Also in this column: • Scout breaks down the Bobcats • Top 10: College NBA feeders • Durant vs. Oden no debate at all
When your stock-in-trade is disappointment, meeting expectations is rarely a chore.
No team knows this better than the Los Angeles Clippers, whose 35-year history of ineptitude has been interrupted by playoff appearances only seven times.
Yet last season offered the promise that history was changing for L.A.'s "other team": 47 wins, home court for the first round of the playoffs and a visit to the postseason's second round, a place no Clippers team had been since it called itself the Braves and played in Buffalo in 1976.
But as anyone who's lost those love handles can attest, changing bad habits isn't nearly as hard as maintaining a healthy lifestyle, especially when one's history is the opposite.
And this year's Clips have been living anything but healthy. Through Thursday, the Clippers were 29-35 and .002 of a percentage point out of the West's final playoff spot. And if the franchise has been under the weather in general, it's been near comatose on the road, scratching out eight wins in 31 games.
Easy as it might be to chalk up this season's troubles to Clippers culture, it isn't accurate. Free agent Tim Thomas received a $24 million deal last summer while Sam Cassell and young center Chris Kaman were signed to extensions totaling more than $62 million. Eleven players from last year's roster returned, including the entire starting lineup. That's anything but standard procedure for owner Donald Sterling, one of the game's most accomplished misers.
With the core held together, a star in his prime, Elton Brand, to revolve around and a teamwide mind-set that paid more than lip service to playing defense, the Clippers were poised to match last year's effort, at the least. Unfortunately, life got in the way, and derailed the team's season with three formidable roadblocks.
"I'm not trying to make excuses -- because everyone has them -- but injuries have set us back," Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy said in a recent telephone interview.
Cassell, Kaman, Thomas and Corey Maggette have missed a combined 33 games because of injuries, and that doesn't include the recent loss of promising point guard Shaun Livingston until late next season at best because of a series of knee ligament tears.
Not only have some of the Clippers' most effective talents missed time, but they've also missed it at critical junctures of the season.
"Starting out in training camp in Moscow, we had a bunch of injuries," Dunleavy said. "Sam Cassell, who's a leader on our team and a guy who has the ball in his hands in a lot of late-game situations, missed all of camp and has been in and out of the lineup all season long; he's just never been right. Tim Thomas was out the whole camp. And then Chris Kaman played great in Moscow, but then he pulled a hamstring and was out the last half [of camp] and he got set behind.
"Logistics-wise, we just got off to a bad start."
Undoubtedly, the lineup shuffling required from all of the aches and pains hasn't helped the Clips regain their mojo from last season.
"You can't get any cohesiveness that way," Brand told SI.com. "It hurts the chemistry."
Still, the Clippers opened the season 5-1 before losing six of their next seven, all but one of those losses coming on the road. It was a pattern L.A. hasn't shaken all season, as it headed into Friday's game in Charlotte with an 8-22 road mark. Plenty of teams lose on the road, but the Clippers have done so often playing non-competitive basketball. That points to a team that isn't merely searching for rhythm, but for an identity.
"I think the chemistry issues have a lot more to do with [the Clippers'] problems than the injuries," an opposing team's advance scout said. "They have a bit of a volatile mix of guys. There are a couple stand-up guys, [but] there are also a lot of guys who aren't necessarily the most dependable characters in the world.
"Cassell has a history that once he gets paid, he's not the same as maybe he is in a contract year. The Bulls just outright released Tim Thomas. And then you have the Corey Maggette stuff."
And that "stuff" has hung over the team for much of the season. Having tired of coming off the bench under Dunleavy, Maggette openly, and often bitterly, complained about his role. With each broadside sent none too subtly in Dunleavy's direction, Maggette seemingly edged closer and closer to a trade out of town. Yet, after a pledge by Sterling that he wouldn't deal the swingman, the trade deadline came and went with no changes to the Clippers' roster aside from the looming threat that Maggette's displeasure would infest the team.
Dunleavy spoke to Maggette after the deadline in an attempt to get both men on the same table if not on the same page.
"Our staff liked his scoring ability, his explosiveness, off the bench," Dunleavy said. "A lot of times with players -- particularly when they've got a contract coming up [Maggette can opt out after next season] -- they feel that they will get paid more as a starter. But our owner came out and made a statement that it didn't matter if [Maggette] started or came off the bench, he's wanted back and that he'll be paid as a starter. Maybe that has had a positive effect."
