TrueHoop: Chris Kaman

When your brain is toast

February, 15, 2013
Mason By Beckley Mason
Chris Kaman
Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty ImagesChris Kaman has been unable to practice since suffering a concussion in January.
Chris Kaman isn’t the first person in the NBA to sound off on the league’s concussion policy this season; early in the season New Orleans coach Monty Williams complained that the league's policy treats players "like they have white gloves and pink drawers."

But Kaman might be the first to provide testimony for both the prosecution and the defense.

A week after he hit his head on the floor during practice on Jan. 28, Kaman called the league-mandated cognitive functioning test "the stupidest test ever" and bemoaned how the NBA's policy changed treatment for concussions.

"For so many years in the NBA," said Kaman, "they never had to do that stuff, and now they come up with all that concussion protocol crap. It’s not cool, but it is cool, I guess. It keeps people safe."

Now three weeks since he was first injured, Kaman has passed the cognitive test but has also experienced setbacks that have prevented him from practicing with the team. He shared some details of his recovery with 104.1 FM The Ticket in Dallas:
"It’s been progressing a little bit every day, then I tried to work out a little bit and had a minor setback where I had a really bad headache, so they told me to slow down. Now, I’m trying to do the same thing. I’m staying in Texas for the All-Star break. I’m trying to get my workout in and get myself ready to play when the break comes back.

"I’ve never had that before. Sometimes you can’t control everything. It never really made it into my head. It kind of sucks because it’s not like any injury where your ankle is hurt -- well toughen up and play.

"This is your brain. If you ruin that, you’re pretty much toast."

Elton Brand and Chris Kaman come home

December, 5, 2012
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
Brand and Kaman
NBAE/Getty Images
These two guys once occupied the Clippers' frontcourt, and the hopes of Clippers fans.
When Elton Brand positions himself for a rebound, he’s usually not the first guy to leave his feet.

Those are luxuries afforded to younger men, but not a 33-year-old who ruptured his left Achilles tendon back in 2007. These days, when Brand wants a rebound, he has to outwit opposing centers, which often means letting them sky toward the glass while Brand squeezes his way through the throng of bodies to a spot, then times his modest jump for the ball precisely.

Brand was never much of a leaper and during his prime with the Los Angeles Clippers he was often referred to as an undersized power forward with average athleticism. Back in 2006, he was arguably one of the 10 best basketball players on the planet, before that Achilles injury downgraded him to serviceable 'n' scrappy.

His partner in the Clippers’ frontcourt was a young center named Chris Kaman, who looked like a Great Pyrenees after a bath, but had the footwork of Fred Astaire.

At 26 and 23 respectively, Brand and Kaman were penciled in as the Clippers’ tentpoles up front for years to come. Reliable frontcourt tandems are a rare commodity in the NBA, but the Clippers had a solid one. Brand and Kaman bullied opponents on the glass, could both play the pick-and-pop, and were the stalwarts of an eighth-ranked defensive unit that carried a below-average offense to within one game of the 2006 Western Conference finals.

On Wednesday night at Staples Center, Brand and Kaman return together as Dallas Mavericks to face the Clippers. Both are essential cogs in Dallas’ makeshift, but oddly effective, frontcourt rotation.

The effect will be surreal for longtime Clippers fans who remember that the current Chris Paul-Blake Griffin Administration wasn’t the franchise’s first foray into contention. The Brand Era Clippers showed all kinds of promise and were the kind of good Clippers fans pined for. While the Lakers were embroiled in high drama in 2006 with charges that Kobe Bryant tanked a Game 7 against Phoenix, the Clippers quietly went about their business.

At the time, I wrote, “For Clipper fans, 2006 is Year Zero in Los Angeles basketball, and the long shadows of the Lakers championship banners are receding. In fact, the Clippers' success this year is a direct result of not emulating the Lakers. In the summer of 2004, Kobe Bryant passed up Clippers owner Donald Sterling's huge contract offer to re-sign with the purple and gold. At that moment, the Clips cemented their image as a team of relatively uncharismatic, unselfish role players. It's a perfect match for a fan base that sees itself as middle class and not so gullible about Hollywood stardom.”

As it turns out, ditch-digging can get a team only so far without superstars. Brand lost his powers, Sam Cassell and Cuttino Mobley got old, Corey Maggette became disgruntled, Shaun Livingston went down and Kaman shuttled between the injury list and the court, where he faced stifling double-teams while Brand was on the mend. After their 2006 playoff run, the Clippers wouldn’t finish a season above .500 until Paul arrived more than five years later.

Brand and Kaman occupy a curious place in the collective memory of Clipper Nación. You won’t find a Clippers fan who isn’t giddy about the current state of things, but a warm nostalgia exists for those mid-aught Clippers teams. Those fans saw something of themselves in Brand’s anonymity and Kaman’s imperfections.

Still, some residual resentment lingers over the way Brand skipped town in the middle of the night to sign with Philadelphia. Kaman was part of the deal for Paul, but his flakiness had started to wear a little thin. Clippers fans miss Kaman the way you’d miss an eccentric housemate who moved out. The behavior you can gladly live without, but there was comfort in the familiarity. Kaman was a big dufus, but he was our big dufus, many would say.

Brand and Kaman haven’t shared the court together much for Dallas in recent games, but if they do find themselves on Wednesday night as a tandem patrolling the paint, taking turns on Griffin and working the side pick-and-roll with the Mavs’ guards, it will be a trippy sight for Clippers fans who have grown accustomed to a new way of seeing the game, but for many years saw these two below-the-rim blue-collar stiffs as the embodiment of their identity.

