Did you hear? Baron Davis of the Los Angeles Clippers has been benched! I know it's true, because I read it on the internet. Here, and here, and here, and here. You can understand why this would be big news. After all, Davis is the Clippers' highest paid player, making $13 Million this season, and owed $42 Million over the next three seasons.
In a related story, the Rockets highest paid player Yao Ming was benched all last season and was benched in the first quarter of Houston's game Wednesday, and Chicago's highest paid player Carlos Boozer has been benched all season, a shocking development considering that the Bulls just signed Boozer to a huge contract this summer. Oh, and Eric Gordon of the Clippers, coming off a summer in which he was a Gold Medalist on Team USA, has also been benched, as has Chris Kaman.
What's that you say? Those guys weren't benched, they're just injured? Well, for some reason, even though Baron Davis is also injured, for him the physical inability to play is being characterized as a benching, when that standard doesn't seem to apply to any other player in the league.
It started with Kelly Dwyer's piece on Ball Don't Lie, with the headline "The Clippers have benched Baron Davis. What now?" Funny thing is, the body of the piece never said that Baron had been benched. In fact, it said
We've no doubt that Davis is hurting, a cyst in his left knee is making it tough for him to keep up at this level, and he's not wrong for taking time off as the slog of an 82-game season commences.
Whether it was Dwyer or someone else at Yahoo! who decided to use the B-word in the headline, it seems to have stuck, as it's cropping up all over now, sometimes linked back to Dwyer's piece, sometimes just thrown out there without further justification.
Don't get me wrong, Baron's health and motivation are major concerns for the Clippers, as well they should be. It's all quite newsworthy, but calling it a benching is misleading and irresponsible.
Even the supposed "calling out" by new coach Vinny Del Negro seems to me beside the point at this stage. Del Negro criticized Davis for being out of shape at the beginning of training camp, and then again when he missed his first game with his sore knee November 1 against San Antonio. Davis himself has surmised that perhaps he waited too long to start getting into shape and then pushed the knee too hard, contributing to the pain he is now experiencing. But of course that's pure speculation - there's no guarantee that a different training approach would have created a different outcome. It seems fairly obvious at this point that the bigger problem is the injury, and not his conditioning, and we might guess that the injury was avoidable, but that's all it is, a guess.
At any rate, the situation has made Davis fair game for all manner of bashing. Dwyer suggests that the problem is as simple as the fact that Baron has been carrying around too much weight his entire career. Of course, when that size was working to Baron's advantage as he punished smaller guards in the post for most of his career, no one complained that it was hurting his knees. When former Clippers Coach Mike Dunleavy Sr. called him a cross between a power forward and a point guard, it was meant as a compliment. Dwyer himself engages in a little revisionist history when he links to his own post from the summer of '08 after Davis opted out of his contract with Golden State. Yes, he questioned the wisdom of walking away from $17.8 Million from the Warriors and wondered if it would work out well for Baron in the end, but he also called him a "top five-ish point guard" who should be paid "about 12-15 million a year." How exactly do those statements square with KD's current assertions that "The time has come for people to start asking what I've been wondering for years -- what has this guy ever done right?" or that his game "hasn't really developed much since his second year in the NBA" or that the remaining money on his contract makes him an albatross? Baron Davis made $11M in the first year of his contract with the Clippers, BELOW the range that Dwyer himself set for the "top five-ish point guard". Or was "top five-ish" supposed to be some sort of insult in the NBA in 2008, when the other point guards included Steve Nash and Chris Paul and Deron Williams and Jason Kidd and Tony Parker and Chauncey Billups to name just a few who were in their prime at that time? That's pretty elite company for a guy who. according to Dwyer, has never done anything right.
Evan Dunlap of SBNation uses the current situation as an opportunity to criticize Davis' shot selection, which has indeed long been suspect.
Counting this season, Davis has jacked a whopping 34.6 percent of his shots from three-point range, or one trey every 6.9 minutes. His conversion rate stands at an icy 31.9 percent. Only twice in his 11-year career has he made good on more than one-third of his three-point offerings throughout a season.
But if Davis is to be reprimanded for his shot selection, should it not also be noted that he is taking fewer and fewer threes? His 4.2 threes per 36 minutes last season was the lowest rate since his second season in the league a decade ago, and almost half the number that he took in 04-05. If the point is that Baron needs to take fewer threes, shouldn't you point out that indeed that is exactly what he's been doing? (In limited minutes this season, he was taking fewer still, 3.3 per 36 minutes.)
Baron Davis played abysmal basketball his first season in Los Angeles, no one can deny that. But while he was still less than advertised last year, in fact he was pretty darn good. His 8 assists per game was good for seventh in the NBA, and his PER of 17.5 was the best on the Clippers outside of the departed Marcus Camby. Any close observer of the team knows that they were much better with him on the floor than without him. To suggest that they're somehow better this season without him, that this 'benching' is somehow a good thing for the Clippers current fortunes, is absurd. It is not absurd to suggest that the development of Eric Bledsoe is good for the team's future, but Davis' absence is definitely going to cost the Clippers games this season.
Let's discuss this story for what it is, an injury. Injuries are unfortunate, and for the most part unavoidable, and I like to think that the injured player should be a sympathetic character in the proceedings, though sadly that is not always the case. I still remember stories in 2007 that suggested that Shaun Livingston was somehow to blame for his own knee injury; that he was too frail and should have done something about it. Yet Kevin Durant is an MVP candidate who played in 82 games last season, playing on one of the thinnest frames in the league. It's easy to snipe that one player is too thin or that another is too heavy and in the end, you could probably come up with a reason for any injury that occurs, when 99 times out of 100 it's just an injury.
In fact, the news yesterday that Davis experienced additional pain and swelling after a brief stint in New Orleans Tuesday night is the real story here. No doubt Davis will be criticized for stupidly rushing back from the injury too soon, where another player would be praised for trying to play through the pain to help his undermanned team. Regardless, if 10 minutes of court time has such an adverse impact, I think we can surmise that Baron Davis is still weeks away from being able to play this season. He saw a specialist Thursday, and after that meeting Clippers trainer Jasen Powell told Lisa Dillman of the LA Times "It could take days, could take weeks, not sure."
Combined with Chris Kaman's badly spained ankle, the Clippers are once again starting the season swarmed by the injury bug. Eric Gordon's shoulder stinger is less severe, and EJ should be able to play sooner rather than later. But it seems likely at this point that both Davis and Kaman will be out for a couple weeks more each, ensuring that the team, already in a 1-8 hole, will continue to struggle to win games, even as their brutal early season schedule finally turns soft.
But rest assured, when Baron Davis is healthy, he will not be on the bench, but rather back in the starting lineup, where he belongs.