Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Memphis at LA Clippers - 2.20.08

Memphis lost another game they seemed to have won in Seattle Tuesday night. The usual suspects were at fault. Poor shot selection, poor defense and poor execution were the downfall as Memphis blew a 19 pt lead in the 3rd quarter. With the game tied and less than a minute remaining the Sonics scored the last 7 pts to put the game away. Memphis was led by Rudy Gay and Hakim Warrick but Mike Miller's back spasms left the team short in the backcourt as the Sonics were led by guards Earl Watson and Wally Szczerbiak. Memphis is seeing some improvement in different areas but the team hasn't united yet.

Los Angeles suffers similiar problems as the Grizzlies did earlier in the season. A mostly veteran team that is underperforming, Los Angeles has to be looking at an overhaul of players in the near future as Corey Maggette, Cuttino Mobley, Sam Cassell and Elton Brand - who has been out all season with achilles tendon surgery - could be gone before the start of next season. One bright spot for the Clippers has been the development of big man Chris Kaman. With Brand out Kaman has become a dominating inside presence and leading rebounder. Rookie Al Thornton wasn't selected for the All-Star festivities but has been improving his play of late has caught people's attention. The week before the all-star break saw Thornton average 20.7 ppg and 7.7 rpg. It will be interesting to see how he comes back after the break.

A View from the Other Side of the Web:
Spartacus and Steve Perrin over at Clips Nation have been trading questions this week. Here are Steve's answers to some of Spartacus' questions:

3SoB) What do you think the chances are that Elton Brand and Corey Maggette are still Clippers next season?
SP) I'm no expert, but I blog one on the interwebs. In Brand's case I think it's about 95% certain that he'll be a Clipper next season. It's just not a good business decision to opt out after missing essentially the entire season due to injury. He's still Elton Brand, so he might still warrant a maximum contract, but it's fair to say that his value is lower now than it has been in a long time, simply because he hasn't been on the court. Beyond that, I think he is genuinely excited to be paired up with the new Chris Kaman in what could be the best low post tandem since... since... McHale and Parrish? Unseld and Hayes? It's been a long time. Brand refers to Kaman as 'my brother,' he's known for awhile how good Kaman could be. He wants to play with this new, focused version. He'll play out the final year on this contract, which gives him the option of testing the free agent market next year if it still isn't happening for the Clippers.

I'd put Maggette at about 80% to opt out, but of course he could still re-sign with the Clippers at that point. It's a very down market for free agents - after Antawn Jamison, you're looking at damaged goods like Bonzi Wells and Ricky Davis as the only unrestricted free agents definitely out there. A slew of top players have ETO's (Brand, Maggette, Iverson, Marion, Arenas) but most of them will probably stay with their current teams. Given the relatively scarce supply, Corey would be wise to opt out and see what his value is, especially considering his - shall we say - strained relationship with Mike Dunleavy Sr. However, I think it's entirely possible that he'll be disappointed in the offers he gets. He turned down a 3 year extension from the Clippers that would have paid him about $30M. Maggette's a unique talent, but I'm not sure that there are going to be a lot of teams lining up to pay him $10M per - he's not a great defender, he's injury-prone, and his coach has spent the better part of the last three seasons dissing him. With only a handful of teams likely to be far enough under the cap to pay him that much (your Grizzlies being one that is pretty well set on the wing), I'm just not convinced he's going to get the payday he's looking for.

3SoB) Will Shaun Livingston be the starting PG next season?
SP) Yes.

Oh, you want some justification for that.... This is the topic of much debate around ClipsNation right now, but I find myself squarely in the pro-Livingston camp. Obviously the big question is the knee. I've reminded my readers that Willis McGahee had essentially the same injury (about as bad as it gets to be sure) and made the Pro Bowl this season. The doctors say he's doing fine and will make a full recovery. So I'm acting on the assumption that this injury is behind him. The next question is what other injuries are in front of him, because he's never had an injury-free season.

As for the basketball part, although he's only rarely flashed the potential that made him the 4th player in the 2004 draft, he does some things very well. As with Darko, it becomes difficult to get over the disappointment at not having the player you thought you had long enough to embrace the player you actually have. But Shaun Livingston is a terrific defender (with the potential to be a game-changer on defense), and a great passer who can absolutely run the point in the NBA. If he never develops the mentality to take over a game, if he never consistently makes a 20 foot jump shot... he'll still be a legitimate starter. A point guard who plays solid defense and who can get the ball to Brand and Kaman in the right places on the floor won't have to do that much more for the Clippers. Don't get me wrong - it would be nice if he did. And frankly, I've always viewed Livingston as eventually being the best player on a great Clippers team (as opposed to a good player on a good Clippers team). So I'm hoping that he'll soon take that step that Chris Kaman took this season. He's still only 22 after all. But even if he doesn't (and assuming he's healthy), he's the starter, and I'm fine with that.

