Thursday, February 4, 2010
By Kevin Arnovitz ESPNLosAngeles.com
It's somewhat confounding that of the major professional sports, the NBA's home-court advantage is the most favorable.
Both football and baseball offer elements like weather, unique playing surfaces and facilities that hold upward of 40,000 screaming fans. Baseball fields have nooks and crannies that can baffle visiting outfielders, while cold-weather teams in football prey on their rivals from the sun belt.
An NBA court? A 94-foot long by 50-foot wide slab of hardwood (usually maple) with 10-foot high baskets, whether you're at Staples Center or Madison Square Garden. Even though the dimensions are uniform across the league, the ability to win road games on a consistent basis is a defining feature that separates successful NBA teams from the also-rans.
The Clippers and Chris Kaman finished 2-6 on the recent eight-game road trip.
In the period before and after New Years, the Clippers proved they could compete with the NBA's elite -- so long as they were playing in their home whites. The Clippers defeated the Lakers and Celtics at Staples Center, and almost knocked off the Cavaliers without center Chris Kaman. When lesser teams came into Los Angeles, the Clippers' defense took charge, dispatching the likes of Brandon Roy and Dwyane Wade.
With a bundle of home wins in the bank, the Clippers embarked on their longest road trip of the season, an eight-game, 14-day odyssey, with a good deal of confidence. Although they had to begin the trip without second-year guard Eric Gordon, who suffered a strained big toe, the itinerary included dates against some of the league's worst competition. A 4-4 trip was a reasonable goal. If achieved, the Clippers would return home with an equal number of road wins and home losses, a virtual .500 team headed into the back stretch of the schedule.
The Clippers returned from that journey early Thursday morning a disappointing 2-6. In the process, they handed the desperate New Jersey Nets their fourth win of the season. They also phoned in a game -- apart from Baron Davis' explosive 23-point third quarter -- to a dreadful 9-38 Minnesota team they'd destroyed at the Target Center in mid-December.
The trip wasn't without consolation and qualifiers. The Clippers finished strongly. They notched an impressive win over a white hot Chicago Bulls team at United Center, then followed it up Wednesday night with a gallant effort in a hard-fought loss to the Atlanta Hawks, one of the league's best home teams. The Clippers played the trip's first three games without Gordon, then watched him struggle upon his return. Just when Gordon got back on the court, Kaman sprained his ankle and missed a pair of games.
For observers looking for definitive answers about the team, it was a frustrating trip riddled with contradictions. Over a two-week period, the Clippers played some of their best and worst basketball of the season. Despite the mixed messages, there are a few conclusions we can take away from the slideshow of the trip:
Without Chris Kaman, the Clippers aren't competitive
This reality is simultaneously encouraging and scary. On one hand, Kaman has emerged as the indispensable big man they hoped he would be when they drafted him sixth overall in the 2003 draft. So indispensable, in fact, that they're winless without him in six games this season.
Most of the Clippers' offensive sets run through Kaman in the post or up high on pick-and-rolls. With no threat down low in Kaman's absence, the Clippers -- Baron Davis in particular -- get smothered on the perimeter and the offense stagnates as a result.
But when you examine the game log, you find that the void left by Kaman might be even more pronounced on the defensive end. In those six Kaman-less games, the Clippers' defensive efficiency is an astronomical 118.5. To put that in perspective, the NBA's least efficient defense, the Toronto Raptors, has a rating of 109.5 for the season. Kaman might not win any votes for the NBA's All-Defense team, but his quick feet, size, shot-blocking ability and familiarity with Mike Dunleavy's defensive rotations as the longest-tenured Clipper are crucial to the team's defensive scheme. Add it all up, and Kaman is fifth in the league in defensive rating when you measure his team's performance with him on and off the court.
Eric Gordon must make the most of his open shot opportunities
The primary initiators of the team's offense are Davis and Kaman. They generally get things started in the half court with a pick-and-roll or a post-and-kick set. This action lures the defense away from the perimeter, and that's where Gordon comes in. Often when defenses collapse inside, he's left open to launch from long distance or put the ball on the deck and muscle his way to the rim. When Gordon's shots are falling, the offense hums. But when he's not shooting well and turning the ball over on dribble-drives, you might as well toss out the blueprint.