Tuesday Bullets

October, 30, 2012
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
  • Tim Frank of the NBA: "Tonight's NBA games will be played. We are still assessing the situation with regards to the rest of the week."
  • Andray Blatche got an assist from some first responders.
  • What's going to replace James Harden's beard as the icon of Thunder fanhood? The Lost Ogle offers up 11 nominations.
  • Matt Yglesias, Slate's business and economics blogger, on the Harden deal: "[M]y real critique is that the Thunder don't seem to be considering the optionality involved in resigning Harden. Having the guy under contract for a multiyear deal doesn't just carry with it the right to employ Harden's basketball services; it carries the right to trade the right to employ him at any time. So if it did come to pass that the Thunder were a championship-caliber team and nonetheless running some kind of intolerable operating loss, they could always trade him then (or, better, they could trade Westbrook). The existence of the luxury tax can lead to a kind of overthinking and irrational sequencing about these things. When considering whether or not to sign a player for $X million, the question to focus on is whether he produces more than $X million worth of basketball services. If he does, then he's a valuable trade asset at any time. And the luxury tax should be understood as being assessed on the entire team payroll rather than having the entire hit arbitrarily assigned to whomever happens to be the last player you signed."
  • Once everyone in the starting lineup is healthy and and the meet-and-greet is over, the Lakers are going to be a bear to defend. Brett Koremenos of Grantland breaks down five devastating sets from five title contenders, including the Lakers' "slot pick-and-roll into high-low" scheme.
  • Something we often forget about rookies playing their first regular season game in the NBA: Many of them are taking the floor against their idols. That has to be a bit of a jolt, as Portland's Damian Lillard tells it toward the end of his most recent installment of "License of Lillard."
  • Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus unveils his final SCHOENE predictions for the season. Denver and Atlanta look strong. Oklahoma City and Indiana fall a few rungs. And who projects to have the No. 2 offense in the NBA? Your Minnesota Timberwolves.
  • The best in Nikola Pekovic propoganda this side of Podgorica.
  • Says here that Eddy Curry will probably start opposite Dwight Howard in the Mavericks' opener in Los Angeles, as Chris Kaman nurses a right calf injury.
  • One NBA scout has some unkind words for the Golden State Warriors. From his perch, Richard Jefferson causes headaches, David Lee was known to some Knicks teammates as FEMA because he was never there when you needed him and Mark Jackson doesn't have a feel from the game.
  • There aren't any industry studies, but I'd guess there are very few 15 year olds in North America whose Moms chaperoned them to the tattoo parlor -- Wizards rookie Bradley Beal is a notable exception. From Michael Lee in the Washington Post: "Besta Beal joined her son at the tattoo parlor when he got his first ink at age 15, and he needed her permission, because otherwise, 'she would’ve killed me,' Bradley said with a laugh. Beal provided all of the artwork on his arms ... "
  • Media outlets across the nation are publishing endorsements for the presidential election. The ClipperBlog editorial board weighs in and endorses ... Eric Bledsoe for Clippers starting shooting guard: "Across the league, NBA head coaches are facing tough choices as they go to fill out their lineup cards for opening night. Candidates have campaigned for spots since the start of training camp, hoping to show they have what it takes to get the job done. Some races were over before they began -- the incumbent's hold on the seat just too strong. But there are those, like the fight for the Clippers' second starting backcourt spot, that keep coaches up at night. Now it's time to make the call ... After thorough review of the candidates, we believe that the player best equipped to fulfill the necessary responsibilities of starting alongside Chris Paul is 22-year old Eric Bledsoe."
  • Can Rajon Rondo make the leap to first-team all-NBA?
  • Don't you just hate it when you realize that a player you can't stand is, in fact, a big-time contributor? Aaron McGuire of Gothic Ginobili on Jason Terry: "At some point, people who dislike Jason Terry -- myself included -- need to step back and simply start appreciating his production. And let's get this straight now -- I am no fan of Terry's. I think he's bombastic, self-obsessed, and preening. He needs to realize, at some point, that he is not an airplane ... But you know what? He probably was underrated in #NBARank, and in a general sense, Terry is of inconceivably low repute to a vast majority of the NBA's fans. And it makes no sense to me. Last season, Terry was the 5th best shooting guard in the NBA. Really. There were the obvious betters -- Kobe, Wade, Harden, Manu -- and you could make a reasonable case that Joe Johnson was better. Beyond those five? Nobody."
  • Our friends at Ball in Europe, without an NBA franchise on the Continent, are considering which NBA team to adopt as their own. You can cast your vote here.
  • Trey Kerby of The Basketball Jones celebrates the release of Stephen Jackson's "Lonely at the Top," featuring Kevin Durant.
  • Did you hear about the time Matt Bonner dragged Jackson to a Coldplay concert?
  • Marreese Speights would like to remind you that there are 13 other teams in the Western Conference besides Oklahoma City and the Lakers.
  • Serge Ibaka tells us how Brooklyn is like Brazzaville.

