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.
Los Angeles- the home of lots and lots of tall buildings
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)?
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.
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.