. “It’s how we’re playing.”

Antawn Jamison & The Floater Game

With training camp over and a new season underway, the odds are not good for any unsigned free agent trying to get back into the NBA. That goes double for a 37-year-old like Antawn Jamison, who played in only 22 games for the Los Angeles Clippers last season, posting career-low numbers across the board and looking like a player on his last legs after his minutes went from 33.1 per game in 11-12 with the Cleveland Cavaliers to 12-13 in 21.5 with the Los Angeles Lakers. Let’s not reduce his career to whether or not he was a Hall of Famer - either way, the guy was a monster.

For all Jamison has done in the NBA, he might be remembered best for his time at North Carolina, where he and Vince Carter combined to form one of the most explosive duos in college history. In an era where guys didn’t go pro as soon as they possibly could, Carter and Jamison led the Tar Heels to consecutive Final Fours before declaring for the 1998 draft. They wound up being taken at No. 4 and No. 5 overall, with their rights exchanged on draft night.

Jamison was the bigger star in college, winning the Wooden and Naismith Awards as a junior, but Vince was the one seemingly destined for NBA stardom. At 6’6 210 with a 40’ vertical, he was cut out of central casting for a star SG. Jamison, on the other hand, was a bit of a tweener - at 6’9 235, people wondered if he would be a SF or a PF in the NBA, while his reliance on flip shots and one-handed runners earned him an unflattering rep as a finesse player.

When projecting college players to the next level, scouts look for comparable NBA players, established guys with roughly similar games and skill-sets. With Jamison, there was really no one to compare him too - he wasn’t a post scorer, he wasn’t a three-point shooter, he wasn’t a slasher who played above the rim. He was the master of the in-between game, a guy who could get a shot off from any release point and score without dominating the ball.

After an up-and-down rookie season cut in half by the lockout, Jamison came into his own in his second season with the Golden State Warriors, averaging 19 points, 8 rebounds and 2 assists a game on 47% shooting. What really put him on the map was a pair of 50-point games in back-to-back nights in December of that season, something only four other players in NBA history have done since 1964 - Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Bernard King and Allen Iverson.

By his third season, Jamison had established himself as one of the best scorers in the league, averaging 25 points per game on 45% shooting. Unfortunately, there was never much talent around him in Golden State, as they were perennially one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA, yet they continued to spend lottery picks on more perimeter scorers. Jamison’s five years with the Warriors came in the middle of a 12-year playoff drought for the Warriors.

To be sure, he wasn’t helping out too much on the defensive end of the floor, a criticism that followed him throughout his NBA career. That’s where being a “tweener” really hurt him, as he was neither quick enough to stay in front of the best SF’s or big enough to match up with the best PF’s in the post. To get the most out of his talents, Jamison needed to be surrounded by defensive-minded players, which never really happened in Golden State.

He was traded to the Dallas Mavericks at the age of 27, where he became part of one of the more bizarre teams in recent NBA memory. Those Mavs featured five different players who could get 20 on a given night - Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, Michael Finley, Antoine Walker and Jamison - none of whom could play much defense. Jamison became the odd man out, forced to go the bench and play as a sixth man, almost never having plays called for him in Dallas.

With so many other guys dominating the ball, Jamison had to change his game, scoring on off-ball cuts, put-backs and run-outs. It didn’t matter, as he was the definition of a guy who could roll out of bed and get buckets - he averaged 15 points on 54% shooting and won Sixth Man of the Year. If he got the ball, it was going up. He could score in the blink of an eye, appearing out of nowhere and throwing up a shot before the defense even noticed.

The five 20-point scorer experiment in Dallas only lasted one season, as Don Nelson began to take a smaller role in the organization and the team decided to become more balanced. Jamison was traded to the Washington Wizards, where he became a two-time All-Star and had his best years in the NBA. Along with Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler, he was part of a Big Three that made four straight playoff appearances in the latter half of the 2000’s.