3SoB) Who do you want to see the team take with the lottery pick this summer?
SP) The answer to this question is dependent on the answer to the question above. If team management agrees with me that Livingston is going to be OK (and obviously they're hoping that they'll get more data on that between now and June hopefully in the form of some actual NBA games), then they will be looking to add a shooting guard to eventually take over for Cat Mobley. And they are in perpetual need of shooters, so whoever they draft needs to be able to shoot. Maybe you look for a combo guard as a hedge against Livingston, but those invariably end up not working out.

I don't think of myself as a draft expert. I can read what they're saying on the draft sites, but I don't end up watching that much college hoops, and I've never even seen footage of Nicholas Batum. Having said that (and bearing in mind that the Clippers will likely be picking around 6 or 7, give or take), it seems like Eric Gordon would be a good fit and might be available. The only knock on him seems to be that maybe he's a little undersized, and pairing him with the 6'7" Livingston mitigates that. Some of the experts are saying that Jerryd Bayless could be a Monta Ellis style 2 guard in the NBA, so he becomes a possibility as well. It's a long way off, but it seems unlikely that OJ Mayo would drop to the Clippers. If on the other hand they win the lottery and get the number one pick, I think they have to take Michael Beasley; like I said, I'm no draft expert, but even I know that guy's good.

3SoB) Did you ever imagine that Chris Kaman was capable of the performance he has put up this season?
SP) Imagine? Yes, absolutely. But I will say that the consistency with which he has performed is something that has been a very pleasant surprise, if not a shock. During the 05-06 season, especially after January, Kaman showed much of what he has been doing this season. He is a defensive rebounding machine when he is focused, and he has always had a truly dazzling array of offensive weapons. He shot over 52% from the field that season, so his shooting percentage is actually significantly worse this year than it was two seasons ago (the constant double teams in the absence of Brand has a lot to do with that). But having watched the guy for over four seasons now, I've known that he had a world of talent. He's very big, he's surprisingly quick and graceful, his footwork is tremendous and he has good hands - he's ostensibly right-handed, but he's actually better finishing with his left hand around the basket. He has added a consistent face up jumper out to about 18 feet this season, and that has helped his offensive game a lot.

The one thing I definitely did not see coming is the shot blocking. Third in the league? Where did that come from? He's averaging almost 3 blocks a game, which is twice as many has his previous career high for a season. In fact, if the Clippers have a chance to be a very good team, it is because of defense. They're a middle of the pack defensive team this season, without their best low post defender in Brand and their best perimeter defender in Livingston. With two premier shot blockers anchoring the back line next season, they could be a scary good defensive team.

3SoB) Should the Clippers trade Sam Cassell to a contender before the deadline?
SP) Yes they should trade him, although not necessarily to a contender. Sam is a double-whammy of trade value right now. He's a veteran scoring point guard with a ton of playoff experience in a league where that is in short supply. But he's also a $6M expiring contract. Unfortunately, those attributes don't compound making him doubly valuable to one team, but he could conceivably end up going to a contender looking for playoff help OR to a lottery team in a salary dump (like in the Cassell, Aaron Williams and a pick for Mike Miller trade rumor). Sam's been a great Clipper, and I'm sure Elgin Baylor would love to send him to a contender if the price is right, but let's not be sentimental about this. Whoever makes the best offer gets him. That's why I've always found the 'buyout' talk so strange. Other than Celtics fans dreaming of acquiring a playoff proven point guard on the cheap and maybe Sam's agent, who is talking about a buyout? Sam has value now, and he needs to be traded in order to get something in return since it's highly unlikely he would be back with the Clippers at 39. At any rate, I'll be surprised and disappointed if he is not traded this week. Cleveland and Denver seem like possibilities.

You can check out the asnwers Spartacus provided to Stephen's questions at

Now to the matchups...

