ClipperSteve from ClipsNation and I traded a few questions and answers in advance of the game today.
Steve's answers to my questions:
Green17: The obvious ones. Will Sam be bought out? When? If Sam does sign with the Celtics, what should we expect at this point in his career?
ClipperSteve: God, I hope not. I'm pretty disappointed right now, directly after the trade deadline, that the Clippers weren't able to trade Cassell for SOMETHING. He's a veteran point guard with a ton of playoff experience. And he's also an expiring contract. He has some value to almost every team in the league. Yet the Clippers, going nowhere, did nothing with him. If they then turn around and buy him out, for the sake of saving what, $2M? All I can say is they better throw a party for ME with the money they save in a buyout. Owner Donald T. Sterling made a big fuss back in January about how he wanted the team to win now (I know, without Elton Brand, it made no sense) which I think in part tied Elgin Baylor's hands in trading Sam. They would look like complete idiots to the fans if they then bought him out.
Having said all that, it's too bad he's not somewhere else, because the guy can still play. Two things Sam Cassell never did - outquick anyone or play any defense. So the fact that he's 38 doesn't really change his game that much. He's still smarter than anyone out there, and he's still got one of the best mid-range games in the NBA. As a scoring point in limited minutes in big situations (like, oh, I dunno, the playoffs for instance), he could still be really valuable. In fact, there are those in ClipsNation who think the Clippers may try to keep him next season for one last run with a healthy Brand. I'm dubious. I wouldn't be surprised to see him in Celtics green next season, but I'll be pissed if it happens before March 1.
Green17: As a resident of the East Coast, I admit that I haven't really haven't seen a ton of Clips games. What have been the top five moments for the Clippers season?
ClipperSteve: Top 5 Clipper moments? You mean, like Sports Center highlights, or moments in a broader sense? I'll give you a mish-mash.
Chris Kaman's rejection of Sean Williams' dunk - just an unbelievable block. Surgically precise; antiseptically clean - Williams couldn't even pretend that he was fouled. He just had to line up for the inbounds play.
Al Thornton's follow dunk over Vince Carter - The Clippers have not been the most athletic team in the NBA in recent years. Watching Thornton on his way up while Vinsanity was on his way down. Well, that was fun. Thornton's dunks over Chris Bosh and Josh Smith are honorable mention - OK, I guess I'm no better than Sports Center. I like dunks too.
Chris Kaman going for 26 and 18 in the Clippers first game. In the absence of Brand, the team needed Kaman to play well. Especially given his disappointing season last year, for him not just to step up but to BLOW UP in the very first game of the season was the best possible beginning for the Clippers.
Corey Maggette shooting 5 for 5 from three point range in a win against Toronto. Maggette is a 32% three point shooter for his career. But this season he's shooting 38%, and over 46% in 2008. His 5 for 5 night was also special because each shot was bigger than the last one. The Clippers had fallen behind by 12 in the third quarter - his fourth three cut the lead from 6 to 3. His fifth three gave the Clippers a lead they did not relinquish.
Sam Cassell scoring 35 against Indiana as the Clippers went to 4-0. Unfortunately, that game on Nov. 7 turned out to be the high water mark of the Clippers season. In fact, it also held the key to their demise, as Cuttino Mobley left early with a pulled muscle, a scenario that would be played out in one form or another many, many more times over the course of the season. But for that moment, sitting at 4-0 when many experts had picked the team to finish last in the Western Conference, the world was spinning in greased grooves. Cassell had proven that he still could play, Kaman was leading the league in rebounding, Mobley was shooting 60% before he was hurt. Good times. Good times.
And it's been pretty much down hill from there, with a couple of Sports Center highlights thrown in.
Green17: One of your questions deals with the joy of being relevant in the NBA. Let me turn it back to you, what do the Clips need to gain traction in the Western Conference? As a longtime Laker hater, I'd be very happy to see the Clips usurp their spotlight.
ClipperSteve: Usurping the Lakers spotlight. The impossible dream, Don Quixote? Here's the thing... flash back to 2006, Shaq is gone, Kobe is alone and brooding. The Clippers are mostly outplaying the Suns in the second round, and the Lakers are already eliminated from the playoffs. Even after the Clippers lost their game 7, it seemed like a new day in LA. The Clippers were young and on the upswing. The Lakers were mediocre and seemingly at an impasse. One disappointing season, two major surgeries and one Pau Gasol for Kwame Brown trade later, and it's back to square one. The planets were aligned for a Clipper takeover in 2006 and it didn't happen. And looking at the standings today, the Lakers are in first in the Division and the Clippers are in last. It's like 2006 never happened.
But I try to concern myself with how good the Clippers can be, and not with whether or not they will ever usurp the Lakers. They've got 9 banners - that bar is pretty high. I'd settle for back-to-back winning seasons (something that has never happened for the Clippers, believe it or not). And the Clippers can be good with a healthy Elton Brand. Chris Kaman has emerged as one of the top young centers in the NBA, Al Thornton was a steal at 14 in the last draft - if Shaun Livingston can return and play like he did before his injury, the Clippers will challenge for a playoff spot next season. If on the other hand Livingston makes a Kaman-esque step forward in his development, the team will be that much better.
But the West is monstrously good. Phoenix and Dallas have done the lower tier teams a favor in hastening their demise with blockbuster trades for 35 year olds. San Antonio can't go on forever. But the next generation of elite Western Conference teams is already on the scene - the Lakers and Jazz and Hornets are young and talented and already good; the Blazers are absolutely loaded. The sad truth is, the Clippers probably can't compete with those teams even in the best case scenario. But like I said, I'll settle for some winning seasons for now.