Monday Bullets

December, 19, 2011
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
  • Classmates of Kim Jong Il's son, Kim Jong-un, testify that the presumed successor in North Korea wasn't all that interested in politics when he was at school in Switzerland. What really got him going was basketball. "He worshipped basketball players in the NBA. A friend who visited his apartment at #10, Kirchstrasse, Liebefeld, recalls that Kim had a room filled with NBA-memorabilia. 'He proudly showed off photographs of himself standing with Toni Kukoc of the Chicago Bulls and Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers. It is unclear where the pictures were taken. On at least one occasion, a car from the North Korean Embassy drove Pak Un to Paris to watch an NBA exhibition game,' the [Washington Post] said. In class, Pak Un was generally shy and awkward with girls, but he became a different person on basketball court, according to his classmates. 'A fiercely competitive player,' said classmate Nikola Kovacevic. 'He was very explosive. He could make things happen. He was the playmaker.'"
  • Michael Pina of Red94 composes a stellar post on the psyche of trade bait. There are those, like Kevin Martin and Chauncey Billups, who take it a little personally. Others, like Lamar Odom, are driven to tears. Then there are Luis Scola, Rajon Rondo and Pau Gasol, who are able to convey detachment -- at least publicly.
  • The Heat have pledged to switch up their offense this season by incorporating more fast-break attacks and putting more of a premium on spacing. Beckley Mason of HoopSpeak exchanges with a reader who explains what "the Invert" offense in lacrosse can teach us about defending the Heat.
  • Charlie Widdoes of ClipperBlog feels the Clippers gave up too much for Chris Paul, and that staying the course with Eric Gordon and the salary flexibility that would've come with Chris Kaman's expiring contract was the right call.
  • Aaron McGuire of Gothic Ginobili on the composition of the reigning champions in Dallas: "So where does that leave you? A short stint with a lineup where Lamar Odom is the primary ballhandler, employing Dirk and Marion as roll men with Delonte and Carter in the wings if the play goes sour? Does the team manage a point-by-committee sort of strategy? And who defends what? Dirk’s defense has gotten better over the years, but at this point Odom is essentially the best defensive talent in the Mavs’ big rotation. Do you cross-match Odom on the opposing center and hope he can draw them out of the paint? Do you keep Dirk at center and live with the terrifying defensive results? I really don’t know, and I’m not sure anyone else does either. And that’s part of what makes this Mavs team so interesting."
  • Kris Humphries chalks up impressive numbers on the Wins Produced metric, prompting Andres Alvarez of Wages of Win to ask why the power forward remains unsigned.
  • When Boris Diaw was growing up in France, his mom -- a former player -- ordered him not to join the throng of kids who'd storm the scorebook immediately after the game to tally their point totals.
  • Watching Al Jefferson's deliberate but effective post game drives Zach Harper to thumbing through periodicals during live play, but Ricky Rubio and Derrick Williams are shiny!
  • The amnesty deadline passed and Rashard Lewis is still a Wizard. Lewis is setting up house in Washington, where his daughter has enrolled at nearby Sidwell Friends, where the Obama girls attend school.
  • Who would you rather be -- the Lakers or the Clippers?
  • Kevin Durant's fans will scour North America for his backpack like it's an afikoman.

Leverage, Chris Paul and the Clippers

December, 13, 2011
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
Assembling a Chris Paul-Blake Griffin duo isn't easy.

After wrapping up a call with Chauncey Billups on Monday night, Clippers general manager Neil Olshey got a chance to slip out of the team’s training facility and head home for the first time in a couple of days. At his Monday afternoon media availability, Olshey was sporting stubble and the white Clippers polo shirt he'd been wearing during the all-nighter he pulled on Sunday night in the Chris Paul talks.

While all eyes were on the state of negotiations on Monday, the Clippers filled out the league's automated amnesty form and filled in $2,000,032 in the amount field for the rights to Billups. (Why 32? That's Blake Griffin's jersey number.) While the Clippers haggled with the NBA over a deal for Paul, they cleverly exploited one of the league's newest instruments -- the amnesty bidding process -- to give themselves a little more leverage in negotiations.

The addition of Billups gives the Clippers insurance at the point guard position, where they currently employ Mo Williams (young backup Bledsoe is recovering from surgery). And if somehow a deal for Paul came together, then they could slide Billups over to the off-guard slot where he'd spot up for kickouts -- or just use him off the bench as a microwave.

Leverage has been a funny thing in the Paul negotiations. For a while, we thought Paul had all the leverage. He's the guy who can opt out of his contract in 29 weeks. When he named the Lakers as his preferred destination, that seemed to give Mitch Kupchak the upper hand. Once the league rejected the proposal submitted by the Lakers, Rockets and Hornets, the Clippers stepped in to fill the vacuum. The Hornets wanted youth, valuable picks and expiring deals, and the Clippers had all the above -- along with a promise from Paul that he'd opt in for 2012-13. Now the Clippers had leverage. Where else could the Hornets and/or the NBA possibly find that kind of package? The league wouldn't consider allowing Paul to walk for nothing, would it?

Even with a dwindling field of trading partners, the Hornets demanded all five of the Clippers' prime trading chips -- Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman (whose deal expires at the end of the season), Al-Farouq Aminu, Eric Bledsoe and Minnesota's unprotected 2012 first-round draft pick. The Clippers rebuffed that offer, knowing they won't be outbid for Paul.

In the meantime, nobody was crying at the Clippers' facility at Tuesday's media day. Gordon has never been uber-gregarious, but he pleasantly brushed off questions about having his name batted around in trade talk. Bledsoe and Aminu followed suit. With Billups on the way and a team they feel is playoff ready, the Clippers will continue to listen but, with a little more leverage, are well aware that if the offer was there yesterday, then it will be there tomorrow.

But leverage is designed to get the opposing party to come back with a more lenient offer, and there's little evidence the Hornets have any intention of settling for anything less than the moon, even if Paul opts out of his contract on June 30, 2012. The Clippers are unlikely to lose Paul before the trading deadline to another NBA team, but they could place second to None of the Above.

So if you're the Clippers, why not roll the dice, even if it means parting with all five trade assets?

Kaman isn't coming back anyway. Aminu has some redeeming qualities as a player, but doesn't project to be an elite forward. Bledsoe is a lightning-quick point guard with potential, but he's no Chris Paul.

