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Friday, November 12, 2010
Clippers: Signs of life

By Jordan Heimer
Special to ESPNLosAngeles.com

Clipper fans know optimism is a fragile commodity. The margin for error, thin for any perennial loser, is practically nonexistent for L.A.'s second team. With other young squads -- the Clips have already played 6 players 22 or younger this season -- blown leads and mental gaffes are euphemistically called "growing pains" or "learning to win." With the Clippers, no one bothers with niceties. Local columnists plug new names into old pieces, and TV pundits smirk over game low-lights. "What did you expect?" they ask. "It's the Clippers."

This season was supposed to be different. The 2009 No. 1 overall draft pick, Blake Griffin, was fully healthy after last season's knee injury. Chris Kaman and Eric Gordon were looking to build on career years. Baron Davis was re-energized and committed to playing hard under new coach Vinny Del Negro.

But nine games into the season, the results have been drearily familiar. The Clippers currently hold the league's worst record at 1-8, putting optimism on life support two weeks before Thanksgiving. The truth, however, is the Clippers have been more fun to watch than their record suggests. While it's definitely frustrating (and somewhat ironic) to be counting moral victories (instead of, say, victories) in mid-November, there have been a number of positive developments over the season's first weeks. Here are five:

1. Blake Griffin

Everyone agreed Griffin's freakish athleticism would allow him to instantly contribute points off the glass and in transition and grab bushels of rebounds, both of which have proved true. He's averaging just under 17 points a game, and he is currently second in the league in offensive rebounds behind Kevin Love.

It's all the other things he does that have been a revelation. His soft hands and good court vision make him an excellent passer, out of the double team and in transition. He can handle on the break like LeBron James and finish it like Shawn Kemp. He moves his feet on defense like Derek Fisher, picking up almost a charge per game. Listening to Clippers fans talk about Griffin can bring to mind those ubiquitous (and I know, dated) Chuck Norris jokes. Blake Griffin doesn't wear Superman pajamas -- Superman wears Blake Griffin pajamas. But it's hard not to get carried away. In their 41-year history, the Clippers have never had a player like Griffin. Even casual fans don't go for popcorn when he's on the court.

Blake Griffin
Blake Griffin has been even better than Clippers fans had hoped he would be.

The coolest part is how obvious it is that Griffin knows exactly how Griffin's game should ultimately look. He has a relatively limited arsenal but focuses on a handful of moves: the turnaround drop step off the glass from the low block, the Tim Duncan faceup from the elbow 15 feet out and the back to the basket spin move from the right side. Watching him find precisely the same spots on the floor time after time, it's easy to imagine him in practice, hitting each shot a hundred times then moving to his next spot. If you superimposed his in-game shot charts, you would see thick clusters where he's comfortable and few anomalous points. He doesn't take bad shots -- only the shots that one day, when they start going in, will make him almost impossible to defend.

2. Eric Gordon

As good as Griffin has been, Gordon has been better, emerging as the Clippers' playmaker and leader. The last minute of Saturday's game in Salt Lake City encapsulates Gordon's emergence as the Clippers go-to guy. Down seven against the Jazz with just over a minute left to play, Gordon attacked the basket, drew a foul then made the layup and the ensuing free throw. Then he picked Deron Williams' pocket on the opposite end, drove the length of the floor and put in another lay-up. With just over 30 seconds to play, Gordon played 24 seconds of on-ball defense that would have made Gary Payton proud, eventually forcing a C.J. Miles air ball as the shot clock expired. With the Clippers still down two, Gordon cornered around a screen, flew through the lane and tied the game with a tomahawk jam that would have looked competitive at the Dunk Contest. It was a truly remarkable stretch.

Gordon made his mark in this summer's FIBA championships with his defense and his outside shooting but has emerged this season as an elite penetrator, attacking the rim constantly, finishing with either hand and using his muscular frame to maintain balance and finish through contact. His Usage Rate (which measures the number of possessions a player uses per 40 minutes) is up more than 20 percent, a welcome sign for a player who has always shied away from calling his own number. He's scoring more, shooting for a higher percentage from the field and dishing out more assists, despite struggling to find the range on his 3-point shot so far.

