Fraternizing with the Enemy: Steve and SfS talk Clippers vs Spurs

So, tonight, we play the Clippers, the laughingstock of the...wait. There was a trade? Well, that changes everything. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to chat with Steve Perrin, the lead blogger at ClipsNation, and we discussed a lot about what was going on with the Clippers and some Spurs chat too.

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Los Angeles- the home of lots and lots of tall buildings
via www.fidelitylocksmith.com



SfS:

So, I guess I'll start off, and if you don't mind, the first couple here will be a little personal. How long have you been a Clippers fan...and why? I suppose I should preface those questions by saying the only time I've ever really paid attention to the Clips is when Elton Brand suckered Baron Davis in to signing, then bolted to Philadelphia. In my memory, that is really the only time Donald Sterling has ever attempted to build a real team, and it backfired horribly.

Now, of course, he tried again (and succeeded) with the Chris Paul trade. You had to give up Eric Gordon in that deal, and he's always been one of my favorites- I think of him as a slightly less talented Dwayne Wade. I may have been overrating him, but in the few games I saw he was, at worst, a developing All Star. Good defender, excellent on offense, but probably would not make the jump from all-star to franchise player; or at least that was my evaluation. You also gave up Chris Kaman, champion of cave man look-a-likes everywhere. What were your thoughts on Kaman and were you sad to see him go at all? Has he ever been in a Geico commercial?

Obviously, the hype machine is rapidly inflating expectations. Getting (arguably) the best point guard in the game will do that. What are your expectations for the season? Is this team instantly a championship contender? What do you still see as a roster weakness?

Steve:

My Clipper story is long, but like the NBA schedule, I'll condense it. I grew up in the LA area as a Lakers fan. I moved to Phoenix in the late 80s, just before Kevin Johnson and Tom Chambers arrived, and as I watched that team go from nothing to deep playoff runs I realized that the high of rooting for an underdog was so much more rewarding than rooting for a perennial favorite. Lakers fans have such a sense of privilege - anything less than a ring is a disappointment. (I don't know if Spurs fans have reached that same place or not after so much success.) With an underdog, every win is precious. When I returned to LA, I knew I couldn't be a Laker fan anymore and my return happened to coincide with Larry Brown's tenure with the Clippers. They made back-to-back playoffs for the only time in their LA history and with their young talent appeared better positioned for the future than the Lakers. I thought I was on the ground floor of a changing of the NBA guard in LA back in 1992. Little did I know I was actually many, many floors below the ground floor.

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via www.nba.com

Gordon was by all accounts the key to that trade, the guy the Hornets (or rather the NBA) insisted on receiving. I love Eric Gordon's game. He is one of the most complete scorers in the NBA - he can do it all on offense, and as you point out, he's also a good defender. But he's a terrible rebounder, and he doesn't impact the game as widely as you would suspect. The dirty little secret on Gordon, and likely the reason that the Clippers relented and included him, is that when he's a free agent next season, he's probably going to go from underpaid to overpaid. There's little question that Gordon and his agent will be asking for a maximum contract next summer, and if he plays well this year he'll probably get it from someone. But Eric Gordon at the max is overpaid, while Chris Paul at the max is underpaid. That's why you make that trade.

Kaman was the longest tenured Clipper, by a pretty wide margin. He'd been with the team 8 seasons and was the last connection to the 2006 playoff team. Kaman is a player. I think he is that rarest of NBA players, the guy who has not yet played his best, even at the age of 28. Unfortunately, putting him in New Orleans is not going to bring out the best in him either. Kaman was too deferential to Brand and Cassell and the others on those teams. Then, when Brand got hurt, Kaman became the focal point of the offense and developed a deadly midrange game. But he's tended to either shoot too much or too little in his career, based on his circumstances. That, and of course he's been hurt a lot. I was very excited to see a healthy Kaman on this Clippers team this season - to see if he could defer to Griffin the way he deferred to Brand, but still take the shots that came his way. The irony of the trade is that Kaman was just cap relief to the Hornets. The guy can play, and will help the next team he lands with. Incidentally, I've never liked the Kaveman moniker for Kaman. It fits fine for the look and the off season deer hunting and fireworks displays, but it doesn't fit his game at all. He's a finesse player, and one of the most graceful centers in the league. On the basketball court I've often wished he played like a caveman.