You can even make an argument for trading both of the Clippers' most prized possessions. The Minnesota pick should be high, but the draft produces few guarantees. If the Timberwolves pick becomes a very decent, but unexceptional, player, do you want to be the team that passed on Paul to preserve the rights to a Jeff Green, Tyrus Thomas or Mike Conley Jr.?

As for Gordon, he might be unaffordable after a Paul acquisition. The Clippers will owe $38.5 million to Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Caron Butler, Mo Williams and Ryan Gomes in 2012-13. Paul will require a max contract. Considering the swaths of cap space around the league, it's a fair bet Gordon will too if he has another standout season. And that's before you extend Blake Griffin -- which is really the whole point of all this if you're the Clippers.

Two seasons worth of Chris Paul could be the salve that cures a generation of affliction for the Clippers. Pairing Paul with Griffin for a preseason slate might be enough to talk the pair into setting up shop for the long term -- but the risks are enormous. Getting Chris Paul and keeping Chris Paul are two entirely different tasks.

No matter how loudly Paul shouts he wants to be a Clipper for life -- and he hasn't made any promise of the kind -- what if the knee acts up? Or what if the Clippers sniff a couple of Western Conference semifinals but, with seriously depleted depth, never play past Memorial Day? What if either (or both) Griffin or Paul decides he'd prefer to play elsewhere in 2013-14? Olshey would have to play the role of Dell Demps, trying to extract as much for his superstars as possible with a gun pointed to his head and an irascible owner. When the circus was over, the Clippers would be without Paul, Griffin, Gordon, Bledsoe and Aminu. You can almost hear the barbs, "Leave it to the Clippers to burn through a decade of assets, two superstars and somehow be left with nothing!"

The most important calculus through which the Clippers are factoring their decisions is the probability that Griffin will sign an extension with the team. The NBA's competitive landscape is governed by superstars. The Clippers have one in hand, and keeping him is essential. The $43 million they've committed to Jordan -- Griffin's best friend on the team -- might well be worth every penny if it's a decisive factor in keeping Griffin in a Clippers uniform. The Butler acquisition wasn't a good value play, but spending big money for an upgrade at the team's weakest position sent a signal Griffin's way.

Backing up the truck for Chris Paul might be the Clippers' ultimate statement that they're serious about retaining Griffin for a lifetime. If Griffin wanted Paul above everything else -- so much so that No. 32 would sign a long-term extension tomorrow if Paul arrived on the first flight -- one suspects the Clippers might do it.

But right now, the Clippers have made it clear that nobody is forcing their hand. They won't be rushed by the Hornets' hefty demands or peculiar process. The Clippers have waited a lifetime and they're prepared to wait a little longer.

The Clippers reverse course

December, 8, 2011
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
After Blake Griffin landed in the Los Angeles Clippers' lap in the summer of 2009 after a disastrous 19-63 season, the organization gradually committed itself to a rebuilding blueprint. This later became known to Clippers fans as "the Oklahoma City template," once the Thunder took off during the 2009-10 season.

The Clippers would build around their future superstar (Blake Griffin) and his trusty perimeter sidekick (Eric Gordon), both of whom were on rookie-scale contracts. In the meantime, the team stockpiled intriguing assets, such as DeAndre Jordan, Eric Bledsoe and Al-Farouq Aminu. The Clippers managed to unload Baron Davis for the shorter, less-expensive contract of Mo Williams. Though the front office had meager offers for Chris Kaman, they held onto their All-Star center with the appreciation that he'd fetch more as his contract nudged closer to expiration.

There were a couple of hiccups along the way. The draft pick they sent to Cleveland along with Davis projected to be in the 8-12 range turned into a Kyrie Irving, a stroke of bad luck (the lottery pick had only a 2.8 percent chance of landing at No. 1). But for the most part, general manager Neil Olshey exercised discipline and foresight. Rather than overspend for middling talent in a dash for the No. 8 seed, the Clippers took a waiver on low-cost options such as Gomes and Randy Foye during the summer of 2010. Neither set the world on fire, but the Clippers' primary objective was keeping the balance sheet free of clutter as Griffin and Gordon approached their primes, even if it meant visiting Secaucus for a couple more years.

By agreeing to a three-year with Caron Butler, $24 million deal, the Clippers have taken a detour from their planned route. A franchise that's been protective of its cap flexibility will now pay $8 million to a small forward who is coming off a severe knee injury and has posted a player efficiency rating (PER) of 13.77 and 14.25 each of the past two seasons, respectively. Since the 2005-06, Butler hasn't played more than 67 games in a single season.

D.J. Foster of ClipperBlog took a look at where Butler stands, three months shy of his 32nd birthday:
Here’s the biggest problem with Butler -- [Butler] is a high usage scorer. Butler’s career usage rate (the percentage of offensive possessions used by a player during his time on the floor) is 22.7 percent. Last year in an injury-shortened season on a championship Dallas Mavericks team, it was at 25.1 percent. That ranked him seventh in the NBA for small forwards, ahead of guys like Paul Pierce and Rudy Gay. Short version: Caron Butler uses a lot of possessions.

... With Chris Kaman coming back healthy and demanding a big chunk of the looks (he hasn’t passed up an open 15-footer since, oh, 2005), and Gordon and Griffin demanding more possessions if anything, where are all these shots for Butler supposed to generate from? Who loses all those possessions?

... Let’s say, despite all that, you’re sold on Butler as the scorer the Clippers need. Sixteen points a game at 44 percent shooting is nice. He’s got a nice midrange game and can slash. OK. I’m with you.