Green17: At this point in the season, what are your thoughts about the direction of the team? Are Clippers fans already looking at nbadraft.net on a daily basis?
ClipperSteve: 18 and 33 is not a lot of fun. But you know that, right? It wasn't that long ago for Celtics fans. What's interesting to me is that people kind of acknowledge that the Clippers have had injuries, but tend to view their current record more as a function of 'oh it's just the Clippers' than as a result of those injuries. In a recent report card on the Western Conference, Tim Legler gave Sacramento an Incomplete because of their injuries and gave the Clippers a D. Excuse me? Has Sacramento suffered more injuries than the Clippers? (No.) Has Sacramento suffered injuries to more significant players than the Clippers? (No.) The simple fact is, the Clippers have been absolutely devastated by injuries this season. I won't bore you with all the numbers - you can read them if you're really interested. But over and above Brand and Livingston, the Clippers have been missing one of their top 5 players for the vast majority of their games this season. No team could overcome that.
From the point in August when Elton Brand ruptured his Achilles tendon, all of the most important things have gone absolutely perfectly for the Clippers. I firmly believe that. At that point, they had no realistic shot at making the playoffs in the Western Conference - especially now that we realize that it's going to take 50 wins just to get in. So what did they need at that point? They needed Kaman to emerge as a low post force. Check. They needed Al Thornton to emerge as one of the top rookies in this draft. Check. And they needed Brand and Livingston to make full recoveries. Well, those two aren't on the court yet, but their rehabs have gone without a hitch to this point. Realistically, you couldn't ask for anything more from this season (in fact, Kaman and Thornton have exceeded any realistic expectations).
Doesn't mean we're not keeping an eye on the mock drafts. In that sense, I guess the other thing we wanted from this season was a lot of ping pong balls in lottery.
ClipperSteve's questions for me:
ClipperSteve: The Trade Deadline has come and gone and the Celtics did not add a point guard. I'm incredibly impressed with Rajon Rondo - hard to believe he was a second round pick, and oh by the way do you think the Suns might like him about now? But back to my point - are you worried about Rondo and playoff pressure? And are you worried about playing Eddie House as your backup point? Might something still happen before March 1 when playoff rosters are set?
Green17: First on Rondo. He's really been progressing nicely this year. He has a way to go, but the Celtics can definitely win with Rajon as the starting PG. However, the lack of a real back up point guard is the Celtics Achilles' Heel. The first time the Celts played Detroit the Pistons exploited the heck out of the lack of ball handling coming off the bench and really took that game away from the Celtics with their pressure defense. Moving towards the playoffs, I can definitely see this being an issue. Eddie House is not a PG, he's a three point specialist, who doesn't handle the ball well, can't drive and certainly is not going to distribute the ball effectively. Doc has used Tony Allen in spots to bring the ball up, but every time Tony starts to dribble, I, along with Celtics fans everywhere immediately feel sharp pains in my left arm and a shortness of breath. So that's not a good sign. Really the best cure for this is to pry Cassell away from the Clippers, short of that though, I wouldn't be surprised if the Celtics do something to shore up the ball handling duties.
ClipperSteve: After so many years wandering in the wilderness, how does it feel to have the Celtics be relevant again? Use very small and understandable words, because you're talking to Clippers fans, and it may seem like a foreign language to us.
Using small, easy to understand words, I'll go with these three:
- Transcendent (okay maybe that one is big)
It can also be summarized in video form
Really its great, every game is fun to watch again (although the Suns and Nuggets games were very frustrating). Early on in the season crazy comparisons the 72-10 Bulls were made, the Celts ruled the various Power Ranking polls and generally had a terrific national buzz. Success and all that comes with it really makes being a basketball fan more enjoyable.
ClipperSteve: Given the package of 'prospects' the Lakers sent to the Grizzlies for Gasol, are you now pissed off that McHale soaked you in that KG trade? Seriously, are there any qualms along the lines of 'Al Jefferson is going to be 27 and making $14M when KG is 35 and making $21M'?
Back to Chris Wallace though. He seems to be a nice guy. When he left Boston he created a username on Celticsblog and posted a nice thank you note for the support of the fans over the years and wished the Celtics well. It was very classy. However, holy cow he's a terrible GM. Short of the Gin Baker fiasco, this might have been the worst move he made, and its pretty awful. Mostly though I'm just very annoyed that Chris was somehow able to give the Lakers life again (I really hate the Lakers).
ClipperSteve: Is there a clinic that Doc Rivers went to during the off-season to learn how to coach? Some Clipper fans would like to send MDsr there.
Green17: Well Doc will tell you that he's still the same coach. And you know what, that's probably true. What has happened this year is that (i) the Celtics added probably the Defensive Player of the Year, (ii) Pierce is motivated to play defense (and has done very, very well), (iii) Rondo, a great defensive PG plays a lot more this year, (iv) the Celtics added the best defensive coach in the league in Tom Thibodeau and (v) it appears that the Celtics actually instituted an offense this year, as opposed to prior years where Doc was more concerned with teaching guys how to actually play fundamental basketball.
All this has added up to Doc looking like a great coach. I've always thought that Doc was just okay, he's wonderful with the players and the media, but he has some serious in-game mistakes that will cost the team at times. Those mistakes are still there, but this year the Celtics are good enough to compensate where in prior years they haven't been good enough.
So sorry, MDsr probably isn't going to improve this summer by going to Coach Camp or anything like that. Really what the Clips need to do is trade for Chris Paul or LeBron - that will make MDsr look like a genius.