They have a ton of talent, but the intangibles and the leadership -- really those issues all come down from their unreliable ownership -- are the question. Everyone knew that owner Donald T. Sterling and GM/coach Mike Dunleavy had issues going back and forth with each other last season; then over the summer Dunleavy let go of all but one person on his coaching staff. Even though he has time left on his contract, Dunleavy has a lot of pride and he feels a lot of pressure to turn it around and win there. And if you look at their roster, they have players at every position.
The key guy obviously is going to be No. 1 pick Blake Griffin. They opened up playing time for him by moving Zach Randolph to Memphis -- and I still can't believe the Grizzlies took him. Griffin is going to be really good, and he isn't going to need a lot of time to make an impact. He has great size, and when you saw him play during summer league, he didn't play with any hesitation. It was like he was saying, "This is my court, watch out." I'm sure he's cocky and you can see why, but he's not a chest-thumper. He's one of those guys who goes to work and works hard, a blue-collar guy who is very serious about the way he works. He's physical and tough-minded, with athleticism and some skills to go with his size. He's going to have to refine his shot and footwork, but this kid is going to bring it right away and people are going to notice. He's able to come off the block, face up and be quick enough to beat people on the drive. He's a young kid who looks like a real man out there, and he's exactly what they need. They don't have anybody with that kind of relentless approach.
Eric Gordon -- and maybe even Al Thornton -- have a chance to join up with Griffin and lead the Clippers in a different direction, away from their derelict past. Griffin, simply by his actions, is going to help affirm to Gordon that he's on the right path of playing hard all of the time. Gordon is a very dangerous player. I was impressed that he was still bringing it late in the year as a rookie despite everything going on around him last year. As a shooter, he has a quick trigger. He complements his shooting by being able to drive inside and draw fouls. Not a lot of guys can be a really serious perimeter threat and drive the ball to get into the paint. You wish he were taller [than 6-foot-3], but by the current standards he's OK because the game keeps going smaller and smaller.
Thornton tends to play with his head down and take incredibly bad shots. He's inconsistent, he's out of control and he doesn't create for anybody. He was a major mistake player last year. It was kind of like watching the rebirth of Corey Maggette without Thornton having quite accumulated the hatred toward his personality that Maggette had; it was sort of like Maggette without the Duke aura. He definitely took on Maggette's role as the selfish, I-don't-know-how-to-play ball hog who never sees his teammates and just looks for his own shot.
But I don't think it's necessarily over for Thornton. It's so early in his career and he's raw. Maybe if Griffin and Gordon show some leadership, he can follow them down the right path. But it's one of those things he's going to have to decide for himself. Management and coaches can talk to a guy until they're blue in the face and show him 40,000 clips of where he should be on the floor, and if the kid chooses not to do the right thing, the only course of action is to not play him. But then you find your team isn't as valuable because you don't have that talent on the floor. This year, however, Dunleavy has the extra hammer in having Rasual Butler, a professional shooter with length, playing behind Thornton. If Butler has any of the production he had last year [career-high 11.2 points, 39 percent three-point shooting for New Orleans], maybe the Clippers can afford to bench Thornton until he gets it and responds in a positive way.
They've locked up their core positions across the board with pretty good players. The big question obviously has to do with the leadership of Baron Davis, a strong personality that everybody tends to defer to. It was a horrible decision to sign Baron. This guy had some negative history with the Hornets and Warriors, and very few teams would have invested in him long term the way the Clippers did last year. He rewarded them by looking overweight and uninterested. He's a walking contradiction: He says the right things but does the wrong things. He's not the kind of leader you want. You would have thought going home to Los Angeles and playing in front of the hometown crowd, he would have been better prepared.
It doesn't seem to be a good fit between Davis and Dunleavy because Dunleavy has one of the more difficult offenses for players to learn. It's a numerical system and everything is compounded. For example, let's say he calls out "18." That means he's asking for play Nos. 6 and 12 to be combined. A lot of players don't learn the game that way, and most teams don't have all of those things in their offense. I give Dunleavy credit for coming up with an extremely cool way to run plays; the problem is now you go and sign one of the biggest freelancing players in Davis even though by nature his game does not match the coach's style. You've got to decide to do one thing or the other: Either you get rid of the coach and put in a system to fit the style of the players, or you do the opposite by bringing in players who fit the system. It was flashy signing a local kid who comes home with the ability to do anything on the floor when he wants to do it, but last year Baron played like he wasn't motivated anymore. The Clippers have to be hoping that last year was such an embarrassment for him that he'll show some pride and come back with a big season.
Their frontcourt is long and deep with Chris Kaman and Marcus Camby. Two years ago, Kaman was a top-10 center with skill and size, but then his health deteriorated. He has the reputation of being someone who doesn't play unless he's totally healthy. But he's another guy who could be influenced in a positive way by being around Griffin. From what I know about him he's a nice kid, and if he had good guys surrounding him, there would be a good chance he'd go in the right direction. The questions with him are: Does he have great desire? And is he healthy? I think he wants to play and be on a good team, but the Clippers have been a negative organization without the strong leadership a guy like him needs.
Camby is still very mobile for a 35-year-old. With him it has a lot to do with motivation. He was distraught when he was traded by Denver to the Clippers. He took it very personally. If things are going well, he'll ride the wave and play well. But if things are going badly, he is not the kind of guy to help turn the team around. It's going to be interesting at the trade deadline to see if they have interest in moving him.
Sebastian Telfair has gotten better over the years and has slowly found a niche as a backup point guard. Coming into the league straight out of high school, he was in an almost impossible position because of all of the notoriety he had. There was no way he was going to be as good as advertised because the guy had no perimeter shot, he's undersized, and he was herky-jerky and wild with the ball. We all probably would have liked him better had he come in with no hoopla, but the fact was he was highly overrated. Now he's finally at a point where the big cloud over him has washed away and the hoopla is all gone and we're all looking at him in a different way. I wonder if his own perception has changed, too, if he views himself as the NBA backup that he is. He still needs to improve his perimeter shot. He plays at a really fast speed, and it's going to be interesting to see where he takes it from here. Is he going to try to duplicate Baron's approach and do it his own way, or is he going to do what Dunleavy wants him to do? If he chooses the latter, he'll have a much better chance because then the league will respect him.
DeAndre Jordan is a 21-year-old big man with real potential. The issue for him is going to be finding him minutes behind Griffin, Kaman and Camby. He needs to play. In the summer league, he showed some aggressiveness by attacking the basket with toughness. So few big men have that athleticism, toughness and mobility all together. He's going to be a late bloomer because he has so much to learn, but in a few years he has a chance to make it.
Craig Smith is one of those undersized power forwards who competes hard and tracks down rebounds, and every team needs an energy-changing guy like that. He might have a more difficult time fitting in with Dunleavy's system as opposed to what was asked of him at Minnesota, where he could just come in and battle and compete.
I have no hope for Ricky Davis. Zebras do not change their stripes. He is now absolutely a backup in this league, and the appeal for any coach is that he's going to be a better scorer and more athletic and skilled than any backup he'll go up against. The reason it never works out is that you have to deal with his bull all of the time. You've got to deal with Ricky every single day and let his personality bleed on your young players. When you put that ingredient in the mix, what you get in the end is a cake that ends up tasting a little bit like Ricky Davis. And let me tell you, that is not a good taste for any team.
So much of their success or failure this year depends on Baron Davis. If he starts the season in good shape and they're off to a good start, they'll be fine because I do think he'll show some pride coming off last year's disaster. But if they struggle or they have more injuries, I don't see him leading a big turnaround.
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