But if the priority is placing shooters around Gordon and Griffin — and unless something has changed, it is — then why add Butler? Prior to what can probably be labeled as a statistical outlier (43 percent in 29 games last season), Caron Butler was a 31 percent career 3-point shooter. On his career, he’s attempted less than two 3-pointers a game. He’s not a deep threat or a spot-up shooter by any means, and he doesn’t really stretch the floor because all of his damage is done in iso situations, off his own jab steps. If you want to chase good 3-point shooting numbers in a small sample size, Al-Farouq Aminu’s start to last season works just as well.

The Clippers don't have a legitimate ball-mover on the floor to help jump-start their gummy 23rd-ranked offense. Now they'll have a player at the small forward position whose assist rate ranks below the likes of Kaman, Zach Randolph, Chris Wilcox and Corey Maggette.

Is Butler an upgrade over Ryan Gomes? Yes, so long as he's in uniform -- something he often isn't. The small forward market is dwindling by the hour, so it's likely the Clippers felt the urgency to do something at the 3 spot. But for a team that hopes to add a max player alongside Blake Griffin (who, himself will demand a max contract before the expiration of Butler's deal) and needs to find money to retain Eric Gordon and DeAndre Jordan in the next year, the cap hit for an aging small forward with a high injury risk and ball-stopping tendencies doesn't conform to a model of smart team-building that have made the Clippers relevant and potentially on the cusp of something bigger.

In appreciation of Kim Hughes

April, 15, 2010
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
Kevin Durant
P.A. Molumby/NBAE/Getty Images

Former Clippers head coach Kim Hughes: A different breed

To nobody's surprise, the Los Angeles Clippers relieved interim head coach Kim Hughes of his duties this afternoon. The Clippers were 21-28 when Hughes took over on February 4, and went 8-25 the rest of the way. That downward spiral can be attributed to any number of factors. Marcus Camby's departure decimated a defense that, at the time of Mike Dunleavy's firing, was a hair above the league average in efficiency. During his first hours on the job, Hughes vowed to toss out the bulk of the team's offensive playbook and run, despite that the composition of the roster wasn't equipped or sufficiently conditioned to succeed in a transition game. And, as is often the case with the Clippers, there was a spat of injuries that deprived Hughes of installing a rotation with any regularity.

The results -- both before and after the Camby deal -- were disastrous. The Clippers lost their first five games under Hughes by double-digits. In Hughes' 33 games, the Clippers held their opponents to fewer than 100 points per 100 possessions only three times. With or without Camby, that's a pattern of failure that makes the Toronto Raptors look like a Larry Brown squad.

Interim coaches are rarely successful, and Hughes' fortunes quickly conformed to history. How would Hughes fare as a head coach if given a legitimate opportunity to run a training camp and put his hand print on a team? It's hard to say. But here's one thing I can say with some degree of certainty:

I'd love to cover that team.

In the NBA, very little of substance is spoken on the record. Even when you're fishing for nothing more than a little education about the game, answers are often doled out in neatly wrapped platitudes. That's not the case with Hughes, whose flat midwestern accent conveyed things you rarely hear from NBA coaches -- like self-doubt, nuance and re-evaluation.

After the Clippers' horrendous 98-81 loss to San Antonio in Hughes' first game, I asked him whether the team had enough playmakers and ball handlers to truly execute the running game he pledged to orchestrate as coach.

“Perhaps not,” Hughes said. “That was somewhat exposed tonight.”

Here was a coach, who had hours earlier vocally expressed an imperative to run, confessing that his initial appraisal of his team might've been off.

Throughout his 10-week tenure as head coach, Hughes conveyed a combination of basketball truth-telling and gallows humor. Ask him what went wrong with a defensive game plan and he offered a litany of specifics: "It was a chronic situation of our bigs not showing up top on the pick and roll," or "We let George Hill gets loose on the weak side too many times." When you asked him prior to a game against Portland what it's like watching film of Camby as a Trail Blazer, Hughes delivered a one-word reply in deadpan fashion: "Sickening."

Prior to taking over as head coach, Hughes worked as the Clippers' big man whisperer. Among his primary tasks was the development of Chris Kaman and DeAndre Jordan, the two players he evaluated most critically in public. Prior to his first game, I asked Hughes if he'd spoken to Kaman about how the new running attack might impact the center's preference for a structured half-court game.

Hughes responded, "Let me preface this by saying that Chris is retarded, okay? He's really not, but he is emotionally handicapped."

Last night, Hughes bluntly stated that Jordan's work ethic wasn't diligent enough and that the Clippers are unlikely to be successful long-term with Kaman as a first option -- even as Hughes disclaimed that he loves Kaman.

In the closing moments of his final press conference, Hughes took emotional inventory of his stint as head coach. "I didn't know if I could do it," Hughes said. "I'm speaking from my heart. I really didn't know. I'd heard the horror stories about moving one seat over. George Karl told me at the All-Star Game that when you move those 18 inches over, it truly changes your life. He's right."

The Clippers move on

March, 10, 2010
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
When the Los Angeles Clippers relieved him of his head coaching duties nearly five weeks ago, Mike Dunleavy conceded that his team needed to hear from a fresh voice. Dunleavy moved upstairs in his role as general manager and readied himself for the trading deadline and the June draft. He took a bow after the Clippers were able wipe $5.5 million off the books at the deadline to put themselves in position to extend a massive contract in the 2010 free agency chase, and scheduled scouting trips to get an up close look at this year's crop of college talent. Dunleavy was slated to be in Greensboro this weekend to catch the ACC Tournament. On Tuesday, those plans came to abrupt halt as the organization completely disassociated itself from Dunleavy. Clippers' assistant general manager Neil Olshey will assume the position of GM.

