Los Angeles Clippers
By Ben Zani
STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
In a single step, the 2007-08 Clippers season ended before it even began. That step, of course, was the one taken by All-Star forward Elton Brand that tore his left Achilles tendon, sidelining him for the foreseeable future and ending any hopes that the Clippers have of being competitive this season. Brand was the backbone of this Clipper team, and without him, it will probably be another lottery-bound year for Los Angeles' other team.
Even with Brand, last year's Clippers were among the league's biggest disappointments, finishing out of the playoffs and seven games off of the 47-35 club that came within a game of the Western Conference Finals a year earlier. Last year's Clippers were poor at best, ranking 23rd in the league in scoring and 19th in field goal percentage. They finished at or near the middle of the pack in every other statistical category save for blocked shots, where the Clippers' 5.8 per game tied for first league-wide with Detroit. Their leading shot blocker last year however was Brand, who will now miss most of the season. Brand in fact led last year's Clippers in minutes, scoring and rebounding, and was second to little-used Aaron Williams in field-goal percentage. The main priority of this year's Clipper team will be to somehow maintain without their unquestioned leader.
Unfortunately, there are not many candidates to fill Brand's sizable shoes. Sixth man Corey Maggette was second on the team in scoring with 16.9 points per game, and could pick up a bit more of the scoring load. Center Chris Kaman was second to Brand with 7.8 rebounds per game, but much of his success was due in part to Brand assuming much of the opposition's low-post focus. Guards Cuttino Mobley and Sam Cassell have shown the ability to score in bunches in the past, but they're also a combined 69 years old heading into this season. And we haven't even spoken of Shaun Livingston, once labeled as the team's point guard of the future, who may miss all of the season with a horrific knee injury. Truth be told, much of this season's fortunes hinged on Brand, and without him, a familiar refrain will be heard this year throughout the Staples Center: "Same Old Clippers."
PLAYING TIME DISTRIBUTION
Prior to his injury, Brand was the one player you could count on for reliably big minutes on an otherwise-shaky Clipper unit. Without him, Tim Thomas will be expected to earn his sizable salary and absorb power forward time, while playing upwards of 30 minutes per game. Scorer Corey Maggette will finally earn a starting spot this year, and will see 35 minutes per game at the 3, while Chris Kaman will receive similar time at center. Ruben Patterson will back up Maggette at the 3 and play a little 4, earning 20 minutes per game. Rookie Al Thornton could also see 20 minutes per game backing up the 3 and 4. The reserves down low are uninspiring at best, with Aaron Williams, Paul Davis and Josh Powell all expected to play less than 10 minutes per game.
The starting guard spots will be manned by Sam Cassell (PG) and Cuttino Mobley (SG), though we expect Brevin Knight to gradually cut into Cassell's playing time as the season continues. Mobley will play more than 35 minutes per game while Cassell, at age 37, will average out closer to 25, possibly less if Knight quickly picks up the offense. Knight should average between 20-25 minutes at the point. Quinton Ross should back up the shooting guard spot, and the defensive specialist should earn between 15-20 minutes while playing some 3 as well. Rookie Jared Jordan and free-agent signee Guillermo Diaz should both see less than 10 minutes per game, if that.
Chris Kaman: It will be a sink-or-swim season this year for Kaman, who will not enjoy the freedom of defensive double teams on Elton Brand. Kaman's 2006-07 points (10.1), rebounds (7.8), field goal percentage (45) and free-throw percentage (74) all declined from the previous season, and his blocks (1.5/game) only went up by 0.1. With opposing defenses now free to focus on Kaman, we expect those numbers to further decline, or at least not improve significantly enough to warrant consideration as a front-line fantasy center.
Aaron Williams: Williams has never played enough minutes or produced enough to become a regular fantasy play, and, at age 35, we don't expect that to change much this year. Williams may spell Chris Kaman if Kaman gets into foul trouble, but he will barely see any offensive opportunities.
Paul Davis: Davis has always been a player long on talent but short on production, though the Michigan State product could really surprise should he ever meet his potential. The Clippers could certainly use a player with Davis' size and skill to step up in Elton Brand's absence, but we can't foresee a player who averaged 5.8 minutes per game last year magically becoming a fantasy contributor this season.
Corey Maggette: Maggette assumes the Clippers' scoring load this season with the absence of Elton Brand, and the high-scoring swingman will finally get his opportunity this year to emerge as one of the league's top scorers. Maggette's points-per-48-minutes (26.5) were actually higher than Brand's last year, and he enters this season as the unquestioned starter at small forward. This bodes well for Maggette, as his numbers as a starter last season (19.7 points, 6.4 rebounds and 47% shooting in 31 games) were much higher than his numbers as a reserve (14.9/5.5/43% in 44 games). The only thing that could get in the way of a huge season for Maggette could be his attitude, as he's battled often with head coach Mike Dunleavy and has long been the subject of trade rumors.
