Never did I imagine there were so many Clippers fans until I left Chris Kaman off a recent list of most improved players. Their outrage was neither meek nor unreasonable, as Kaman ranks third in the league in rebounds (13.9 per game) and double-doubles (19) to go with his elevated 18.6 points a game.
Kaman's gains have been amplified by his slump last year to 10.1 points and 7.8 rebounds (he averaged 11.9 points and 9.6 rebounds in 2005-06). He was on the verge of earning a five-year, $52 million contract, but Kaman doesn't think he felt pressure to live up to the terms.
"I can't pinpoint one thing,'' he said. "I just know I sucked last year compared to the year before, and we missed by two games -- essentially one game [because the Clippers held the tiebreaker over No. 8 seed Golden State] -- from getting back into the playoffs. It was frustrating to have that happen.''
But Kaman has recovered to become the most efficient center in the West, ranking ahead of Yao Ming, Marcus Camby and Amaré Stoudemire in the key-indicators stat that includes points, rebounds and blocked shots (2.7 for Kaman, ranking him third in the league).
"All along," Clippers coach MikeDunleavy said, "I've said, 'Chris, you're like the white Tim Duncan. The skill levels are there, you can shoot left-handed, shoot right-handed, shoot outside, rebound, block shots -- you can do everything. Now it's just a matter of understanding what are the good reads, and once you do that, then nobody can stop you.' "
Until now, it's been too easy to dismiss Kaman, with his floppy blonde hair and his friendly naiveté. His attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has complicated attempts to focus and be coached. But Dunleavy credits Kaman's work to overcome the disability, with improvements hastened by the torn Achilles tendon suffered by All-Star power forward Elton Brand last summer. Instead of being the Clippers' secondary option in the low post, Kaman has become the main target inside. Not that it matters any, but his hair is shorter too.
"He gets a lot more touches because of Elton being out, but it's more a function of him and his confidence growing,'' Dunleavy said. "It gets accelerated a ton by the opportunities he's getting now, but he is such a professional from the work-ethic standpoint. From the minute he gets on the airplane, he's studying film of his game that night to try to grow and improve.''
The 7-foot-2 Kaman recovered from last season's decline by humbly playing in the Las Vegas summer league against rookies and minor leaguers. He is 21 pounds lighter this season.
"I knew I put in the time in the gym every day, that I was in good shape and ready to play from running and lifting and all of those things I'm supposed to do,'' he said. "I knew it was on me, so I didn't have any excuses this year.
"When Elton went down, I knew I was going to have more of an opportunity. Even though I've played well and I'm having a good year, I'd much rather play with Elton. It's hard to lose a guy who gives you 25 and 10.''
Kaman admits he's still learning to deal with increased double-teaming in the second halves. That attention will decrease if Brand returns by March 1 as hoped, but Dunleavy doesn't think Kaman's numbers have to revert to the previous norm.
"The good news for us is we would never be on the floor without a dominant post guy,'' Dunleavy said. "If one was out then the other would be in, and we'd always have an anchor to go to.
"Elton is more comfortable playing away from the basket, facing up and playing isolations and pick-and-rolls. Now Chris is making the same conversion,'' added Dunleavy, who took over the Clippers in 2003-04. "When I got here I told Elton, 'In the post they double-team you to death, so we've got to be able to use you in the pick-and-roll, step off block and iso you so you can see the double teams coming and make plays.' Chris is in the first phase of learning those things.''
Kaman's remarkable development is further enhancing the 2003 draft class in which -- as the No. 6 pick -- he had been judged superior to Darko Milicic (No. 2) but levels below the rest of the top five of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh.
"Coming out of college, I didn't have any idea what was going to happen,'' said Kaman, who played three years at Central Michigan. "I had to learn a completely different style and figure out how my game could match up with the NBA. I didn't know what to anticipate, how I would play or what I could do.''
At his current rate, Kaman deserves to join Yao and Stoudemire as West All-Star centers in New Orleans.
"I hope so, but I'm going to continue to play hard and not worry about it,'' he says. "If it happens, it happens. And if not, I'll go home for some extra vacation time.''