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Clippers Season Preview - A Reason for Optimism: Part I

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The Clippers are loaded on paper. Can the talent translate to on-court success this season?

The Clippers are always one of the hardest teams in the NBA to predict; that is of course unless you just predict that something bad will happen and they'll miss the playoffs, in which case you'd almost always be right and they're one of the easiest. But if you want to put some thought into it and actually provide analysis for your position beyond "It's the Clippers", then prognostication tends to be pretty tricky with these guys.

Los Angeles Clippers 2010-2011 Preview
Last Year’s Record: 29-53
Key Losses: Marcus Camby, Steve Blake, Travis Outlaw, Drew Gooden, Head Coach Mike Dunleavy Sr.
Key Additions: Blake Griffin, LeBron James, Ryan Gomes, Randy Foye, Al-Farouq Aminu, Eric Bledsoe, Head Coach Vinny Del Negro

That's because the Clippers frequently look good on paper, but never perform quite as well as their talent level would seem to indicate. I call them the anti-synergy team. The whole is always less than the sum of the parts.

Once again this season, the Clippers look impressive (on paper). And if pre-season is any indication, they're also off to a great start in the underachieving category, having won just once in eight pre-season games. But those games don't count, and the real question is how will they play in the games that do count? There's a new coach, some free agents, a returning core, some new rookies, and a not-so-new rookie that will try to right this Clipper ship.

The New Coach

The Clippers clearly held onto Coach Mike Dunleavy Sr. way too long.  After leading them to the best season in Clippers history in 2006, it's been four long seasons of lottery trips.  From the start of the 07-08 season until he finally stepped down as head coach in February of 2010, the team won 63 out of 192 games.  I think it's fair to say that no other NBA team would wait 192 games before firing a coach as the team was losing two out of three games.

With an opportunity to hire a new head coach for the first time in seven seasons, the Clippers made the somewhat underwhelming choice of Vinny Del Negro. After two years at the helm of the Chicago Bulls, Del Negro was fired at the end of last season, despite taking the Bulls to back-to-back playoff appearances with identical 41-41 records. Del Negro definitely kept his team motivated through the end of the season, as the Bulls used late season pushes to squeak into the postseason both times, but his play calling and experience (Chicago was his first coaching job of any kind) have been questioned. Still, given the fact that the Clippers have quit on their coach for the last few seasons, a solid motivator is not a bad choice for this team.

The Free Agents

The Clippers were ostensibly one of the teams with a shot at LeBron James this summer: or rather, they were one of the six teams that were allowed to genuflect before King James. They never really had a shot. Within 20 minutes of James' 'decision', the Clippers announced that they had signed Ryan Gomes and Randy Foye.  Obviously, it's a pretty big step down from James to Gomes and Foye.

Having said that, it was probably the right move for the team.  With James off the market, and lots of teams flush with cash, journeymen were signing $30M contracts.  Drew Gooden and Travis Outlaw, two players that finished the season in LA last year, signed for 5 years/$32M and 5 years/$35M.  By comparison, Gomes (3 years/$12M) and Foye (2 years/$8M) look like bargains. It may be a little disappointing to the fan base, but signing LeBron was never realistic, and the other big names (guys like Joe Johnson and Rudy Gay) signed crushing long term contracts that will drag down their teams for years. The Clippers future lies with other players, and all Gomes and Foye have to do is provide depth in the meantime.

Gomes will likely be the starting small forward when the team tips off against Portland next Wednesday.  After a decade of Corey Maggette and Al Thornton at the three, Gomes' greatest asset - his high basketball IQ - will be a welcome change. Foye will play both guard spots in a three man rotation with Baron Davis and Eric Gordon. Both Gomes and Foye have been starters for bad teams elsewhere. Whether they can be role players on a good team remains to be seen.

Returning Core

The Clippers 'pitch' to LeBron this summer, such as it was, was essentially to show him the other four guys in the starting lineup and ask him if any of his other options were better. It wasn't a bad strategy, because the Clippers are indeed loaded at every position except small forward.

Baron Davis is a two time All Star and has at times been one of the most exciting point guards in the NBA. Unfortunately, he hasn't come anywhere close to expectations since the Clippers signed him as a free agent two summers ago. His first season in his hometown was a disaster, and while last season was much better, it still wasn't 2007 Warriors Boom Dizzle. The simple fact is that at 31, Baron's best days may be (in fact, probably are) behind him. But he still has loads of talent, and expectations aside, he was arguably the Clippers most important player last season. The key to Davis is motivation - if he is focused and into the game all season, then he can be great. Not so motivated equals not so great. This season didn't start off well, as he reported to camp out of shape, a bad sign if you're concerned about a guy's motivation level. However, as he worked his way into shape, he performed very well, leading the league in assists per minute during pre-season.

Eric Gordon had a busy summer. From July through September EJ was a part of Team USA and won a Gold Medal in Turkey at the World Championships. In the process, he raised his profile immeasurably around the NBA, although Clipper fans already knew how good he was. When Team USA tryouts started in Las Vegas, Gordon was widely considered one of the players most likely to be cut. Instead he earned a spot in the rotation as a key reserve, concentrating on three point shooting and perimeter defense. His performance in Turkey puts him back on the trajectory of his outstanding rookie year, after a bit of a sophomore slump while dealing with multiple nagging injuries last season. There's not much he can't do. He has almost limitless range, but can also take the ball to the hole and draw fouls. He's also one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, as he demonstrated over the summer. He is, on the other hand, a very poor rebounder, and needs to improve at creating for others. If he can continue what he started this summer, the stage is set for Gordon to have a break out season and establish himself as the best of the next wave of NBA shooting guards.

Chris Kaman had his breakout season last year, as he led the team in scoring with a career high 18.5 points per game, while also grabbing 9.3 rebounds. He even made the All Star team. So far in training camp and pre-season, he looks like he's ready to pick up right where he left off. His scoring jumped dramatically last season when he added a face up game featuring a consistent 18 footer, and if anything he's even more consistent with his shot this year. Add to that an almost endless variety of low post moves, executed with either hand - he shoots his jump shot with his right, but prefers to use his left around the basket on layups and jump hooks - and you have arguably the most complete scoring center in the NBA. If he can get better at handling double teams and in the process cut down on his turnovers, he can definitely continue to improve in this his eighth season.

We'll get to that power forward in part two of the preview.