While they only made the second round once, it was still quite an accomplishment considering the recent history of the franchise. In the previous 16 seasons, the Wizards had made the playoffs one time. That, in many ways, was the story of Jamison’s career - apart from his one season in Dallas, he was always on underachieving franchises and being asked to carry teams that didn’t play a lick of defense, which wasn’t the best use of his skill-set.

Jamison was instant offense, the rare player who could be effective in almost any context regardless of his usage rating or his teammates. His per-100 possession numbers over the course of his career were remarkably similar - it didn’t matter whether he was a primary option on a bad team (Golden State), a 6th man on a great one (Dallas) or a secondary option on a good one (Washington). He was a pure scorer and those guys are usually not 6’9. 

Instead of being surrounded by other score-first players, Jamison would have been better off on a team full of defensive-minded guys, particularly upfront. He could have carried the load for two or three guys on offense - it would have been interesting to see what he could do as the primary option on a team like Allen Iverson’s Philadelphia 76ers. Better yet, he would have been an ideal complement to Iverson, since he could score without needing the ball.

Jamison only got to spend half a season on a contender, when he was picked up by the Cleveland Cavaliers at the deadline in 2010. He put up 16 points a game on 49% shooting for a team that would win 61 games, but they collapsed in the second round against the Boston Celtics. When LeBron James left town that summer, it was over. By the time he got the chance to hook up with another good team, Jamison was a 36-year-old near the end of his rope.

Maybe the most remarkable part of his career was his durability - he hardly ever got hurt despite playing huge minutes every season and putting up 20 points a game for well over a decade. He is one of the top 50 scorers in NBA history, averaging 18.5 points a game on 45% shooting for 17 seasons, which comes out to 20,042 career points, 43rd all-time. Guys like Jamison don’t come around very often and you almost never see college players with his game.

Fittingly enough, just as he is leaving the NBA, the closest guy to him in the last 17 years is entering the league. At 6’8 230, TJ Warren doesn’t shoot 3’s, post up or play above the rim. All he does is get buckets - he averaged 12 points a game on 62% shooting as a freshman at NC State and 25 points a game on 53% shooting as a sophomore. However, despite his prodigious numbers, his unorthodox game caused him to fall to the Phoenix Suns at No. 14.

Like Jamison, Warren is a master of the running floater. There’s no way to guard a 6’8 guy who only needs a sliver of space to get a shot off within 15 feet of the basket. Either you play off him and he scores or you crowd him, he blows past you and he scores. Help-side doesn’t do much good either, as he gets the shot off so quickly that he freezes the shot-blocker. The question is whether Warren can make those shots at the same rate as Jamison in the NBA.

Jamison’s career was built around making terrible shots every night for 15 years. There are not many guys out there who can consistently make running 12-footers over two defenders. He was an athletic 6’9 guy with a high basketball IQ who knows how to put the ball in the basket - a guy like that can be a really good player for a really long time. Jamison made $142 million dollars in 17 seasons in the NBA. He must have been pretty good at basketball.

Clippers Vulnerable Without Perimeter Stopper

A roller-coaster ride of a season for the Los Angeles Clippers ended on Thursday night with a 104-98 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 6. After winning 57 games in the regular season and going to six games in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs, the Clippers established themselves as an elite team. However, the jump from good to great is the toughest leap to make in the NBA and the loss to Thunder exposed some holes that will need to be addressed. 

As great as Chris Paul is on both sides of the ball, he’s got no answer for Russell Westbrook. At 6’0 190, he just doesn’t have the size for “Point Godzilla”, who absolutely destroyed him in their 1-on-1 matchup. Before a poor shooting performance in Game 6, Westbrook was averaging 30 points, 7 assists and 7 rebounds a game in the series. He went 4-15 from on Thursday, but he still handed out 12 assists, attempted 12 free throws and got wherever he wanted to go on the court.

Westbrook is one of the biggest point guards and best athletes in the league - it’s almost unfair to ask Paul to guard him for 40 minutes. On the other end of the floor, the Thunder could put Thabo Sefolosha and Reggie Jackson on Paul at various points in the series, giving him a different look and allowing Westbrook to catch his breath. Oklahoma City has waves of long, athletic perimeter defenders they can throw at the other team - the Clippers only have Matt Barnes.

