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Clippers Midseason Report, TRL Style (part 1)

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The Clippers reached the halfway point of the season last night, and despite notching their third win in a row, they remain a game under .500 at 20-21, and one of the NBA’s major disappointments according to numerous experts.

After an inspirational 2005-06 campaign, LA seemed to be caught up in Clippermania, raising hopes for a new era of sustained success and a true local rivalry. Instead, the Clips have stumbled back to mediocrity and everyone has hopped off the bandwagon just as quickly as they climbed on (while hitching a ride with the surprising Lakers).

Was last season a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence? The Clippers still have 41 more games to prove otherwise.

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In honor of the team’s fall from grace, LAist takes a look at some of the major storylines of the first half of the season, inspired by some of your favorite one-hit wonders (and because LAist loves its music, you’ll find some videos along with the recap).

This will be a two-part entry, to be concluded tomorrow.

“Earth below us / Drifting falling / Floating weightless / Calling calling home”
– Peter Schilling, “Major Tom (Coming Home)” (1984)

Inspired by: the struggles of the Clippers on the road

It’s no secret that road wins have been hard to come by for the Clippers. Having some adversity away from home is understandable; 5-14 is beyond comprehension for a team that considers itself a playoff contender. To put it in perspective, last year’s squad won five road games in November; this year’s team didn’t get their first road win until December 9.

What has been most disappointing is the personality transformation that seems to take over the team on the road. The offense gets noticeably more passive, settling for jumpers rather than working the ball inside for better opportunities: the team averages 3.9 fewer assists and 5.5 fewer free throw attempts on the road. Their defensive intensity also declines, to the tune of a startling 101 points allowed per game. Not surprisingly, ten of the fourteen road losses are by double digits.

The Clips did just finish up a 3-3 road trip which may give them some confidence heading into the second half. They're going to need it: a big seven-game trip through the East awaits at the beginning of February which may make or break them.

"I always feel like somebody's watching me / And I can't get no privacy / I always feel like somebody's watching me / Is it just a dream?"
- Rockwell, "I Always Feel Like Somebody's Watching Me" (1984)

Inspired by: the continued uncertainty at point guard

This was supposed to be the year that Shaun Livingston made the leap towards stardom, after two seasons of learning the game and a year under veteran Sam Cassell's tutelage. Although Cassell was still to have a prominent role, it was intended for him to hand the reigns of leadership to the youngster and reduce the workload on his 37-year old body. But when Livingston proved to be not ready to handle starting point guard duties, Cassell had to step in and fill the gap.

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While Cassell has played at a high level throughout the season, he's been severely nicked up with a foot injury that forced him out of eight games. Livingston continues to exhibit moments of incredible brilliance in his court vision and mid-range game, as well as moments of incredible ineptitude in his decision making and running the offense. Since Cassell went down, Livingston has started and his performances have been wildly inconsistent, marked by lengthy periods of tentative and passive play. In short, he has not improved to the extent that many thought he would, and with each ill-advised pass into traffic and defensive breakdown against a smaller, quicker point guard, Clipper Nation wonders whether the light bulb will ever go on.

Right now, Dunleavy is starting both players in the backcourt, sacrificing Quinton Ross' defense for increased playmaking ability. Because Clipper brass steadfastly refuses to include Livingston and his "potential" in any trade offers for actual star players such as Allen Iverson, a lot of pressure is on the kid to start living up to the hype. Cassell doesn't have many more miles left in him, so the training wheels that the Clips are using to baby Livingston along to allow him to grow into the role have to come off soon. Yeah, Livingston is only 21 so he's got time to figure it out, but he's also a valuable commodity whose value decreases with each month that he looks lost on the court. Remember Darius Miles?

"Don't let go / You've got the music in you / One dance left / This world is gonna pull through / Don't give up / You've got a reason to live / Can't forget / We only get what we give"
- New Radicals, "You Get What You Give" (1999)

Inspired by: the Clippers' lack of effort

LA Times Clipper beat writer Jason Reid laid out the facts very plainly about the contrast between this year's team and last year's team: the defense has slipped. The team has dropped from 2nd to 14th in field goal percentage defense (43.5% to 45.4%), 1st to 4th in blocks (6.39 to 5.90), and 2nd to 17th in rebounding (43.1 to 41.0).

For Clipper Nation, it is especially frustrating to support a team that isn't putting out 100% every night. One of the refreshing aspects of last year's squad was the pride they brought to the floor every night and the togetherness with which they played, especially compared to all of the past Clipper teams that dogged it (hello Mo Taylor, Benoit Benjamin, Michael Olowokandi, etc.). For whatever reason, this year that camaraderie on the court is missing. New contracts, injuries, fatigue, complacency, they're all lame excuses.

"You want it all but you can't have it / It's in your face but you can't grab it"
- Faith No More, "Epic" (1990)

Inspired by: the do-everything Elton Brand finally finding his limit

To say that Elton Brand had an eventful 2006 would be the understatement of the year. He posted career numbers while carrying the Clips on his back through the playoffs, spent his summer winning a bronze medal for Team USA at the World Championships in Japan, got married to his college sweetheart, produced the critically acclaimed movie Rescue Dawn, and managed to summon the energy to train with team in Russia. He also cured cancer, fixed the hole in the ozone layer, and brought peace to the Middle East.

However, it was obvious that Brand wasn't ready to play when the season started. He was a step slow and his timing was slightly off, and it reflected in his diminished offensive output and the extended stretches of games where he totally disappeared. His game has slowly rounded back into shape with each passing week, his face-up jumper and jump hook from the left block becoming more unstoppable, and he's gotten more assertive in key moments. But without EB delivering a star performance on a nightly basis during the first two months, no one else compensated, and the Clips took it on the chin. The Clippers' success may be dependent on contributions from everyone in their core rotation, but it starts with big number 42. If the team is to enjoy a second-half resurgence, Brand will have to be the catalyst.

"What I am is what I am / Are you what you are - or what?"
- Edie Brickell and New Bohemians, "What I Am" (1988)

Inspired by: the realization that the Clippers are just a mediocre team

The good news: the Clippers have handled their business against inferior teams, with a 14-6 record against teams below .500. The bad news: the Clippers play like dogs against the supposed elite, going 6-15 against teams above .500.

Coming into the season, we looked at the roster and said that this team had top-four in the West-level talent. But on the court, the Clippers have consistently fallen short in their showdowns against Western rivals, with a 4-11 record against the top eight in the West (and 0-2 against the Lakers). Whereas the Lakers have beaten a number of the top contenders but continually lapse against the bottom feeders, the Clippers haven't done anything to justify their inclusion in a discussion of good teams. Clipper Nation wants to look for an answer as to how so many experts could have misjudged this team at the start of the year, as if there's a light bulb that just needs to get turned on and the team will snap out of it. Maybe the opposite is true - the Clippers played over their head last year and have fallen back to earth.

Be sure to check back tomorrow for the second half of the midseason report!

AP photo by Matt Sayles