About a week before the Clippers traded for Paul, Mo Williams made some news in LA by guaranteeing that the Clippers would make the playoffs. Now, he was talking about the pre-CP3 team, but it tells you a little about expectations when you know that Mo's guarantee was viewed as pretty bold and even foolhardy at the time, not unlike Mark Jackson guaranteeing the playoffs in Golden State. But a week later in a post-CP3 world, the Clippers in the playoffs is pretty much a given.

The West is still deep, but the Clippers are hoping that the affects of age will catch up to teams like the Lakers, Mavericks and, yes, Spurs sooner rather than later. Are the Clippers a contender this season? It depends on your definition of contender. I mean, a lot of things would have to go exactly right for the Clippers to win a championship. But having said that, there's little question that this team is built to contend for titles in the not too distant future. Paul and Griffin may not be the best Big Two in the league (I think you have to give that to LeBron James and Dwyane Wade), but they are younger than any other All Star pairing, and as of now the Clippers probably have a better supporting cast than other top heavy teams like the Lakers and Miami.

The glaring weakness on the roster right now is for a backup big. Griffin and DeAndre Jordan comprise one of the most dynamic front courts in the league, but as of now they are backed up by Brian Cook, second round pick Trey Thompkins and the recently signed Reggie Evans. The Clippers are very high on Thompkins and he does look like a steal, but like Cook he's a stretch four, and not really equipped to bang with true centers. Evans has the muscle to bang, and is an elite rebounder, but he's undersized to defend fives, and coming off an injury that saw him miss 50 games last season. Evans helps, and he'll probably slide into the big man rotation with Griffin and Jordan, but the Clippers will still have an issue when Jordan picks up early fouls against the likes of Dwight Howard.

Some questions for you:

Forgive me if this is a sore point, but as a team with a young core, the Clippers are happily anticipating the decline of certain other teams with older cores. So how many more years do you think Tim Duncan has in him? Is he starting to decline, and if so where is it most noticeable?

Are any of the Spurs Big Three likely to be dealt this season?

What options do the Spurs have for re-tooling on the fly, or do you think they'll have to go full re-build?

On a more detailed level, the Clippers traded their first round pick in 2011, but one player that would have filled a need for them was Kawhi Leonard. How has he looked so far?

SfS:

That's a good story. I always liked Kevin Johnson. I don't know if I can speak for all Spurs' fans when I say this- but yes, to an extent, that sense of privilege is there. I would like to think that we don't operate the same as Lakers fans, and I think most of us tend to be more reasonable. We expect championships because Tim Duncan has spoiled us for so long, but I also think we are capable of looking at the roster and recognizing that there are certainly holes that need to be filled and weaknesses other teams can exploit. Of course, that doesn't mean we think we can't contend, it just means we have to try to play more to our strengths and hope we don't go up against teams with massive amounts of depth in the front court. Last year, I thought we were capable of winning a 7 game series against anyone. This year, I'm a bit more skeptical. Young teams with talented bigs like OKC and Memphis can probably beat us. I'm still pretty sure we could take the Lakers and I'm confident against the Mavs. So, it really comes down to matchups, I guess.

