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December 28, 2010
Building a Core
The Clippers' Young Cornerstones

by Kevin Pelton

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Less than a week ago, my column on the success cycle in the NBA pointed out that having good young talent isn't enough to guarantee success in the future because of the difficulty in converting potential into reality. If we were to look for teams that have the chance to make the leap, however, one takeaway was that superstar talent is a must. Elite players win in the NBA.

What current lottery team has the best chance of producing that star-studded core? You might be particular to the Golden State Warriors, who have three solid go-to players, and the Washington Wizards are a reasonable choice if only because of John Wall. If the Sacramento Kings can get DeMarcus Cousins and Tyreke Evans to grow up, they have the potential to be an elite duo, and Kevin Love and Michael Beasley put the Minnesota Timberwolves in the discussion.

From my perspective, however, there is no better choice than the Los Angeles Clippers. Despite a 10-22 record, the first two months of the Clippers season have been a success to the extent that the team's young talent has been as good as advertised or better.

Naturally, the Clippers' hopes revolve around Blake Griffin, who only needs to stay healthy the rest of the season to claim Rookie of the Year honors. Griffin has proven worth the wait following the stress fracture of his left patella that cost him his entire first NBA campaign. Griffin's NBA translation has proven largely spot-on, but with one notable exception: Griffin is using plays at a far higher rate than his college stats suggested. His .272 usage percentage puts him eighth among all big men.

What the numbers could not possibly convey is how exciting Griffin would be. He has made the also-ran Clippers a must-watch team on NBA League Pass if only for the potential that he will pull off a dunk that no one has seen before. This might seem trivial from an analytical perspective, but it's notable given that in college Griffin was never considered this explosive as an athlete. There are no physical limitations for Griffin, which is why the Clippers can anticipate that they will have one of the league's 5-10 best players during his prime. As the Portland Trail Blazers remind us, that possibility is no guarantee, but Griffin is easily good enough to build around.

The more surprising news is that the Clippers might have a player nearly as good on the wing in third-year shooting guard Eric Gordon. After the familiar stars like Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade, there is a surprising lack of elite talent at the two-guard position, especially in terms of rising stars. Gordon trails those two and the ageless Manu Ginobili in terms of Wins Above Replacement Player thus far (3.7). The next-best WARP total for a shooting guard under 25 belongs to New York Knicks rookie Landry Fields (2.0), with Oklahoma City's James Harden (1.8) just behind him. Besides Gordon, Evans is the other player in the discussion for the honorary title of the NBA's best young shooting guard, but Evans has rated below replacement level this year as he battles plantar fasciitis and poor shot selection.

While Evans has stagnated, Gordon has taken a crucial leap forward in terms of his ability to create shots for himself. Gordon's usage rate has surged from 21.7 percent a year ago to 28.5 percent of the Clippers' plays so far this season, a rate that puts him among the league's go-to scorers. Gordon has done it without sacrificing any efficiency despite the fact that his three-point touch had deserted him before he drained six triples in seven attempts during last night's win at Sacramento. According to Hoopdata.com's shot-location stats, Gordon has improved his finishing around the rim and made big strides in terms of scoring in the paint when stopped short of the basket on the drive.

Gordon's versatility makes him an ideal shooting guard to build around. He's capable with the ball in his hands and has developed his ability to make plays for others, but is equally dangerous coming off of screens or as a spot-up shooter. The best comparison for Gordon's broad offensive skills might be Ray Allen (his No. 2 comparable entering this season, per SCHOENE), but Gordon's defensive ability gives him the potential to be even more complete as a player than Allen.

So if Gordon and Griffin are so good, why are the Clippers 12 games below .500? Simply, they don't yet have competitive pieces around them. Just six of their teammates have rated above replacement level thus far, and one of those is little-used rookie Willie Warren. Though the Clippers' recent drafts have been solid, their work in free agency has been dreadful. Of this year's newcomers, Randy Foye has been dreadful, quickly falling out of the rotation. Ryan Gomes has been merely mediocre, though rookie Al-Farouq Aminu has pushed him for playing time.

Aminu, fellow rookie Eric Bledsoe and third-year center DeAndre Jordan offer promise that the Clippers might already have the role players on hand to put together a solid lineup. Jordan has more than held his own as a starter in the absence of injured center Chris Kaman, supplying rebounding and shot blocking along with efficient if infrequent offense. He might be a better fit for the frontcourt alongside Griffin than Kaman, whose post-ups only take possessions away from Gordon and Griffin, who are more efficient options.

The 2010 first-round picks are still far from being valuable, but that was to be expected given that Bledsoe just turned 21 and Aminu is still 20. The fact that Bledsoe was able to start without embarrassing himself when Baron Davis was out of the lineup represents an improvement on what his college stats portended. Aminu's solid play to date has relied on part on three-point shooting that our Sebastian Pruiti suggests will be difficult to maintain, but he too is ahead of schedule in transitioning to the perimeter.

History tells us that the Clippers cannot count on all their youngsters panning out or fitting together. Still, the presence of two potential cornerstones in Gordon and Griffin is worth getting excited about, especially for a fan base that has had little to cheer in the last five years. The anticipation might be better than the reality, but at least the Clippers now have reason to dream.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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