Whether it was because of Blake Griffin or Vinny Del Negro, this season was supposed to be different for the Clippers. With the 2009 first overall draft pick completely healthy and ready to make his belated NBA debut after missing all of last season, and a new coach after the seven year reign of Mike Dunleavy Sr., the Clippers had a new attitude and talent to spare.
But four games into the season, the results are disturbingly similar. For the third year in a row, the Clippers are 0-4 to start the season.
To be clear, the NBA schedule makers did the Clippers no favors, and it actually gets harder before it gets easier. Of the Clippers first nine games, seven are against Western Conference playoff teams from a year ago, and an eighth is against the New Orleans Hornets, undefeated and rejuvenated with Chris Paul back from injury. So when the Clippers were blown out in the second game of the season in Oakland against the Warriors in what appeared to be the most winnable game on their early season slate, it did not bode well. Winless in four games is no fun, but Clipper fans may look back fondly at the days of 0 and 4 if the team opens the season 0 and 9, which is a distinct possibility at this point.
Tonight's game against the Oklahoma City Thunder is therefore critical for the LAC. It's the final game of a homestand before the team goes on the road for four games. Those four games take them to Denver,
Salt Lake City, New Orleans and San Antonio. The Clippers have lost seven straight in Denver - and that's the only streak of the four that isn't record setting. They've lost 14 straight and 40 of their last 41 in Utah, 13 straight overall against the Hornets (tied for the second longest active losing streak), and 17 straight overall against the Spurs (the longest active losing streak). They've literally never won in the AT&T center in San Antonio, and haven't beaten the Spurs on the road in almost nine years.
So if ever there was a game to get going, tonight at home against the Thunder is it.
Unfortunately for the Clippers, they'll probably have to try to get the win without starting point guard Baron Davis. Davis missed Monday night's game against the Spurs with a sore knee, and is likely out for this one as well. In his absence, 20 year old rookie Eric Bledsoe will get the start, and Eric Gordon will do a lot more ball-handling, as he did Monday when he recorded a career high 11 assists.
Davis' injury is itself another bad sign for the Clippers. According to Del Negro, Baron waited too long to start getting into basketball shape this summer, and then aggravated the knee when he had to push too hard to try to make up the lost ground. Whether this injury is an indication of a lack of preparation on Baron's part or not, one thing is clear - if he was hoping for a less tumultuous relationship with his new coach than he had with his old one, it ain't happening.
Why have the Clippers gotten off to yet another poor start? We've already mentioned the schedule, which is indeed difficult. With the possible exception of the Warriors, none of the games were particularly winnable - it would certainly be a tall order to ask a young team with eight new players and a new coach to come together in the first week of the season to beat Portland or Dallas or San Antonio.
The more specific answer is that they can't shoot. Through the first three games they were below 38%, and even after shooting a season-high percentage versus the Spurs, they're still a shade below 40% as a team, the worst shooting percentage in the NBA. Chris Kaman, who was essentially automatic in pre-season and looked poised to have another big season, has missed a lot of makeable shots, as have most of the other Clippers.
In particular, the team is struggling to make jump shots. Gordon, who is leading the team in scoring at 18 points per game, has made 25 of 39 two point baskets - and only 3 of 21 three pointers. With Gordon slumping, the team as a whole has made just 18 of 70 threes, the third worst percentage in the league. Adding insult to injury, their opponents have made 38 of 81 threes, the highest percentage in the league. You'll lose a lot of games when you give up twice as many threes as you make.
Ironically, if you were just watching SportsCenter highlights, you might think the Clippers were having a great start to the season. Griffin began his pro career with back to back dunks for the first two baskets of his NBA career and has had a few per game since, and Gordon has chipped in with some showstoppers himself. Unfortunately, they don't keep score on YouTube, and on the scoreboard the Clippers are coming up short.
Griffin, for his part, has not disappointed so far. He's averaging 17 points and 10 rebounds on the young season. The fact that his teammates can't make jump shots is not helping get defenses off his back, and he is finding himself swarmed when he's near the basket. Defenders are currently daring him to take jump shots, which he steadfastly refuses to do. Amazingly, he still manages to get past them with regularity even when they're playing off three steps, but until he can take and make that 17 footer, it's going to be much more difficult for him on the offensive end.
One silver lining so far has been the play of the draft picks, Beldsoe and Al-Farouq Aminu. After logging only garbage minutes in the first two games, they've gotten meaningful minutes in the last two games and responded admirably. They're each only 20 years old and have much to learn, but they appear much closer to being ready to help this season than I previously suspected and these early season minutes will only help their development. With Randy Foye out for a few more games, and Baron day-to-day, they'll be counted on to contribute in the short term.
The risk for this young team is that they lose all of their confidence early in the season. It may have happened already, who knows? It's not easy starting 0-4, and it's not as if any of the games have been particularly close. In fact, for the most part the games have for the most part been competitive until the half. But whatever Vinny Del Negro has been telling them at halftime hasn't worked (or perhaps, the opposing coaches speeches have worked better), as the Clippers have been getting destroyed in the second half, usually suffering a major lapse at the start of the third quarter.
Getting their first win against the Thunder won't be easy - Kevin Durant is perhaps the toughest matchup in the league, and Russell Westbrook is poised to become a star. But unlike the Spurs and Mavs, at least these aren't the savvy veterans that seem to have magical powers over the Clippers. If Bledsoe can avoid being completely destroyed by Westbrook, and the Clippers as a group can contain Durant, at least a little, hopefully the team can press their interior advantage with Kaman and Griffin and come away with the win. If not, they'll be 0-9 before you know it.