No question the Clips will be fired up for tonight's rubber match, but the circumstances for both teams are different. The Lakers, gearing up for the stretch run and playoff drive, are coming off two big wins out of the All-Star break. The LAC, on the other hand, have struggled. Without Eric Gordon (wrist), the Clippers have lost eight of ten on their extended road trip, ending tonight as visitors in their building (or more accurately, visitors in the building in which they play).
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Baron out, Mo in. Cue applause.
Moreover, the Clips are a team in transition, having shipped Baron Davis- beard, contract, and questionable fitness habits included- to Cleveland for Mo Williams and Jamario Moon. Even factoring in the lottery pick heading to the Cavs as part of the exchange, it's still a brilliant deal for the Clips, frankly one I figured they'd be unable to make given the Full Albatross status of Davis' contract and his less-than-pristine reputation around the NBA.
In the long run, the Clippers will benefit. In the now, it makes tonight's game a little tougher to handicap. For some help, I hit up Breene Murphy, outstanding steward of ClipperBlog, for some insight:
1) What impact does moving Baron have for the Clippers, on the floor and off? How does Mo Williams fit in?
You said in your email I could keep this short, and then asked a question that I could write 30,000 words on. Is this some sort of torture?
Moving Baron really was all about the future of the franchise. After all, the Clippers aren’t making the playoffs this year, but Baron’s contract was preventing them from pursuing free agents this summer, and the following year as well. By bringing in Mo Williams they save at least $8.5 million and more likely $11 million, even more if you count the salary of the draft pick that they gave up to get rid of Baron.
There is one sneaky tenet that this trade assumes though- that players will want to come to the Clippers to play. I know they have Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon, even the other rooks [Al-Farouq] Aminu, [Eric] Bledsoe (and maybe Willie Warren) have potential. But there still is the fact that Donald Sterling owns the franchise. Not only someone with a poor historical record from an effectiveness standpoint, but also someone not exactly famous for being a good guy, you know?
Don’t confuse this with a pure salary dump. Baron Davis has great vision and has been playing his best as a Clipper in the last few months, but he’s not what he used to be. Sure, he hasn’t been launching long threes, but his shot when he takes it still isn’t good. He’s really only a threat when going to the basket or on the break, and the Clippers need more space around the bucket. DeAndre [Jordan] doesn’t take shots outside of five feet, Aminu has lost his touch from deep, Bledsoe hasn’t quite found it yet, Gordon is still injured. This team needs some outside shooting, especially from the guard position. Mo Williams fills that role.
Additionally, after a few years playing alongside LeBron he’s accustomed to playing off the ball, which will be of help considering that Bledsoe needs experience running the point.
Williams is much younger and this trade, as VP of basketball operation Neil Olshey said Friday, was contingent on Mo waiving his first player option (coming up after this season). If Mo stays the length of his contract, which seems likely, he’ll be 30 when it ends.
2) What do you think the Clippers did effectively in the first two games against the Lakers to keep the games so close, and can they replicate it Friday night?
The biggest influence on the game hasn’t been so much what the Clippers have been doing, but how the Lakers guard Blake Griffin. When Lamar covers him, BG has no problem getting good looks. Instead, he only struggles when Ron Artest or Pau Gasol are on him. In the first matchup, Artest took over at the end and led to some timely steals. In the second game, the Lakers went away from Gasol covering Blake half despite a one-for-nine shooting line for Griffin in the first half, and the switch resulted in a Clipper victory. With Bynum back, the Lakers don’t have to worry about Gasol as much, so I’m hesitant to believe that Blake and the Clippers will fare as well.
3) One of Neil Olshey's big selling points on Vinny Del Negro was that his Bulls teams always were stronger in the second half of the season than the first. Has he had that sort of impact on the Clips? In what ways have they improved this year as group?
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Blake Griffin has had more success against the Lakers when guarded by Lamar Odom.
I do think it’s admirable that the VDN Bulls played their best basketball in March and April, but I’m wondering how much the improving records of those squads had to do with the timing of their road trips. Bulls have the Circus Trip in November and, as Lakers fans understand, February means the annual Grammys trip the Clippers have to endure. The timing of road trips, both for those Bulls teams and the Clippers this year, could be a partially masking factor for improvement in the case of the Bulls- it's easier to play better as the season goes along when the big trip is out of the way- or regression in the case of the Clippers.
Young teams struggle on the road and the Clippers are no different, their woes exacerbated over the course of this last road trip. It’s true that they were really improving during their home heavy stretch in January, but the Clippers have reverted to their early season habits. They're again turning the ball over, are suffering terrible third quarters, and look lost defensively.
The Clippers lost Gordon, almost as integral to the team’s identity as Griffin, so the regression can be pinned to his absence as well, but even factoring the injury in the last two weeks have been frustrating. Randy Foye has taken over EG’s role, playing off the same flare screens and used as a ball-handling guard on occasions when Baron was on the bench. Unfortunately, he has nowhere near the consistency of Gordon, evident when he’s throwing up three-for-13-ish stinkers like he has two of every three games on their road trip.
The Clippers don’t have the same margin of error that better teams do, and minor improvements can’t make up for huge absences when there isn’t a system capable of filling in for the injured players. I have no idea what the Clippers would do if they lost Blake.
4) Now that Kaman is back in the lineup, what are the Clippers getting out of their frontcourt combinations?
Evaluating the front court combos is difficult at this juncture because Kaman has been slowly added back to the rotation. He played 10, 18 and then 25 minutes in the last three games, his last game being his most effective on the offensive end. He scored 14 points on six-for-11 shooting. Griffin is still getting his points (averaging 26 points on 56 percent shooting), which is a nice change for Blake and Kaman from the beginning of the season, when they struggled more with each other's presence.
There are still times when Blake, because he’s such a good passer, will throw Kaman an entry pass into the post, but overall he's not used to dealing with that kind of offense and doesn’t seem to cut or space out enough, limiting Kaman’s effective room with the ball. It's nothing that can't be fixed with time, but because of Kaman’s injury, they just haven’t had enough, yet.
However, DeAndre only played 16 minutes Wednesday against the Hornets, and 22 minutes the night before in Oklahoma City, and hasn’t been terribly productive in either game. To be fair, overall Jordan hasn't been as good lately, so ascribing the poor performances to Kaman's return may not be accurate, but it’ll be interesting to see how having Kaman will affect DeAndre's development.
Thanks again to Breene for his help. Be sure to hit ClipperBlog to satisfy all your LAC reading needs.