Olshey's route to the top echelon of the Clippers organization is fascinating. He first arrived in Los Angeles as an actor, having appeared on a couple of ABC soap operas that taped in New York City. Once he came west, Olshey continued to work as a commercial actor, but ultimately ended up in the local high school basketball coaching ranks. He held an assistant coaching job at powerhouse Artesia High School, which has produced a bevy of talent in recent years, from Jason Kapono to James Harden. In 2001, Olshey landed at SFX, Arn Tellem and David Falk's agency, where he served as director of player development and prepped the company's clients for pre-draft workouts.

When Dunleavy got the head coaching job with the Clippers in 2003, Tellem recommended Olshey for a position. Olshey was hired by the Clippers as director of player development, the same title he held at SFX. From there, Olshey moved up the ranks. He assisted Dunleavy on the bench during the 2004-05 season, and was elevated to director of player personnel a season later. Once Elgin Baylor was ousted as general manager in favor of Mike Dunleavy in October 2008, Olshey was promoted to the role of assistant general manager, a job he held until Tuesday, when he claimed the mantle as the Clippers' general manager.

Sources around the league maintain that with Dunleavy focused primarily on his coaching responsibilities, Olshey has been the main pipeline into the Clippers' organization for a while now. Though Dunleavy -- and Clippers president Andy Roeser above him -- had veto power over any personnel moves, Olshey was the guy you called when you wanted to discuss deals. If that premise is correct, then Olshey had a big hand in getting the Clippers where they want to be financially heading into the summer.

The Clippers are placing a premium on flexibility as they strip their personnel down to the bare essentials in preparation for an active offseason. Only Baron Davis, Eric Gordon, Blake Griffin, Chris Kaman and DeAndre Jordan are under contract for 2010-11, and the organization will have somewhere in the neighborhood of $15-16 million to spend in free agency. Removing Dunleavy further enables them to reformulate, rebrand and reload.

In addition to extending a hefty contract to an elite player, might the Clippers also be looking for big names to preside in the front office and on the sidelines? Hours before the Clippers announced Dunleavy's termination, a report surfaced that Larry Brown reached out to the Clippers regarding a possible return to Los Angeles. Given the outcome in Charlotte's ownership situation, the likelihood of Brown taking a second tour with the Clippers seems unlikely, but the rumor does speak to the Clippers' desire for a complete makeover.

The timing of Dunleavy's firing is interesting considering that the Clippers are playing out the string under an interim coach. Evidently, the organization decided that even with one year remaining on his four-year, $22 million contract extension, Dunleavy's presence no longer offered value for the future. Personnel decisions of this magnitude are usually couched in conciliatory language, but the Clippers' press release was especially pointed:
The organization has determined that the goal of building a winning team is best served by making this decision at this time. The team has simply not made sufficient progress during Dunleavy’s seven-year tenure. The Clippers want to win now. This transition, in conjunction with a full commitment to dedicate unlimited resources, is designed to accomplish that objective.

The Clippers have placed themselves in a unique and advantageous position. Last month, they signaled that there's a potential opportunity for a top free agent to name his own coach. On Tuesday, that hypothetical was extended even further -- name your own coach and general manager.

If only the Clippers could say, "Name your owner."

The Clippers get ready for Summer 2010

February, 18, 2010
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
Los Angeles Clippers
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
Gentlemen, slide over and make some room.

For the better part of a year, the Los Angeles Clippers have been lurking around the fringes of the 2010 free agent marketplace. For bored sportswriters and denizens of NBA message boards, the Clippers have been a fun hypothetical in the LeBron James parlor game -- whether James has any interest in the Clippers is an entirely other matter.

Wednesday, the realm of possibility became a little bit larger for the Clippers, when they managed to shoehorn themselves into the Antawn Jamison deal. Cleveland’s acquisition of their coveted stretch-4 will undoubtedly be the lead story, but the Clippers were somehow able to dump $5.5 million in 2010-11 payroll by offloading Al Thornton onto the Wizards and Sebastian Telfair onto the Cavaliers. In the process, the Clippers have established themselves as a legitimate contender for the league’s elite free agents this summer.

The Clippers will enter the summer with a skeletal roster consisting of only Baron Davis, Eric Gordon, Blake Griffin, Chris Kaman and DeAndre Jordan -- with just over $33 million in salary commitments. Assuming they keep their first-round draft pick and depending on the salary cap, the Clippers will have somewhere in the neighborhood of $15-$16 million range to spend, which will be about the amount needed to pay a maximum salary, maybe a bit shy.

For Mike Dunleavy, the primary target seems obvious enough. But what happens in the likely event that LeBron James chooses to stay in Cleveland or points east? It's that old dilemma: If cap space exists on a spreadsheet and there's no one around to claim it, does it really exist?

Plan A: King's Ransom
Ironically, the deal that freed up all that cap space for the Clippers also reduced the likelihood that LeBron James will leave Cleveland next summer. The Clippers will certainly make their pitch to James and his representatives, and they have a good case to make. Few other teams would be able to offer James a more attractive supporting cast than the Clippers. Despite the drawbacks of sharing the market with Kobe Bryant, southern California is certainly big enough for two superstars. The ancillary benefits that come with being in Los Angeles are also alluring, from the lifestyle to the media spotlight that's essential for cultivating a global brand. The Clippers offer one other intriguing sweetener: the opportunity for James to have enormous (unilateral?) input on whom he'd like patrolling the sidelines as head coach.

There are a host of reasons why James would decline the Clippers' overtures -- ownership, history, the Lakers' long shadow -- but the primary one is that he's happy where he is. Still, the Clippers are obliged to ask.