I think Tim Duncan plays at least until Manu's contract expires (1 year after this one) and if I am thinking wishfully, until Tony's contract expires (3 years after this one). Now, in regards to how much he has declined, it's an ongoing debate. I'm in the camp that says if he really wanted to, he could probably still average close to 20/10/2 in about 32 minutes a game. The problem is that he wouldn't be able to play the full season- he'd wear down. Two years ago, I compared his numbers to Dwight Howard and Kevin Garnett. Obviously, he wasn't as flashy as Howard, but he was significantly better than KG, and that was a year Garnett was being hyped as a potential defensive player of the year. Defensively, Duncan remains underrated. Last year, his rebounds were down some but he still averaged almost 2 blocks a game. I expect more of the same this year. 13/9/2 seems like reasonable expectations for him. As far as *how* he's declined, that's a different story. When he was young, he could cover almost anyone baseline to baseline, no problem. Now, he can kind of do that from the free throw line to the baseline and strictly in the painted area. It is amazing that he gets as many blocks as he does. I don't remember the last time I saw him jump for one. The guy never leaves his feet. You'll probably notice this is in direct contrast to Griffin. Duncan also can't move laterally very well anymore, and he's not going to be invited to the Slam Dunk competition anytime soon...unless they start a geriatric version. He's still one of the top 10 bigs in the league, though, because of his intelligence and fundamentals.
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Now included in fundamentals: fast breaking.

Regarding potential trades for any member of the big 3...one can never be positive, but I am about as close to positive as possible that it won't happen. Duncan is the franchise. Manu, as Charles Barkley would say, is the motor that stirs the Spurs drink. And Tony...is a top 6 point guard. We could not get equal value back in a trade, especially considering so much of the team is built around what he does best (drive and kick). He keeps the offense humming.

Fortunately, we've got one of the best front offices in the league, and if they decide Tony or Manu has to go (I'll get crucified at PtR for even mentioning Manu in that sentence) I can live with that decision. I would imagine the only scenario in which it happens, though, is if they think they can re-tool on the fly to win Duncan another championship. After he's gone, I see us as a borderline playoff team. Unfortunately, we'll have just enough youth to stay competitive and win enough games to keep us out of the prime lottery positions. We do have some pretty exciting young guys in James Anderson, and Kawhi Leonard, since you brought him up. I haven't actually seen him play yet, but all the reports have basically said he's below average on offense and really good at defense. I can definitely live with that from him, especially as a rookie.

I'm guessing the need you're referring to is at the SF position. You signed Caron Butler in the offseason. What are you expecting from him, and did you think that was a smart move?

Finally, the Blake Griffin questions: What do you think he will have improved over the offseason? Also, among Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, and Tim Duncan, how does Griffin compare with these three (the 3 best PF's of the modern era)?

Steve:

The Clippers had a glaring need at the small forward going into the off-season, and it had cost them a lottery pick (ultimately the first overall pick) to clear the cap space to fill that need. Butler would not have been my first choice; I thought Tayshaun Prince and Shane Battier were better fits, though Battier was likely never an option, given that he took significantly less money than he was worth to sign in Miami. Indeed Prince was on the Clippers' radar also, but he ultimately decided to re-sign in Detroit (which was about the last thing I expected him to do). My issue is that Butler has always been a high usage player, and, at the time of the signing pre-CP3, I didn't want him taking touches away from Griffin and Gordon. It still remains to be seen if Butler is a good fit, but I'm less concerned now, simply because it will be Paul orchestrating things at this point. Somehow I think Butler is going to be more willing to defer to Chris Paul if necessary than he might have been with Eric Gordon. Regardless of specific fit issues, Butler is clearly a significant upgrade over Ryan Gomes, the starter last season. There were times last season when, if Griffin and were not on the floor, you just had no idea where points were going to come from. Butler is a solid defender and a big time scorer, and I have faith that Paul will get him integrated well.

The scary thing about Griffin is that he had this rookie season that ranks among the best all time statistically speaking, and yet he has so many things he still needs to improve. There are a couple of simple, obvious answers: he needs to improve his free throw shooting, and he needs to work on his perimeter shooting. If he can become a consistent threat from 18 feet, he'll be virtually unstoppable. He also needs to refine his low post game. The mechanics on his jump hook last season were pretty ugly, and he finished the season with essentially two reliable post moves, which was progress since he began the season with one. He also needs to work on his post defense and on contesting shots more aggressively. For all the talk of Griffin being a hard worker, there were far too many instances when he was the last one back on defense - that needs to change.