In this series, Barnes had to stick with Kevin Durant for the duration. Los Angeles really didn’t have anyone else who could guard the NBA MVP, apart from the inspired move of sticking Paul on him in Game 4. Everyone else in their perimeter rotation is either an offensive-minded player - JJ Redick, Jamal Crawford and Darren Collison - or is just hopeless against elite athletes - Jared Dudley and Danny Granger. To win three playoff series in the West, you need two perimeter stoppers.

Let’s say the Clippers wound up on the other side of the bracket and had to face the San Antonio Spurs. Even if we assume that Paul can guard Tony Parker, which he can’t, who is JJ Redick and/or Jamal Crawford going to defend in crunch time? If you put them on Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs can space the floor and allow Leonard to brutalize them on the low block. Nor does either have much of a prayer of staying in front of Manu Ginobili, even at this stage in his career.

That was one of the main reasons they had so much trouble with the Golden State Warriors in the first round, even with Andrew Bogut sidelined and David Lee as their primary rim protector. There are just no easy covers in the trio of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala. If they had faced the Houston Rockets, they would have had to stick a bad defender on James Harden or Chandler Parsons, since Paul isn’t tall enough to match-up with either. 

Redick has turned himself into a functional defender, but that isn’t going to cut it against some of the best basketball players in the world. At 6’5 190, he’s a relatively undersized SG without elite athleticism and he’s one of the only players in the league with a wingspan (6’4) shorter than his height. He tries hard, but he can’t contest shots, move his feet or hold ground in the low post against an elite SG. That’s not going to change as he moves to the wrong side of 30.

Crawford is a two-time Sixth Man of the Year winner and one of the most entertaining players in the sport, but he was never known as a defensive stopper in his prime, much less in his mid-30’s. They are both great offensive players who add different elements to the Clippers attack, but a team with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin shouldn’t need great offense from the shooting guard position. An inability to score the basketball is not what killed them against the Thunder. 

Looking back on it, the player who could have really helped the Clippers in this series was Eric Bledsoe. He was moved to get a more traditional shooting guard in the starting line-up, but they might have wanted to try the Bledsoe-Paul combination before just giving up on it. Bledsoe is one of the only players in the NBA who can look Westbrook in the eye when it comes to pure athleticism and the Phoenix Suns proved you could play him big minutes in a two-PG line-up this season. 

If Oklahoma City could close games with Westbrook and Jackson, there’s no reason L.A. couldn’t have done the same with Bledsoe and Paul. At 6’1 190 with a 6’7 wingspan, Bledsoe plays much bigger than his size and could match up with the best SG’s in the West in a way that Reddick or Crawford can not. Doc Rivers brought in Redick to play the Ray Allen role, but Allen was a much more multi-dimensional player who could also defend and put the ball on the floor.

Redick’s statistics in the regular season - 15 points on 47% shooting - and the playoffs - 13 points on 46% shooting - were great, but it’s not about your statistics at the highest levels of the game. It’s about your skill-set, what you can bring to the floor and how you can match up with other elite teams. The Clippers aren’t going to beat the Thunder in the playoffs with Paul or Reddick guarding Westbrook - and neither Westbrook nor Paul are going anywhere. 

The good news is the solution may already be on their roster in the form of Reggie Bullock, the No. 25 pick in 2013. At 6’7 205 with a 6’9 wingspan, he’s an elite athlete who shot 44% from 3 as a junior at UNC. He isn’t a great ball-handler, but a team with Paul and Griffin in the starting line-up doesn’t need a high usage player at SG. If you have Barnes and Bullock on the perimeter and DeAndre Jordan upfront, you have three potential plus defenders next to Blake and CP3.

That’s how the Clippers need to build their team if they are going to reach the NBA Finals. All roads in the Western Conference go through Oklahoma City and San Antonio and a team with JJ Redick at SG is going to have a hard time matching up with either when the chips are down. When you are trying to win a title, you can’t focus on an individual player’s statistics, you have to look at your roster and how the match-ups will play out over four seven-game series.

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