It seems to have in the box scores at least: Maggette is starting and averaging 18.4 points since the deadline. But Maggette's resurgence has done little to stanch the flow of losses. Truth be told, little has altered the Clippers' consistent inconsistency.
Take a statistical measure, any measure, and the Clippers are likely worse than their '05-06 numbers. Scoring? Down almost three points a game. Defense? Opponents are shooting 45.5 percent this season, up two percent from last season. Rebounding? Down almost two a game. Even the reliably consistent Brand has seen his scoring, rebounding and shot-blocking numbers decline.
"It's like a [set of] dominoes," assessed the scout. "Cassell has not had the year he had last year due to injuries and other things. Thomas has not necessarily been quite right. Kaman got the big contract and now has underachieved a bit. Brand didn't start out quite as well.
"Each of those in and of themselves is quite manageable, but when you add them up, you can see why this year is different."
With 10 of their final 18 games on the road, the Clippers' playoff hopes don't appear terribly bright if this season's trends hold. But who would have thought any Clippers team would fall one game short of the Western Conference finals?
"Someone asked me the other day, 'Do you think you're playing well enough for the team to win ballgames?' " Brand said. "It's a team. We have to pick it up as a team. We have to cover for everybody. At the end of the day, it's [all about] wins and losses."
But by the end of this season, it may be all about disappointment -- again.
With the announcement that Bernie Bickerstaff will not be returning to coach the Bobcats next season, SI.com asked an advance scout what Charlotte needed to do to take the next step in its growth process.
"If you really want them to take a significant leap forward and get to the point where they are a contender or a contending-type team, they need to win the lottery and get Greg Oden. They do have some good young pieces but not a single one of those pieces is a franchise guy, or even close to it. They're not unlike the '90s Magic, who had a young Nick Anderson and a young Dennis Scott. But Shaq comes along and all of a sudden you go from being a little bit of a floundering expansion team to the best team in the East in two years. You needed that one franchise guy if you really were going to get good.
"That to me is where Charlotte sits. Look at their roster and imagine having Raymond Felton as your point guard, maybe [Gerald] Wallace and [Adam] Morrison as your wings, [Emeka] Okafor as your power forward and Greg Oden as your center. Would you feel pretty good about your franchise going forward? I think you would.
"If it doesn't happen, I still see them making progress because their best players are young guys. Felton should get better, and I think he's proven that he's a legitimate starting point guard in the NBA. Okafor will get better, although I don't know that his upside is unlimited. I see Okafor as a good role player on a good team, an Antonio Davis-, Charles Oakley-, Dale Davis-type. Adam Morrison is one-dimensional. He definitely cannot defend. He actually has to get better as a shooter; he's been more inconsistent as a shooter than I would have expected, but he's been a little bit better off the dribble than I expected. Sean May is in jeopardy of not getting another contract if he doesn't figure out how to play through pain and commit himself to playing basketball. Right now, he's not even a rotation player.
"They're pretty good players, but if they're going to be your cornerstones, they're probably not going to be good enough. Certainly if they add a couple of key free agents, that will help, but unless they hit the jackpot on a free agent who is a franchise-type player, I don't see them getting over the hump of being able to be a real factor.
"You don't win in the NBA without some star quality. It has long been thought if you have one All-Star on your team, you're in the lottery; if you have two All-Stars on your team, you're a playoff team; if you have three All-Stars on your team, you're a championship contender. Charlotte does not have one guy who falls in that category or even is close."
With the NCAA tournament in full swing, it's a good time to assess which programs produce what counts most -- NBA talent. Herewith, we rank the star power of the 10 programs that have placed the most players on current NBA rosters, as tabulated by Collegiate Basketball News.
10. Texas: 7 players Notables: T.J. Ford, Chris Mihm, Maurice Evans, Daniel Gibson
The fast-rising Longhorns program seems to produce a more promising prospect with each year, a trend that will likely continue with the impending arrival of current freshman Kevin Durant. Though Longhorns still have a little way to go to match the contributions of this list's more traditional college powers, Texas players have proved quietly more versatile than those of some of the bluebloods.
9. Kentucky: 8 players Notables: Antoine Walker, Nazr Mohammed, Jamaal Magloire, Derek Anderson, Chuck Hayes, Keith Bogans
A whole lot of sizzle, but not much steak. The likes of Anderson, Magloire, Walker and their fellow Wildcats often start their careers fast but tend not to age well, hampered by injuries, attitude or an unwillingness to avoid hoisting 3 after 3.
