Who do you want your offense to run through with the game on the line? Counting down 30th to 1st (one per team), I’ve ranked the League’s go-to guys…
BARON DAVIS, Los Angeles Clippers
When you follow up one uncharacteristically bad season with another — and then kick off the third year with an ominous start — you can’t blame anyone for suggesting that you’ve probably lost a step and aren’t getting it back.
The debacle that was ’08-09 could have been a fluke for Baron Davis. His first year with a new team, the pressure of playing in front of hometown fans and living up to a monster contract, the result of playing for arguably the worst coach in the NBA, the byproduct of playing with a young supporting cast who hadn’t yet learned how to win at the pro level … all valid explanations for Baron’s 14.9 points per game (his lowest since 2001), 37 percent shooting from the field (2nd-lowest of his career), and status as statistically one of the worst clutch players in the League.
But what about when he did it again the next season? In Year 2 with the Clippers, ’09-10, Baron put up 15.3 points and handed out 8.0 dimes per night, but his three-point shooting got even worse, as he hit only 27 percent beyond the arc. Meanwhile, the Clippers didn’t get much better under his watch, winning 29 games as opposed to 19 W’s the year before.
However, Baron did improve his numbers in clutch situations. His 26.9 points per 48 minutes of “clutch time,” according to 82games.com, wasn’t on the level of Kobe or LeBron or Vince Carter, but it did place Baron above the likes of Ben Gordon, Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Ray Allen. (Then again, each of those players could arguably be called No. 2 options at least.) Baron’s 42 percent shooting from the field and 31 percent from three in clutch time were both better than his overall regular-season numbers, and Baron hit 85 percent on clutch free throws. He also ranked sixth in the League with 9.3 assists per 48 minutes of clutch time. (Being a go-to guy isn’t always about scoring. Running the offense and creating looks for others counts, too.)
As much as he still loves taking threes — too often of the on-the-run or fadeaway variety — Baron is at his best when he’s using his quickness, strength and handle to penetrate the lane as a scorer or distributor. Last season he was better at putting pressure on the defense instead of settling for long jumpers, but it’s still an area in which he could improve. And with Blake Griffin now occupying space on the block in L.A., Chris Kaman coming off an All-Star season, and Eric Gordon coming off a breakout summer with Team USA, Baron has enough scorers around him to rack up assists on his off shooting nights, and pick his spots as a takeover scorer. And maybe Griffin or Gordon will eventually take the torch as L.A.’s go-to guy for the future. But for the present, it still rests in Baron’s hands.
The Clippers have enough talent to make a run at the playoffs this year — though it seems like we say that every year — but early on it’s not looking good, and once again their leader and go-to guy is the main one planting a red flag. After offseason rumors that he’d swelled to 260 pounds were quickly refuted, Baron nonetheless reported to training camp in less-than-prime condition, to the level where new coach Vinny Del Negro publicly called him out on Day 1 of camp.
Like I’ve said before, I understand if Baron isn’t a summer workout machine like other NBA players — and he certainly has enough pure talent to get away with not living in the gym — but it makes you question his focus and commitment. The overall mood around these Clippers is one of optimism, that things are going to be different this time around. And considering Baron is the highest-paid player and on-court leader, you’d like to see that same attitude reflected from his end.
So far Baron has been held out of practices and preseason games as he recovers from another round of nagging injuries, but when he gets on the court we’ll begin to see what Year 3 in L.A. has in store. Either Baron will put his gifts together and make a power move up this ranking in 2011, or he’ll continue toeing the precipice of unrealized potential.
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