Plan B: Max Junior
For a team that's struggling, the Clippers are remarkably well accounted for at multiple positions on the floor. Davis, their point guard, has three years and nearly $42 million remaining on his contract. Center Chris Kaman is locked in for another two years. Both Eric Gordon and Blake Griffin are good, young assets at the shooting guard and power forward spots respectively. The Clippers need someone to play small forward, but after James, the crop of free agents at that position is very thin. At 6-foot-7, Joe Johnson could man the 3 spot for the Clippers, but it's believed that Johnson isn't looking to return west. After Johnson, the field drops off considerably. Rudy Gay has the size and length the Clippers covet at that spot, but the Clippers would probably have to overpay to lure Gay away from Memphis, where he'll be a restricted free agent.

If the Clippers detect that Dwyane Wade is less than happy with Miami's recovery plan, would they present an offer? Even with Eric Gordon maturing nicely, the chance to bring a top 5 player to work alongside Blake Griffin would be too tempting to not explore.

Plan C: Superabsorbent
The deal that netted the Clippers their cap savings proved that high-priced players under contract are readily available so long as you're willing to soak up the remaining years and dollars. If the Clippers strike out with their top free agent targets, there might be ample opportunity to pluck a top-shelf producer from a team that wants to move into rebuilding mode or become more flexible.

The Clippers could potentially execute a sign-and-trade deal for a small forward, someone like Luol Deng or, if they're sold on his clean bill of health, Tayshaun Prince. It would require some creative maneuvering by the Clippers, but preying on a struggling franchise looking to shed some long-term liabilities could present them with a far better value than overpaying for a free agent.

Plan D: Building Blocks
The Clippers' starting four (plus Jordan) provides the franchise with a strong foundation, but they won't have another soul under contract after the season ends. Is $15 million best spent on a single savior, or are Clippers better off apportioning that money to multiple players?

It's a risky proposition in a league that's ruled by superstars. In recent memory, only the 2003-04 Pistons have been able to win a title without a surefire superstar. The road to hell is often paved with midlevel players. The counterargument goes that a healthy Blake Griffin is slated for superstardom. And the best way to foster that process? Surround Griffin with smart, efficient, productive glue guys who understand their roles. That might not win the Clippers the Larry O'Brien trophy, but you have to walk before you can run. A group of high-IQ competitors with a strong work ethic under a new coach would set the Clippers on that road.

Plan K
For the record, Kobe Bryant has yet to reach an extension with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Carry on.

Plan Aborted
Whether the Clippers are able to lure a dynamic superstar with a max contract or ink multiple players to smaller deals, there are any number of things that could go wrong for the franchise. Since arriving in Westwood as a freshman, Davis has played for exactly one coach he's fully embraced. Kaman was selected to his first All-Star Game this month, but Clippers fans are well aware of how precarious his progress is. The Clippers have high expectations for Griffin, but he has yet to suit up for his first regular-season NBA game.

And those retail purchases? They have a way of looking much more attractive in the storefront window than they do in real life.

Post-All-Star Game Bullets

February, 15, 2010
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

Saturday Bullets

January, 16, 2010
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

The Great NBA Swap Meet

September, 23, 2009

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

Yesterday, we made mention of Brett Hainline's swap machine, which uses a player's offensive and defensive efficiency ratings to determine how swapping one player out for another would improve your team's overall performance. 

Once Hainline went live with it, I immediately did what any Los Angeles Clippers fan would do -- nixed the uniquely inefficient Al Thornton from the starting lineup. To fill Thornton's place at small forward, I opted for efficiency poster boy Shane Battier. 

It's important to keep in mind that with salary cap restraints, such a trade would be impossible in the real world, but I was more interested in approximating how much better would the Clippers be with a player of Battier's mold on the wing. 

The results were fascinating. Queen City Hoops estimates that the Clippers would be 10 games better with Battier in Thornton's place. Here's QCH's breakdown:

Troy Murphy

For a larger image of this chart, click here.

To better understand how the Clippers pick up those additional 10 wins, I asked Hainline to walk me through what all this stuff means: 

We are looking at both ends of the small forward spectrum: Al Thornton is a high-volume yet inefficient scorer who plays little defense. Shane Battier is regarded as one of the league's best defenders while being an ancillary player offensively, taking few shots but converting them at a high rate. My fascination with Allen Iverson aside, it frustrates me to see players recognized as being great when all they are really doing is shooting a lot (remember Adam Morrison making the All-Rookie team?). That pet peeve of mine makes this opportunity all the sweeter -- this is a chance to show what kind of impact those players really make.

The first table shows actual statistics from last season. The efficiencies shown are for their respective teams: When Al is on the court for the Clippers, they had a net efficiency of -10.5, but with him off the court, they actually improved to -7.4. The reverse was true in Houston, as Shane helped the Rockets to a +4.9 mark, but that number dipped to +2.8 when Shane was on the pine. The last four columns are individual statistics.

From those numbers, we can estimate how another player would impact a team by replacing someone. By taking the on court efficiencies of the Clippers, and the respective numbers for Al and Shane, we get the numbers you see in the first row of the second table.  Notice a significant boost on both sides of the ball, as their offensive efficiency is predicted to rise by 2.4 points and their defensive efficiency is expected to decline by 2.6.  Here is how we got there:

  • Offensively, Al Thornton used a large chunk of his team's possessions, but was using them at a rate below that of his teammates - his 23.4 points from 23.1 possessions works out to an efficiency of 101.3, meaning his teammates were the ones boosting that offensive work.
  • Shane was a low usage player in Houston, but if he replaced a player in a higher usage position, he might be called on to take some more scoring load.  That is what the final term in the second equation is estimating: The difference in possessions used between the two players (23.1 - 9.7) is multiplied by the efficiency of Thornton's remaining teammates [(101.8 - 23.4) divided by (100 - 23.1) = 102.0] averaged with Battier's scoring efficiency [(11.2 / 9.7) = 115.5].
  • Defensively, we something similar, but this time the players are nearly identical in the possessions used category, so the improvement in defensive efficiency is almost entirely attributable to the improvement Shane represents. 
That gives us an estimate of what to expect with Shane on the court for the Clippers -- a 27 win team. It's not great, but it's 10 more games than when Thornton was lacing them up for them.