Elton Brand: No team faces a greater handicap going into the season than the Clippers, due in large part to the Achilles tear suffered by Brand. Brand, in short, means everything to the Clippers - he led or was near the top of the team in every significant statistical category. That said, his scoring (20.5), rebounds (9.4), blocks (2.2) and minutes (38.4) were all lower in 2006-07 than they were in 2005-06. This year will be much worse, as Brand's best-case scenario will have him returning after the All-Star break, with no guarantee that he'll immediately retain his explosiveness or production. Those considering taking a late-round flier on Brand and stashing him on their disabled list should keep in mind that he won't even be out of a walking boot until late November at the earliest, and that if the Clippers are well out of the playoff race (as they'll almost certainly be), you can be sure they won't rush him back.
Tim Thomas: Big things will be expected out of the Clippers' $24-million-man, as Thomas will be inserted into the starting power forward role until Elton Brand recovers from a torn Achilles. Last year, Thomas missed time with knee, wrist, elbow, back and even gum ailments, while averaging only 11.0 points in the games he did appear in. He shot only 41 percent from the field and 38 percent from three-point range, both well off from his previous season in Phoenix. We expect Thomas' total production to improve this year, if only because he'll get major minutes in Brand's absence. He could be worth a mid-to-late round flier in fantasy drafts and be an excellent source of threes from the power forward spot.
Ruben Patterson: Patterson is coming off his best year as a pro, with 14.7 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.9 assists while shooting 55 percent from the field for a poor Milwaukee team. We don't expect him to come close to those numbers this year unless Tim Thomas or Corey Maggette gets hurt, and even if he does play major minutes, the 6-5 Patterson may encounter more difficulty against the bigger forwards of the Western Conference.
Al Thornton: Thornton was a volume scorer at Florida State, and was most comparable, ironically, to Maggette while entering the draft. He possesses similar size, quickness and shooting range to Maggette's, albeit with no professional experience. Thornton, like Maggette, also has the tendency to get out of control, and will need to rein in his wild streak before receiving major minutes for the Clippers. If he can quickly absorb the pro game however, we could see him serving as a solid scoring option off the bench for an otherwise scoring-poor Clippers team, possibly more if Maggette is traded.
Cuttino Mobley: Mobley last year had his worst scoring season since 1998-99, and is far removed from his days as one of the league's top scoring guards. At 32, Mobley, does everything decently, but nothing especially well. He has never been much of an assist (2.5) or rebound (3.5) player, and 2006-07 marked the third consecutive season in which his scoring average dropped, this time to 13.8 ppg. His three-point (41%) and free-throw shooting (83%) are two of his strengths, but fantasy owners should expect gradually diminishing returns from Mobley.
Sam Cassell: Cassell started to look his age in 2006-07, starting only 30 games and providing a significant drop-off across-the-board in the games in which he was healthy enough to play. He had nearly a five point dropoff (12.3) from his previous year's production, and Cassell's assists, rebounds, free-throw and shooting percentages also fell off. The Clippers were concerned enough with Cassell that they brought in Brevin Knight to co-occupy the point guard spot, and we expect Knight to eventually receive major minutes at the expense of the 37-year-old former star.
Brevin Knight: The Clippers added Knight to serve as a replacement for injured point guard Shaun Livingston, but their intentions for each were the same: take over the point guard position from Sam Cassell. Knight had an okay year in Charlotte last year (9.1 points, 6.6 assists, 1.5 steals), but he eventually lost playing time to younger point guard Raymond Felton and was deemed expendable. Knight will be playing the Felton role this year, and we fully expect him to take over at the point for the 37-year-old Cassell. Averages of 10 points and eight assists are not out of the question for Knight this year.
Quinton Ross: Ross is strictly a defensive specialist for the Clippers, and holds no fantasy value. The presence of rookie Al Thornton could also eat away at Ross' playing time, and he should not be considered in any fantasy format.
Jared Jordan: The Clippers drafted Jordan in the second round, and many argued that he was one of the best pure point guards in the draft. However, there are huge questions about the Marist product's athleticism, and we expect him to spend this year gaining seasoning and strength in the NBDL.
Guillermo Diaz: Diaz averaged over 20 ppg in the Czech league last season, but the Miami grad should not come close to that this year in the NBA. Expect a fair share of DNP-CD designations, and zero fantasy value from Diaz.
Shaun Livingston: Livingston dislocated his kneecap and tore the ACL, MCL, PCL and lateral meniscus in his knee in late February during one of the more gruesome injuries in basketball history. It would be shocking if he returned this season, and will probably be a shell of himself if he does. Don't count on him for any fantasy production this year.
Corey Maggette: Maggette is now unquestionably the team's top offensive option (if only by default), and will jack up shots this year with even less of a conscience than he usually does. Expect huge offensive numbers from Maggette unless he is traded away to a team with more offensive weapons.
Ruben Patterson: There's a reason that Patterson lasted on the free-agent market until late August, and he probably would have lasted longer than that had Elton Brand not torn his Achilles. Even with Brand out, Patterson will come nowhere close to the career highs he put up on last year's awful Milwaukee team.