Point Guards: Mike Conley vs Sam Cassell
Sam Casell is old, unhappy and wanting out of LA. Mike Conley is young, fast and looking to make a mark in Memphis. Cassell has publicly expressed a desire to be traded to a competing team and that attitude has made it difficult to be the leader the team needs. While it is understandable at 38 that Cassell would want to be on a leading team but it isn't like Cassell is playing at such a level that competing teams would be knocking down the door to get him. His minutes are down on a team desperate for PG play and he is hitting only 24% of his 3 pt attempts. Conley had a strong game against Seattle with 8 pts and 9 assists but consistency is always the problem for rookie PGs. How well he responds to a disappointing loss and traveling to play the next game will show just how mature he is in handling the starting role.
Advantage: Los Angeles

Shooting Guards: Mike Miller vs Cuttino Mobley

If Mike Miller can go this should be a great match up. Unfortunately Miller's back prevented him from playing almost the entire game against Seattle and that really hurt the Grizzlies attack as the team abandoned their inside attack that had been successful to attempt more and more long shots that weren't falling. Memphis needs Mike's maturity more than ever right now and the trade rumors surrounding him doesn't help. Cuttino Mobley at 33 and a generous 6-4 is an older undersized guard who has remained in the league by knowing how to score. Shooting 41% from the arc will keep almost anyone playing. Mobley's experience can be negated by Miller's but he will exploit the Grizzlies smaller guards if Miller is unable to go.
Advantage: Los Angeles

Small Forwards: Rudy Gay vs Corey Maggette

Rudy Gay had fun in New Orleans last weekend then traveled to Seattle and seemed to be a little leg weary as his outside shot betrayed him in the 2nd half. Now it is a back to back game situation while Maggette has been waiting for a chance to show why he should have been at the all-star weekend himself. Maggette may be having his best all-around season this year which isn't totally surprising with his impending free agency looming. This is a great match against two exciting players. The first meeting between the teams resulted in a combined 69 points between the two players. Maggette is a driver who routinely gets to the line and Rudy has trouble defending this type of player.
Advantage: Los Angeles

Power Forwards: Hakim Warrick vs Al Thornton

Al Thornton has been one of the most dynamic rookies in February. Averaging 16.8 ppg and 6.1 rebounds this month Thornton is finally living up to the draft hype of being the most NBA ready rookie in the draft. Hakim Warrick has put together three consecutive 20 pts games as the starting PF and has really worked hard on defense as well. Warrick realizes that this is the most important time for his career as he has a clear opportunity to establish himself as a legitmate PF in the league. Warrick is averaging 18 ppg and 8 rebounds as a starter and won't have the mismatch in size that he often does at PF.
Advantage: Memphis

Centers: Darko Milicic vs Chris Kaman

In the last 10 games Darko Milicic is averaging 8.3 pts and 8.5 rebounds a game. Not bad for a 22 yr old player who's mind was screwed around terribly the last few years. To put it in comparison Chris Kaman at 22 averaged 9.1 ppg and 6.7 rpg and his previous situations weren't quite so mentally challenging. The problem is that Chris Kaman isn't 22 anymore. He is now a seasoned veteran who is averaging 16.4 ppg and 13.6 rpg and nearly 3 blocks a game in what was nearly an All-Star first half of the year. Darko has the muscle to keep Kaman off the boards but he can't afford quick fouls and he needs to hit his shots. Kaman isn't exactly quick so Darko needs to get up the court fast. Who am I kidding?
Advantage: Los Angeles

Benches: Memphis vs Los Angeles

Memphis' bench was hurt when Miller went down with back spasms against Seattle. Navarro was red hot coming off the bench but wore down in the 2nd half under the increased work load which doesn't bode well in a back to back situation. Especially since Navarro has admitted to hitting the rookie wall. Kyle Lowry has performed well off the bench but his shooting has disappeared. Lowry missed layups against Seattle not just open jump shots. Jason Collins actually provided the best performance off the bench against Seattle which is never a good sign. The Clippers bring Tim Thomas, Aaron Williams and Memphian Brevin Knight off the bench but not much else. The Clippers don't have a lot of depth so foul trouble or a fast paced game could give them troubles. Of course that is why you want veterans on your team to not allow the games to go against the way they want to play.
Advantage: Los Angeles

Alternative Views and Other Cool Stuff: Great interview with Spartacus! All hail Spartacus!!!
AOL Fanhouse More Miller trade discussions
Grizz Notes from the Commercial Appeal has great comments about the Clippers possible interest in Miller and Lowry.

BallHype: hype it up!

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