3. Draft Class '10

The Clippers were 0-3 and heading into a brutal stretch of six games against teams with a combined record of 27-11 when it was announced that Davis would miss the trip with a tweaked knee. With backup PG Randy Foye also injured, the team was forced to turn to rookie third stringer, Eric Bledsoe, a guy who hadn't played point guard since high school. If Bledsoe was intimidated, it didn't show. He was good in a tight loss against the Spurs and great in his second start against the Thunder, finishing with 17 points on 7 of 10 shooting, 8 assists, 3 rebounds and 2 blocked shots. The offense, which had looked so stagnant with Baron at the point, was suddenly fluid. In Bledsoe's first three full games at point, the team's offensive efficiency jumped from a sluggish 91.7 points per 100 possessions to a far more respectable 102. He showed an ability to run the break and to create something out of noting on broken plays in the half court that had Clippers fans talking point guard controversy. And he did it all against a murderer's row of point guards: Tony Parker, Chauncey Billups, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and Deron Williams. These guys should have exposed the rookie. Instead, they helped Bledsoe prove he's for real.

Three games later, when injuries to Kaman and Gordon forced everyone in the rotation into playing deep minutes, Al-Farouq Aminu responded the same way, exploding for 20 points against the Hornets. I don't know how these scouting report truisms get started, but the ugly shot Aminu was supposed to have yet to appear this season. He's 7-11 from three and leading rookies in 3-point percentage, including far more touted shooters such as Wesley Johnson and Gordon Hayward. And like Bledsoe, he fills up the box score with his athleticism and length, grabbing rebounds, jumping passing lanes and playing disruptive on-ball defense.

4. Vinny Del Negro

There was every reason to think the Clippers were going to get blown out Wednesday night in San Antonio. It was the last game of a brutal road trip and the second night of a back-to-back, playing in a city where the Clippers haven't won since 2002. Plus, the Clippers were missing Kaman, Gordon and Davis -- three of their best four players -- and forced to play the U-23 squad against the veteran Spurs. Yet with three minutes to play in the fourth, there the Clippers were down three and outworking the Spurs, diving on loose balls, contesting rebounds and forcing Greg Popovich to bring his starters back to close out the game.

Vinny Del Negro
Vinny Del Negro has the Clippers playing hard, if not winning games yet.

Credit Del Negro. In spite of the injuries and the tough schedule, he hasn't been coaching for moral victories. He's been coaching to win. He's quick to call a timeout when he sees something he doesn't like, in stark contrast to Mike Dunleavy, who discovered that Phil Jackson's "let them play through it" philosophy only works if you have Lakers talent. Del Negro had an undermanned and inexperienced team playing with confidence on the road against some of the stiffest competition in the West. When Del Negro promised fans a "team they could be proud of" in a preseason presser, it sounded like the hoariest of coaching clichés. The team hasn't been pretty, but they haven't packed it in either, pushing the Jazz to double overtime and remaining competitive into the fourth in New Orleans, Denver and San Antonio.

5. It can't get worse

The schedule makers haven't done the Clippers any favors. The Clippers have been Vegas "dogs" in all nine games this season, seven of which have been against playoff teams, with the remaining two games against 7-0 New Orleans and 6-3 Golden State. Kaman, a career .486 shooter, has been ice cold all season, shooting an anemic .364 and spraining an ankle just as his shot began to fall. Davis played sloppily for three games, then sprained a knee. Gordon has made 6-of-38 3-point attempts. Beginning tonight, life gets a little easier for the Clippers, with a stretch of five games against Detroit, Indiana, Minnesota, New Jersey and New York. While the team still won't be fully healthy -- Kaman is expected to miss at least two more weeks -- the Clippers have to make up some ground on .500 before the schedule gets tough again.

Of course, there's an inherent irony to all of this. A mere nine games into the new season and the conversation has already turned to moral victories. Despite all of the above, the inescapable fact is the Clippers have the worst record in the league and are most likely headed back to the lottery for the 13th time in 14 years. But not all losses are created equal. Last season's Clippers were so disheartening because they were so irrelevant. Guys such as Steve Blake, Travis Outlaw and Drew Gooden had no place in the team's future plans. They just happened to be wearing Clippers jerseys as they auditioned for offseason contracts. The Clippers have had a glimpse this season of what their future could look like: Athletic and fast-paced, and, above all, confident and competitive. It's a future Clippers fans will enjoy.