8. Maryland: 7 Notables: Steve Francis, Joe Smith, Chris Wilcox, Juan Dixon, Steve Blake
Funny that two top five picks (Francis and Smith) who didn't win a national title have largely failed to live up to expectations in the NBA, but players of lesser ability who won the trophy have been perceived as valuable role players despite not producing at nearly the same level of Francis and Smith. Just goes to show how far the tentacles of a national title can reach.
7. UCLA: 10 players Notables: Baron Davis, Earl Watson, Jason Kapono, Matt Barnes, Dan Gadzuric, Jordan Farmar, Trevor Ariza
Not exactly Lew Alcindor or Bill Walton, eh? The modern-day Bruins specialize in producing productive reserves and niche players along the lines of long-range shooters and defensive specialists. There's plenty of value in those qualities, but that doesn't seem fitting for one of the most storied programs in the land.
6. Michigan State: 9 players Notables: Zach Randolph, Eric Snow, Morris Peterson, Charlie Bell
Effective players all, but with limitations, from Randolph's inability to block shots to Snow's inability to hit shots. True to Tom Izzo's teachings, Spartans at least pay attention to the defensive end, if not excel at it.
5. Arizona: 10 players Notables: Gilbert Arenas, Mike Bibby, Jason Terry, Damon Stoudamire, Channing Frye
Need a scoring guard who can play the point, too? Give Lute Olson a call.
4. Kansas: 8 players Notables: Paul Pierce, Kirk Hinrich, Drew Gooden, Raef LaFrentz, Nick Collison
Maybe it was former coach Roy Williams' Dean Smith roots, but many a Kansas player emerges in the NBA as a far more capable offensive force than he often revealed in college. Jayhawks generally abide by the systems and roles they play in with little complaint. How else to explain that Pierce signed an extension to remain with the Celtics?
3. North Carolina: 12 players Notables: Vince Carter, Rasheed Wallace, Jerry Stackhouse, Antawn Jamison, Brendan Haywood, Raymond Felton, Marvin Williams
A talented group, but a high-maintenance group in general. With a firm, respected hand leading them on the bench, Tar Heels thrive; given a leadership role (Jamison and the youngsters excluded) themselves, Tar Heels of recent vintage often make it clear why they need a firm, respected hand leading them on the bench.
2. Connecticut: 14 players Notables: Ray Allen, Emeka Okafor, Caron Butler, Ben Gordon, Rip Hamilton, Rudy Gay
With Allen headed into the latter stages of his career, the Huskies' production line has specialized in turning out complementary, but instrumental, support players. They may not be the guys for whom the final play is drawn up, but they likely are the guys who will score when a defense collapses elsewhere.
1. Duke: 13 players Notables: Elton Brand, Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng, Corey Maggette, Shane Battier, Mike Dunleavy and, oh yeah, Grant Hill
We'd take the group above against any current team in the league. A ticket to play for Mike Krzyzewski is akin to a gold Wonka bar ticket; it may not get you the factory, but it will get you a long look-see.
I wouldn't care if Kevin Durant led Texas all the way to the NCAA championship, I would still select Greg Oden with the No. 1 pick in the draft, assuming they both opt to leave school. Yes, Durant's 25 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks per game are impressive, especially compared to Oden's 15 points, 10 rebounds and 3.5 blocks. But low-post dominance offers the safest -- and quickest -- route to winning in any basketball setting. And Oden offers that promise; Durant doesn't.
As gifted a player as Durant appears to be, the NBA is littered with versatile, explosive swingmen. And from Kobe Bryant to LeBron James to Tracy McGrady to Vince Carter to Paul Pierce, some of the NBA's most dynamic talents all have demonstrated one thing: They can't win alone. Even Michael Jordan didn't win a thing until he had some help in the frontcourt with the likes of Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant. This isn't to say Durant won't be great, only that he doesn't offer the kind of immediate turnaround Oden does.
As NBA history has shown time and again, from Mikan to Chamberlain to Russell to Abdul-Jabbar to Olajuwon to Shaq, a great center is a ticket to contending year after year after year. A 7-footer who can command double teams and control the paint may not have the athletic gifts of a slashing swingman, but he alters the way a game is played; he creates matchup advantages, he opens lanes for the likes of Durant to go to the hoop, he makes the game easier. Durant may -- and we stress, may -- produce better numbers than Oden in his career, but he likely won't win as many titles. And so long as that is the standard of success in the NBA, we'll go with the gifted big man every time.