But what about when Shane is not on the court? With injuries and age being a concern, we should account for the fact that Shane played over 600 minutes less than Thornton did last season, and that is what the final three rows look at. They're estimates of the team's overall efficiencies, including time with Shane on and off the court -- their whole season in other words. 

The initial row projects Shane to just use up all of Thornton's minutes, meaning the now less efficient off-court numbers are used the same amount as they were last season for the Clippers. Given the estimated improvement the Clippers could see with Shane on the court replacing Al, and the same amount of minutes going to the "bench," a weighted average of the on court and off court numbers puts the Clippers with an overall net efficiency of -6.1, good for 25 wins, which is still significantly better than their actual numbers from last year.

However, what if Shane really does need to play fewer minutes?  Due to age and injuries, he may be good for 2000 and no more. Well, the bench picks up those minutes, so instead of 1300 minutes going to a -7.4 efficiency group, they get 1900 minutes. 1900 minutes to a -7.4, 2000 to a -5.5, and the Clippers project to an overall efficiency of -6.4, dropping another win from total.

The final row describes the case where the Clippers need more minutes from Shane than he could provide in Houston, and he obliges, but his knees still won't let him get all the way to Al's minutes. So, we say 2300 minutes with Shane on, 1600 with him off, and we get a -6.3 efficiency for the Clippers on the season, and they get back to 25 wins.

The notion of a replacement player will always be far dicier in basketball than it is in a sport like baseball, where a variable such as "plate appearance" is relatively easy to isolate. As Hainline explains, comparing two players is far more complicated than handing one guy's minutes to another. No two players' minutes are alike. The instant you place Battier on the floor for Thornton, you immediately increase the offensive roles of Eric Gordon, Baron Davis and Chris Kaman, to say nothing about the team's increased reliance on its bench because Thornton, for all his failings, is a more durable player than Battier.

For an infinite supply of amusement, go to Queen City Hoops and assume the role of basketball Zeus.

Operation Facelift

August, 17, 2009

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

The Los Angeles Clippers introduced Rasual Butler this afternoon to the local media at their training facility in Playa Vista. For those keeping a tally of what's become of Zach Randolph, Clippers general manager and head coach Mike Dunleavy has now spun him off for the following: 

  • Rasual Butler (1 year, $3.95M)
  • Craig Smith (1 year, $2.5M)
  • Sebastian Telfair (2 years, $5.2M, the second year a $2.7M player option)
  • Mark Madsen (1 year, $2.84M)
  • A remaining trade exception for $3.36M 
  • $14.63M in salary savings for 2010-11, assuming Telfair picks up his option
  • A spot in the starting lineup at the power forward for Blake Griffin

There are no marquee names on that list, and nobody who can match Randolph's raw numbers, but judging from Dunleavy's mood on Monday afternoon, he's over the moon that he's been able to parlay arguably his worst blunder as general manager -- the acquisition of Randolph -- into a collection of cheap, complementary assets and tremendous financial flexibility.

The Clippers are almost certain to improve upon their 19 wins of last season. To what extent they'll be in factor in the Western Conference playoff race is anyone's guess. But if Dunleavy the GM has accomplished nothing else, he's starting to cobble together a roster that looks a lot more workable to Dunleavy the coach.

Dunleavy likes to post his guards, and has been imploring the small -- but brawny -- Eric Gordon to develop a post game, something he showed off in Las Vegas. With Butler, Dunleavy gets a lanky swingmen whom he can use in that capacity.

"If you're a 2-guard and you're 6-7, we can throw you down in the post some," Dunleavy said. 

Less discussed, but more relevant is whether Dunleavy will act on his impulse as a tactician: Start Butler ahead of Al Thornton. 

"We'll figure out what makes the best sense for us," Dunleavy said. "Coming into training camp, it'll be pretty wide open."

Dunleavy has coveted a Bowen-model small forward ever since arriving in Los Angeles. He took on defensive stopper Quinton Ross as a project, but Ross was never able to develop a perimeter shot that could stretch defenses. Instead, Dunleavy has had to cope with Corey Maggette and now Thornton. Both are capable creators for themselves, but ball-stoppers, defensive liabilities -- and endless sources of frustration for Dunleavy. Butler is no Bruce Bowen, but he's the corner sniper (45% from there), and long perimeter defender Dunleavy's been after.

Few teams will come into the season with more elastic expectations than the Clippers. So much is uncertain: Blake Griffin's ceiling in his rookie season; Baron Davis' health and resolve; Chris Kaman's ability to bounce back from injury; Eric Gordon's progress.

Toward the end of his media session, Dunleavy spoke about the physical regimen he requires of his players -- their body fat targets and conditioning programs. He also described a torturous, 60-second, three-man weave drill he had to perform himself as a rookie more than 30 years ago.

"If you can do that," Dunleavy said, "then you're in shape." 

Dunleavy paused, then added wistfully, "Last year, I don't think we ever got to it. Period."

Chris Kaman has been medicated for attention deficit disorder since he was a toddler. This past summer, he learned that he doesn't have attention deficit disorder after all. New therapy has helped dramatic changes on and off the court.