Through six losses in seven games, and with two more tough road visits coming up against undefeated New Orleans and perennial power San Antonio, the Clippers are writing a dismal first chapter in the book of the new NBA season.
But it's just the beginning of a long story, as there are a number of exciting fresh starts getting going with the Clippers this November, some of which will play out over the course of the new decade and beyond. Blake Griffin and Eric Bledsoe have begun promising NBA careers in the two short weeks of the new season, while Eric Gordon has already shown how a young player can go from great promise to decisive excellence.
Another new start on the Clippers, one that has a less predictable story arc, is that of coach Vinny Del Negro.
Del Negro blew into the front office of the Clippers like a freshening wind over the summer, dispatching his competitor Dwayne Casey with an energetic presentation that surprised executives and won over problematic owner Donald T. Sterling. Del Negro is in some ways the most intriguing of the new Clippers, and the one who could rise or fall most quickly.
Del Negro's major change was instituting a simplified offense, using high pick and rolls and basic ball reversal to get the ball into the low post. The idea was if the Clippers could defend and flow more freely, and open up the middle, Baron Davis would have the opportunity to make plays and create shots for Griffin, Gordon and Chris Kaman. Davis had bristled under former coach Mike Dunleavy's highly-controlled system, and now he would be able to run free. Del Negro's approach worked, more or less, in Chicago where Derrick Rose was able to establish himself almost immediately as an elite point guard, leading the Bulls into the playoffs.
With a limited sample, against a deadly series of high-level teams, the results thus far on Del Negro have been mixed and quite interesting. Driving the narrative, however, have been two critical non-coaching developments, the relatively minor injuries to Randy Foye and Davis. Instead of starting Davis and Gordon and bringing Foye in as the first player off the bench, in half of the games thus far Eric Bledsoe has been Gordon's running mate.
And the results on that unintended experiment have been extremely good. Bledsoe has surpassed all imaginable goals that might have been set for him over the course of half a season, and he has seized his opportunity with gusto and a surprising steadiness. What might have been a disaster has been a revelation, and Bledsoe's rookie production would be more notable if he wasn't playing on the same team as Blake Griffin.
Some of the credit for Bledsoe's success has to go to Del Negro's simple sets, which have given him the opportunity to use his athleticism to make plays. He has been decisive, focused, and playing within his own game and skills. The offense has been a showcase for his talent, rather than a dizzying attempt to understand complex responsibilities.
But the real beneficiary of the new system has been Eric Gordon. Clipper fans knew Gordon as a well-kept secret, but he surprised a lot of people with his stellar summer effort on Team USA. There were rumblings about increased confidence and determination after that leap into modest recognition, but there were still worries about Gordon hanging around the perimeter and being a high-efficiency player with a very modest usage rate.
Worry no more—and Gordon hasn't even started to shoot the ball yet. He has a picture perfect jump shot and was deadly on Team USA, but he is shooting only 16 percent from deep thus far. That's an aberration that will correct itself sooner rather than later. In the meantime Gordon has been taking the ball to the basket and scoring points, shooting 65 percent on his two-point attempts and getting to the line, averaging 21 points per game. Gordon's will to win and his ability to make plays have been clearly evident even as the Clippers have struggled to get victories.
There are all sorts of bugs in this new Clipper system, and the difficult early season schedule was perfectly designed to highlight every little blemish. Still, in the Dunleavy-era Clipper fans saw years of determined effort to make the talent fit the system, and there was little flow and players often felt stymied. But now, even in the midst of building an early pile of losses, the talent is evident and coming to the fore quickly and with little resistance. The Clippers aren't quite firing on all cylinders yet and they haven't put together complete games, but they're competitive and playing hard against some of the league's best teams.
Maybe Vinny Del Negro was lucky to have two injuries in the first week force his hand and alter the chemistry on his new team so quickly. He didn't plan on pushing a Bledsoe-Gordon backcourt into the spotlight and getting results. But it's hard to begrudge the luck of any Clippers coach, let alone a guy who has lost six of his first seven games. And Del Negro deserves credit for putting in place a system where Bledsoe could succeed and Gordon could shine. Now the team just has to remember how to play in the third quarter and win some games.
Young Clippers like Griffin and Gordon and Bledsoe should be around the NBA for a long time to come, but if Del Negro hopes to succeed and stick around as coach, he might have made a good start by letting his talented youngsters make plays.
Alex Siskin is a regular contributer to ClipperBlog.