Los Angeles Clippers: The Team of the 2010's
Every championship team has a big man who can score efficiently in the lane, someone who can guard low-post scorers and block shots at the rim and a player who can "create" easy shots by drawing double teams for his teammates.
Sometimes one player can do all three...Tim Duncan.
But in general, it's hard to find someone with even one of those skills. That's why teams drafting in the lottery should pay special attention to the prospects with them; you can always find guys who can hit jumpers, play perimeter defense or run the point in the bottom of the first round and the NBDL.
And in a development as surprising as the election of a black president, no team has drafted better in the last three years than the LA Clippers.
Not even Donald Sterling could screw up this mix of young players:
Point Guard: Eric Bledsoe
Drafted: No. 18 in 2010 (acquired for future first-round pick)
NBA comparison: Devin Harris
Needs to work on: Outside shooting, running a team
With a chiseled 6'1", 190-frame and lightning-fast speed, Eric Bledsoe is one of the best athletes at the point guard position in the NBA. He can defend both guard positions due to his monstrous 6'7" wingspan; he was Kentucky's main perimeter defender in college, and he averages 1.5 steals a game per 36 minutes as a rookie. He should be an All-Defensive team type player with a few years of seasoning.
He's much more a work in progress offensively, although the skills are all there. Despite a paltry 16.9 usage rating, he averages 4.1 assists per 2.3 turnovers, excellent numbers considering he played primarily off the ball next to John Wall in college. He has a good-looking stroke too (77.4 percent from the free-throw line and 38.3 percent from the college three-point line); he just needs to be more consistent with it.
Shooting Guard: Eric Gordon
Drafted: No. 7 in 2008
NBA comparison: Gilbert Arenas
Needs to work on: Shot selection
After one season at Indiana marred by the implosion of Kelvin Sampson's career and two years playing for the Clippers, Eric Gordon is one of the best-kept secrets in the NBA. He is a complete offensive player; a pure shooter (35.9 percent from the three-point line, 81.8 percent from the free-throw line) with the ability to create for himself (24.1 points) and others (4.5 assists: 2.6 turnovers).
Defensively, his 6'9" wingspan and 40' vertical allow him to guard much taller shooting guards.
At only 22 years old, he has made the leap, from a PER of 14.1 (replacement-level) his second year to 21.1 (all-star) this season. He's the best under-25 shooting guard in the NBA; now it's just a matter of his reputation catching up with his skills.
** His injury couldn't have come at a worse time with Clippers, who were starting to round the corner, posting a 7-3 record in 2011 (including wins over both the Heat and the Lakers) before he sprained his wrist. **
Small forward: Al-Farouq Aminu
Drafted: No. 8 in 2010
NBA comparison: Shawn Marion
Needs to work on: Ball-handling ability
One of the most physically intriguing prospects in this year's draft, Aminu is a 6'9", 215 swing forward with the vertical leap of a guard (33 inches) and the wingspan of a center (7'3"). Much like "The Matrix" in his prime, Aminu can theoretically guard every single position on the floor.
The biggest transition he's made from his college days at Wake Forest to the NBA is his outside shooting—he went from a 23.8 percent career three-point shooter in college to knocking down threes at a 37.4 percent clip in the NBA. If he shoots like that consistently, the Clippers can play a dominating defensive frontcourt of Aminu/Griffin/DeAndre Jordan.
Power forward: Blake Griffin
Drafted: No. 1 in 2009
NBA comparison: Amare
Needs to work on: Shot-blocking and man-to-man defense
** If you have not yet read Chris Ballard's SI piece on the men who Blake Griffin has dunked on, do so immediately. His book "The Art of a Beautiful Game: A Thinking Fan's Tour of the NBA" was a far superior read to a much more popular one released at the same time last year from a certain ESPN writer. **
Easily the most exciting player in the NBA, Griffin has taken the league by storm, posting an astounding 23.1 PER as a rookie. He's not just a lock for Rookie of the Year; he could also make an All-NBA team.
The only worry about the Clippers' franchise player is that he is too good—too big, too fast and too athletic for his knees to support over his entire career. But with advances in modern knee surgery, even a micro-fracture won't necessarily slow down a player of his caliber...Amare.
But the nightly aerial exhibitions? The 6'10", 250 forward with a 35'' vertical and the body control of a shooting guard in the air? Enjoy that while you can.
Center: DeAndre Jordan
Drafted: No. 35 in 2008
NBA comparison: Brendan Haywood
Needs to work on: An offensive game besides dunking
** Like many big-time prospects, Jordan bounced around a few high schools. His sophomore year, he played against one of the great private school teams in Texas basketball history in the SPC tournament. All week, our coaches reminded us to sit on his left shoulder because he could only use his right hand.
Of our five posts (6'6", 6'9", 6'5", 6'3", 6'8"), I was the only one not to play D1 athletics. We controlled Jordan all game, until one of the sophomores got into the game and guarded him straight up. Of course Jordan turned around and dunked on his head the first time down the floor—this is why you pay attention to the scouting report! **
A prime example of how players with HS All-American pedigrees are undervalued in the draft, Jordan slipped to the second round after a disappointing freshman season at Texas A&M. But that's far too low for a 7'0", 260 true center with a 7'6" wingspan and a 30'' vertical.
The 2008 draft class was one of the most stacked in recent memory, but Jordan should still have been a lottery pick. You just don't see centers that big with that kind of athleticism too often.
What's the ceiling of this Clippers team?
** A partial list of the class of '08: Derrick Rose, Mike Beasley, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, Eric Gordon, Brook Lopez, Jason Thompson, Javale McGee, Ryan Anderson, Courtney Lee, Serge Ibaka, Nic Batum and George Hill. **
While Jordan has a lot to work on in terms of acquiring basketball IQ, he is averaging a preposterous 2.4 blocks per 36 minutes. And because he can defend both four's and five's, allowing the Clippers to hide Blake on the other team's worst big man defensively, he's the perfect frontcourt complement to Griffin.
LA's young core has a shot-creator in the frontcourt (Griffin) and the backcourt (Gordon), two guys who can play All-NBA level defense and spread the floor offensively (Bledsoe and Aminu) and a seven-footer who can defend the low-post and protect the rim (Jordan). That's a championship formula.
Which doesn't even count Baron Davis, rejuvenated by all the young talent around him, Chris Kaman, one of the best low-post scorers in the league and Ryan Gomes, the type of smart, veteran role-player all great teams have.
Long-term, the Clippers also have three more intriguing assets to build with: Willie Warren, a preposterously talented 6'4 200 combo guard who slipped into the second round because of character concerns, their lottery pick in the 2011 Draft as well as a Minnesota first-rounder slowly losing its protections which they will get at some point in the near future.
** With the way lottery protection works on traded first-round picks, NBA teams can kick the can down the road for years on end before surrendering a draft pick. The Clippers originally acquired Minnesota's pick as a part of the 2006 Sam Cassell-Marko Jaric trade; neither player is still in the NBA. **
With no pressing concerns at any position, LA will have the luxury of drafting the most talented player who falls to them. But with a young core ready to make a serious playoff push next season, they might try to pursue a strategy similar to Houston in 2006. With Yao and T-Mac coming off injury, the Rockets didn't want to wait for Rudy Gay to develop, so they shipped him off to Memphis for Shane Battier, the ultimate veteran glue guy.
Barring injury, the Staples Center should have championship banners from both its tenants by 2015. If not, it might be Donald Sterling's most impressive "accomplishment" yet.
** They will probably need a different coach too. But that's a story for another day. **
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