Gordon strained his big toe just prior to the road trip, and in the five games since he returned, he's struggled to regain his stroke. Gordon's shooting efficiency is a true bellwether for the Clippers. It's not a coincidence that the team's sole victory since Gordon returned was the only game in which he compiled a true shooting percentage of greater than 50 percent.
For the Clippers to be successful, they need to know that Gordon will make good use of his opportunities when Kaman finds him on the kick out, Davis delivers him the ball on the weak side for a spot-up 3, or he's in the open court.
It's not the tempo, it's the turnovers
"Identity" is one of those abstractions lesser teams use as a crutch to explain away their struggles. Successful teams just go out and execute and let winning define them. This isn't to say that key principals like players and coaches shouldn't commit themselves to being on the same page, but stylistic preoccupations are usually more debilitating than useful.
Since Baron Davis' arrival in Los Angeles, there's been an open discussion about what kind of identity the Clippers should adopt. Should they abide strictly by the formalism of Mike Dunleavy, or allow Baron Davis to improvise? The average NBA game features about 95 possessions, so there are plenty of opportunities to go around for both deliberate post sets and free-flowing fast breaks.
For the Clippers, who rank 23rd in offensive efficiency, the issue isn't that they're walking the ball up the court too slowly or, in contrast, not being methodical enough. The problem is that only two teams in the league squander a greater percentage of their possessions. When they actually get a shot off, the Clippers are a middle-of-the-pack team putting the ball through the iron.
Marcus Camby has serious trade value, but the Clippers would be far worse without him
Wednesday's tight loss to Atlanta was just another night at the office for the Clippers' big man. He collected 20 rebounds -- 10 on each end of the floor -- and was the team's co-leader in assists. At 35, Camby has established himself as a wily, grizzled veteran, the consummate glue guy. How many other centers in the league will tell you that they study the projectile of the basketball to accumulate their gaudy rebounding stats?
When you add Camby's professionalism, size and skill set to his attractive expiring contract, you get a player that has "trade deadline deal" written all over him. With the Clippers a long shot to contend for a playoff berth in an ultra-competitive Western Conference, it's possible GM/coach Mike Dunleavy could be presented with an attractive offer to part with Camby. Whether the cap space generated by Camby's expiring contract is something Dunleavy wants to retain for himself for a summer splurge in the free-agent market will be a major factor in that decision.
One thing is certain: If the Clippers deal Camby away for picks and/or younger talent, they will be much worse off for the remainder of this season. The Clippers are 7.5 points better when Camby is patrolling the middle. That stat alone suggests the Clippers wouldn't be merely a lesser team without Camby, they'd be horrendous.
The Clippers need to learn how to win short-handed
The Clippers' starting five of Baron Davis, Eric Gordon, Rasual Butler, Marcus Camby and Chris Kaman has been potent when they're on the floor together. The team is 10-3 when this unit takes the floor at tip-off and, collectively, they've amassed a plus-105 over the competition. With Gordon and Butler as perimeter threats from deep, Davis and Kaman can work their magic as a small-big tandem, meanwhile Camby gobbles up offensive rebounds in bulk.
Every season, a few teams like Atlanta manage to float their way through the grind of the NBA schedule almost completely healthy. Everyone else -- powerhouses and doormats alike -- has to finesse their starting lineups, plugging holes and juggling absences. Unfortunately for the Clippers, injuries are a part of life in the NBA. As attractive as that 10-3 record is, the corresponding stat (the Clippers are 11-25 when these five don't start) is ugly.
The Clippers can use their sterling record with their preferred five as proof that they're, at least platonically, a good basketball team. They can allude to missed time by Kaman and Gordon as reasons they aren't better. Better yet, they could muster the fortitude a snake-bitten team like Portland has used to rally around has-beens, second-round rookies and question marks and win big games.
Kevin Arnovitz is an NBA contributor to ESPN.com and ESPNLosAngeles.com and the author of ClipperBlog.