The Rockets play the Clippers today, and while many of you may be tuned into March Madness, perhaps some of you will be curious to know a little more about the Rockets' opponent. Clips Nation's Steve Perrin and I did a Q&A on today's game, and here's what the venerable west coast blogger had to say.
TM: I saw Blake Griffin air ball two free throws the other night - in what could be the worst segway ever, how close is he to fixing the primary flaws in his game (post play, jump shooting, etc.)? How good do you think he can be, when it's all said and done?
SP: I think most people are at least a little disappointed with Blake's lack of development this season (then again, you're asking me at a time when the team is slumping as well, so we're all a little depressed around here). I'd put myself in the mildly disappointed camp. His overall numbers are fine -- his scoring and rebounding are slightly off his Rookie of the Year numbers, but in the case of scoring, the team has more options than it did last season, so it's not surprising that his overall totals would be a little down. His shooting percentage on the other hand is much improved. His jump shot is actually quite a bit better, provided he doesn't think too much about it. When he receives a pass and shoots, without hesitating, without dribbling, just catch and shoot, he's hitting that shot much more regularly than he did last year. It's when he gets in his head and starts thinking too much that he gets in trouble (which is the same problem with his free throws of course).
His post play is more or less exactly where it was last year, but unfortunately the defensive book on him hasn't stood still, it's moved forward, and defenses are doing a much better job of limiting him. You might call it the Chuck Hayes approach, though of course few defenders can execute it quite like Hayes. If you simply stay between Griffin and the rim he's a much less effective player. You don't have to bite on his fakes, because it's not like Griffin has much of a jump hook or any other move that he can consistently use even a few feet removed from the basket. So stay down, lean on him, keep your arms up (long defenders definitely give him some trouble), and whatever you do, don't let him get to the rim. Griffin has yet to develop effective counters to this defensive approach.
But the dude just celebrated his 23rd birthday and is only in his second season in the NBA, so there's lots of time. I think it's particularly interesting the way people like to downplay Griffin by insisting that Kevin Love is so much better -- but how much did Love improve in years three and four? Will Griffin develop the things that he needs to? Well, there's no guarantee, but almost any NBA player worth anything gets much better with experience through at least the age of 27 -- I see no reason to think that Griffin is an exception.
As for how good he can be, consider this. The guy is at 21 points and 11 rebounds (22 and 12 last season) WITHOUT any polish or discernible technique around the basket. Everything he gets comes from sheer athleticism and terrific ball-handling skills for a power forward. Hakeem Olajuwon developed the "Dream Shake" move well into his career. Karl Malone became the a knock down mid range shooter after many seasons in the league. Of course there's no guarantee that Griffin will develop new skills the way those guys did. But how could CAN he be if he does, if he develops what we might refer to as 'game'? Scary good. Unstoppable good.
TM: I'm not a fan of Vinny Del Negro and it's my opinion that this team could go further with a better coach, but do you think people overrate this sort of negative VDN perception? What's your opinion of him as a coach? Is he right for this team?
SP: I'm of the opinion that Vinny Del Negro is not right for any NBA team. Coaching is terribly subjective, and there's a fair amount of data to indicate that most coaches don't make a lot of difference. Talent wins NBA basketball games, and assuming coaches play their most talented players (not always a good assumption, but still not all that difficult to do) they're not going to have a lot of other impact. Still, observation tells us that some coaches seem to get more out of their players than others -- your former coach Rick Adelman comes to mind, as does George Karl. Vinny Del Negro certainly does NOT come to mind. After all, the Bulls went from 41 wins with Vinny to 62 wins without him.
Even at the time of his hire, the Clippers were downplaying Vinny from an X's and O's standpoint -- "that's not his thing, we'll get other folks for that." So supposedly that's what experienced assistants Marc Iavaroni and Dean Demopolous are on the staff to do. But to say Vinny isn't strong when it comes to X's and O's, game-planning, in game adjustments, etc. (you know, all that coach-y stuff) is an understatement. So what is he supposed to do well? He was hired to be a motivator and a developer of young talent. But as we discussed above, Griffin has failed to develop significantly, and may even be regressing a bit, and meanwhile the Clippers have come out tortilla flat time and again in recent weeks and lost to teams they absolutely should have beaten.
