Elton Brand in Buffalo Braves Orange Photo Credit: Icon SMI
Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the worst team in the Western Conference: the Los Angeles Clippers. The term “worst” is going to be highly subjective, especially where fandom is concerned. Does it mean the team that will have the fewest wins this season? Given the NBA is entertainment, does it indicate how entertaining they are? Is it just which team would be most painful to be a fan of? Is it which team you would expect to lose to all others if they played tomorrow? Is it merely which team is the furthest from being a legitimate title contender? Is it which team has sustained their gross ineptitude the longest? How much should youth, potential, and financial flexibility factor in? There are a lot of things to weigh, and “worst” is going to mean something slightly different to everybody. To us it means the Clippers.
There’s some debate between the Thunder and the Clippers in this spot, especially after the Clips walloped OKC in their first meeting this season, but nobody should be shocked at the ranking. LAC has been synonymous with futility for a very, very long time. Even including their Buffalo years you could count the franchise’s stars on one hand: Elton Brand, Bob McAdoo, Randy Smith, Danny Manning… am I missing anybody? World B. Free maybe? The team moved to Los Angeles in 1984 and since then they have made only four playoff appearances – meeting expedient elimination in the first round thrice. After a rough summer that saw Elton Brand and Corey Maggette replaced by Baron Davis and Marcus Camby, that doesn’t figure to change this season. With Donald Sterling in the director’s chair there’s little hope it will any time soon.
The Los Angeles Clippers
2007-08 Record: 23-59, 12th in the West
2008-09 Salary: $58,302,552
The Clippers will only go as far as Baron Davis will take them, but the man Los Angeles fans should be watching closely is Al Thornton. A 6-8 forward, he’s the closest thing this team has to a promising young player. The second-year forward is extremely athletic and has the ability to be a big-time scorer. He’s an intense player who also has strong defensive skills and decent rebounding ability with great quicks and ups. In the early going Thornton has shown an ability to put up points at the NBA level, but at 24 years of age is still wildly inconsistent. On offense Thornton is blessed with a great first step for a man his size, though his passing and ball-handling leave something to be desired. As a four-year college athlete he lacks some of the dramatic upside of other top draft picks, but it’s not hard to imagine Al averaging 20+ points a game with nice peripherals in the very near future.
The only other significant part of the LAC youth movement is Eric Gordon, a 19-year-old guard out of Indiana. At 6-3 he could theoretically play shooting guard alongside Baron, but he really has the frame of a point. It remains to be seen if he can man up at the defensive end on NBA point-guards or shooting guards, while his passing skills and leadership may not be ideal for a true point. In limited minutes we haven’t seen much from the kid at the NBA level, but we do know that Gordon is a shooter with decent athleticism and a scorer’s mentality. Eventually he should have a solid inside/outside offensive game.
The Baron Davis signing would have made a lot more sense had the Clippers been able to retain Elton Brand, but he’s still a marquee player and a legitimate franchise leader. A former All-Star point guard, Davis was the first significant free-agent signing from outside the organization since Bill Walton in the late 1970s. He’s a competitor and an entertainer who can put people in the stands and keep them entertained when they get there. While his efficiency and health are causes for concern, B Diddy is the rare point who can do it all on offense. He’s just as comfortable sticking jumpers as he is dropping dimes, and he has a flare for the dramatic in both. He’s also a major physical presence at the point – in the post capable of backing down smaller guards with ease and an absolute bull when he takes it to the rack. Baron is also a class act on and off the court, and the UCLA product is a hometown hero who relishes the chance to be a team leader and make the players around him better… as well as to dabble in Hollywood.
Things are looking up off the court as well. In the last few years the Clippers have opened a state-of-the-art practice facility in Playa Vista, they’ve brokered new television deals with local stations, they’ve appeared on national television more than ever before, and they’ve gone out and given big money to free agent Baron Davis and brought in high-profile, big-money PF Elton Brand (which was a good sign even if he left).
Hey, maybe team owner Donald Sterling is finally loosening his legendarily tight purse strings. That’s a good thing, because LA doesn’t have a lot of big contracts to worry about. Baron Davis and Chris Kaman will be getting big money through 2011-12, but outside of that pair the Clippers have no guaranteed contracts past next season. If they can go out and wisely spend some money on the talent-rich free agent classes of the next few summers and fit other vets with Baron, Thornton, Gordon, and Kaman they might just be able to turn things around. Maybe.
Breaking down the bad in LA after the jump…
The Bad and the Ugly:
You have to question the veteran contracts considering the reality that this is not a win-now franchise. It just doesn’t jibe. The crosstown “rival” Lakers have the look of a mini-dynasty that will be dominating the Pacific Division for a few years, so it makes sense for the Clippers to be in rebuilding mode for a couple seasons. They’re not. Whereas the Thunder may be terrible, at least there’s a framework there for the future. In LA there’s just no reason to be hopeful right now.
Why, exactly, did they go out and take on the contract of an aging vet like Marcus Camby? And we’re huge Boom Dizzle fans, but did it really make sense to give an injury-prone 29-year-old Davis a 5-year, $65 million dollar deal? It’s especially perplexing when the Clippers did it the same summer they used the seventh-overall pick on Eric Gordon, a kid who doesn’t have the body to be a shooting guard at this level. And while Baron Davis is a dynamic player, he doesn’t fit into coach Mike Dunleavy’s structured offense.
Their draft picks of the last decade, starting with first-overall pick and colossal bust Michael Olowokandi in 1998, have been poor. It’s been a combination of botched selections, tragic injurie,s and malcontents. Lamar Odom was selected in 1999 with the fourth pick, but he never fell into line there and saw his best seasons after leaving town. It didn’t help the culture of losing when the Clips took punks Darius Miles and Quentin Richardson in the first round the following season. Then big men busts Melvin Ely and Chris Wilcox were selected in the lottery in 2002. Chris Kaman was the sixth pick in 2003, and while he’s been a very serviceable center, he’s never lived up to that lofty draft status. Shaun Livingston had incredible potential when LA took him with the fourth pick in 2004, but a devastating knee injury ended his career as a Clipper. In 2005 they took Yaroslav Korolev. Who? Exactly.
But hey, it’s still Los Angeles, so they can always lure in big names if they want to.
Here’s the best news in Clipperland: on October 7th, 2008, the franchise mercifully pulled the plug on Elgin Baylor as general manager. Baylor enjoyed a 22-year reign as VP and general manager of basketball operations, one of the longest tenures in NBA history. That’s the good news, but what took so long? He was clearly as inept as GMs come and had been working without a formal contract since the early 1990s. It’s that kind of apathy and bush-league mentality that has defined team owner Donald Sterling’s era. Since he purchased the franchise in 1981 for $20 million, Sterling has developed a reputation as one of the most incompetent, stingy, and absentee owners in all of sports. It’s been a culture of apathy and losing. As long as he’s running the show it’s hard to imagine Los Angeles ever sustaining prolonged success.