I don't know if he has improved any of these things. There wasn't much evidence of improvement in the pre-season games, but that's an obviously small sample size. But those are the things he needs to improve.

Let's start with who he's not like. As you point out, he's basically as opposite from Duncan as you can get (when you're talking about two guys who are both great power forwards - in reality, I am more opposite from Blake than Duncan is). Duncan is all length and fundamentals. Griffin is all athleticism and explosion. I would dearly love to see Griffin develop the fundamentals that Duncan has, and I think he can at least to some extent. But Griffin will never be a great shot blocker because he's not particularly long.

Malone is the comparison you hear the most, but I've never felt it was particularly apt. Early in his career, Malone thrived on being stronger than his opponents, which is certainly an advantage Griffin shares. But Malone wasn't a monster athlete -- jumping over people at the rim. He was carving space in the post or rolling to the rim from the Stockton pick-and-roll. Then he developed that amazing mid range game, and for the last 10 years of his career, he was a shooter more than anything else. Think of it this way: Clipper fans hope and believe that Paul-Griffin will become the most devastating pick-and-roll combination since Stockton-Malone, but John Stockton wasn't throwing lobs to Malone. It was text book bounce passes on dives down the lane or boring pick-and-pop stuff. The Mailman would be a terrific player for Griffin to emulate: Malone shot under 50% from the line his rookie year, under 60% his second season, and worked his way up to near 75% on his career, at the same time he was developing a peerless midrange game. If Griffin can make those same types of improvements, he becomes the athletic Mailman - the guy who dunks the mail into your mailbox. But right now, other than a path to improvement, I don't see much Malone in Griffin's game.

Barkley is one I haven't much considered before. Again, the strength is similar. Sir Charles may be the best comparison because, like Griffin, he was astoundingly skilled for a power forward. He could handle the ball and take people off the dribble. It may seem contradictory that while Griffin's fundamentals as compared to Duncan are somewhat lacking, his skillset is superior, but they're two different things. Griffin dribbles the ball like a point guard, and has the quickness to get around people on the dribble. Barkley had some of those skills as well. Barkley was also surprisingly athletic early in his career.

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The round mound of earth-bound. Let's hope Griffin never falls in love with Krispy Kreme.

In the end, Griffin is a new breed, difficult to compare to others because his effectiveness is so tied to his one-of-a-kind athleticism. Shawn Kemp with a work ethic or pre-microfracture surgery Amare Stoudamire are probably the closest analogs.

I have one more question for you: shortly after the lockout, it was reported that the Spurs would use amnesty on Richard Jefferson. They too were interested in Butler, and were apparently willing to eat the rest of Jefferson's contract to get him. So a couple of things - what is your impression of RJ versus Butler? Would Butler have been a major upgrade? And how is Jefferson handling the situation, knowing that the team actively considered waiving him? I mean, Lamar Odom whined his way out of LA just for being included in a potential blockbuster trade.

SfS:

I must say that even though RJ's one of PtR's favorite scapegoats, he is a much better fit for the Spurs than Butler. There are things Butler hasn't traditionally done well, like shoot spot up 3's, which the Spurs need their SF's to do. While RJ has the occasional lapse on defense and his aggression is most definitely lacking, those are the only two complaints I can throw his way. Butler is probably a more consistent defender, but tends to demand the ball a bit more on offense. I'm not sure how well he could have meshed in with the Spurs in shortened offseason. As far as Jefferson's reaction, he's been an absolute pro. I think he's disappointed all those rumors are going around, and I'm positive he's tired of getting those questions, but he's handled it very well.


Thanks for doing this, Steve! I'd also like to take this time to invite the Clippers folks over to Pounding the Rock- yall are welcome to join us for a game thread or letting us know what you think about this back and forth.

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