Please put your hands together for longtime SC.com collaborator and fellow hoop junkie MadGlove, who goes back to the Vernon Maxwell Sonic days with us. I can think of no one better qualified to do a preview of tonight's matchup with the Clipp joint than him, and also get us caught up on what the Clipps are up to so far this year. Enjoy!
When the Sonics walk into Staples Center on Wednesday night, they'll face a Clippers team (6-3, 6-0 at home) coming off an always bitter loss against city rival LA Lakers. Although it's possible that the Clips will be a little sluggish coming off a back-to-back, chances are that the red-headed step children of Los Angeles will be steaming from an unexpected beating from their obnoxious older brothers.
The Clips boast one of the deepest teams in the league, with a rotation that features 8 players averaging 24 minutes or more and has 6 players averaging over 9 points per game. Coach Mike Dunleavy likes to point out that the team is so versatile that it can play any way, against any team. With the addition of 6-10 Tim Thomas over the summer, the Clippers can play small with Thomas at the 4 and Brand at the 5, or they can go big when Thomas slides to the 3 with Brand and Kaman at the 4 and 5. At least that's the theory. In practice the team seemingly plays small all the time regardless of who is on the court, with the guards and forwards taking taking shot after shot, leaving the $100+ mil frontcourt of Elton Brand and Chris Kaman wondering what the new microfiber ball actually feels like.
Experts will tell you that Brand has struggled this season due to an extended playoff run (the first of his 8 year career), followed by a summer spent traveling with Team USA and then training camp with the team in Russia. Averaging "just" 17.4 points, 9.1 rebounds and 2.1 blocks (compared to last year's 24/10/2.5), there's no denying that EB looks a little tired. He's even admitted to feeling emotionally and physically drained and the Clippers staff has quietly hoped that their workhorse would cut down on his regular routine of weight training for several hours after every practice. But anyone watching the team can't help but wonder whether Brand would be perfectly fine if he was actually featured on offense. I can't think of another All-Star in the league who has to beg for more touches the way Brand does. Any other star would go ballistic with the lack of touches.
Brand's struggles are only part of the Clippers' concern when it comes to the frontcourt. Just before the season, the Clippers extended center Chris Kaman to a 5 year, $52.5 million contract, which pretty much proves that miserly team owner, Donald Sterling has been possessed by aliens (possibly from Sam Cassell's home planet). The 24 year old Kaveman, who averaged 11.9 points and 9.6 rebounds last season, seems intent on proving that the team can win without him as he has routinely disappeared in games this season. Averaging only 7.3 points and 5.8 rebounds this season, you can't help but wonder if Kaman's been taking pointers from Sam Dalembert and Nene Hilario (who apparently has decided he does want a last name). Kaman's ineffectiveness can also be attributed to the lack of touches as he's clearly pressing when he actually gets the ball.
Tim Thomas was signed over the summer to replace former Sonic Vladimir Radmanovic, who the team traded Chris Wilcox for last season. Thomas is considered a huge upgrade over Radmanovic as he is almost as good a shooter from deep, while also providing the rebounding and defense that Rad has never heard of.
BEST OF THE REST
All of this leads to the rest of the team, which is full of talented and athletic scorers. Cat Mobley, Tim Thomas, Corey Maggette and Sam Cassell would all love to shoot until their arms fell off and it seems like they're aiming for exactly that. The main culprit may be Cassell, who is the unquestioned leader of the team. Cassell has been very productive thus far in the season but you can't help but feel that his numbers come at the expense of the frontcourt. With Sam gunning away, the others fall in line, taking every shot they can.
Quinton Ross and Corey Maggette have been the bright spots thus far. Ross is a defensive stalwart and is starting to show more confidence in his stroke. He's the kind of player only the real fans understand and appreciate. Bruce Bowen without the ankle threats. Ross never complains, is thrilled to be in the league and gets the job done every single night. He's even been hitting big shots this season with little fanfare. Maggette, who bristled at being demoted to the bench in favor of Ross last season, has embraced his role as the scoring punch off the bench and is showing that he can score and rebound effectively. He still challenges Ruben Patterson as one of the most ridiculously stupid basketball players in the league, but he manages to produce nevertheless (which I guess means Patterson retains the bonehead award).
Expect the Clips to play a lot of small ball with Brand at center and Thomas at the 4. The team will run with Shaun Livingston and Maggette, and play more of a half-court game with Cassell and Brand/Thomas. Livingston has been disappointing thus far after a great preseason and it's tough to know what to expect from him. At times he shows flashes of Magic Johnson and makes you drool, but at others he looks more like Billy Owens and makes you cry.
The fourth quarter is Sam Cassell's time, which will feature the veteran point guard taking an absurd number of shots in a short period of time. When he's on, Sam will take over the game in a way that only the best in the league (and Robert Horry) can. Affectionately known as Gollum, Sam will use a dizzying array of "wily" moves intended to draw fouls on less experienced players and get to the foul line. Sam is guaranteed to frustrate Supes fans with his antics. All I can say is, you love Sam when he's on your side, you hate him when he's not. But if the game is on the line, the Sonics would do well to try and keep the ball out of Gollum's hands.
Overall, the Clippers are not playing as well as the organization and fans had hoped coming into the season. Despite a strong record, including wins over Phoenix and Dallas, the team has not shown the fluidity and chemistry that carried them into the second round last season. Fans hope that the team will put it together soon, but the Sonics may be able to capitalize and get a victory against the Clippers before that happens.