So what is it that VDN does well again?
With Mike D'Antoni and Nate McMillan suddenly on the market, I would love to see the Clippers cut their losses and make a coaching move now. But that hasn't much been the Clippers way in recent years, so I'm not optimistic. Still, with Vinny in the final guaranteed year of his contract, I don't expect him to be back next season. The real question is how he is viewed by Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, and the closed door meeting after the Suns loss on Thursday may not bode well for him there.
TM: Short question: Your reaction to Nick Young.
SP: In short, it's a steal and I'm thrilled. I mean, basically, the Clippers gave up nothing to rent this guy for the rest of the season and the playoffs (less than nothing in the short term, since they rid themselves of Brian Cook). For the price of a second round pick in 2015, the Clippers got exactly the kind of player they needed -- a shooting guard with size. Young has all the skills, he can shoot with range, he can get to the rim, and he can create his own shot. The Clippers desperately need to improve on defense, and while the jury is out on Young's defense, there's some data to indicate that he's a very good on the ball defender. He was the Wizards best perimeter defender this season, though that's not really saying a lot. The Clippers got really lucky to get him, and it was really a perfect storm of circumstances that made it happen, but sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. When you consider that he'll be replacing Randy Foye and probably Bobby Simmons in the rotation, it sure seems like a major win.
TM: DeAndre Jordan (who I briefly went to high school with) is back at it with a solid, yet unspectacular stat line. Having just re-upped him this offseason, the Clippers must believe (and have good reason to believe) that within the next few years, he can become a much better player. Do you ever see DeAndre adding any sort of offensive game outside of what we see now (dunks)?
DeAndre's development on the offensive end has been slow to the point of undetectable. I can remember that they gave him a lot of touches in summer league back in 2009, and he doesn't look any better to me now than he did then. He has made one or two successful 'moves' this season (literally, I mean there were one or two, not as many as three), which is more than I'd seen during his previous three years. So that's something. Interestingly, the Clippers have called an iso for DJ on the first possession of four of the last five games -- he's ) for 3 in those situations, though he did draw a foul once. Honestly, I can't explain why they are doing this, since they haven't run a play for him all season except for these four times. I guess it's a little reward for winning the jump ball (something he does very well, fyi). DJ's best bet remains to focus on defense and rebounding, and to try to turn himself into the next Tyson Chandler. It's a more realistic goal.
TM: What's the endgame for this team (for this season)? Will fans be disappointed if they don't at least reach the WCF?
I assume you're asking specifically about this season. It's not Conference Finals or bust this year -- there are still plenty of good teams in the West, and while I think the Clippers have the talent to be right in that group behind the Thunder, if it ended up being the Lakers or the Mavs or the Grizz meeting OKC in the West Finals that would surprise me at all. On the other hand, a first round exit, or FSM forbid missing the playoffs all together would be disappointing. It could also be severely damaging -- remember that this is all an audition for keeping Chris Paul, who waived his ETO when he signed with the Clippers (he did it before Dwight Howard, setting a trend), but will be a free agent in 2013. Griffin will almost certainly sign a maximum contract extension this summer, but Paul will need to believe the team is capable of winning to stay. Long term, with Paul and Griffin in place, the team will have a chance to compete at the highest level for years to come. It remains a superstar-driven league, and Paul/Griffin is younger than any Big Two in the league save for Durant/Westbrook.
TM: The Clipper Darrell situation, in one sentence: Go.
SP: Stupid. Wait, that's a fragment. It was stupid. There, that's a sentence.
Tom, you know me better than to think I can do anything in one sentence, but relatively briefly, the whole thing was inane and mostly just a series of overreactions. The Clippers, understandably, asked Darrell to curtail his use of the team name and logo, though they did not demand that he stop or anything as drastic as that. Darrell went public with his "I AM DEVASTATED" post, and then the Clippers, tone deaf as always in the realm of public relations, threw gasoline on the fire by sending out a mean-spirited press release. It's all been resolved, and Darrell is still Clipper Darrell. Thank FSM. Here's a longer version I wrote at the time.
Many thanks to Steve. You can head over to Clips Nation to see my responses to Steve's questions.