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The Glass is Two-Eighths Empty

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To this point, most of the writing on this space about the Clippers has been highly positive, and with good reason – the team is in first place and has found creative ways to win games in spite of not playing their best ball.

However, there are some areas of concern so far, all of which were exposed in yesterday’s ugly 112-90 loss to Utah. The loss wasn’t surprising, despite the fact that star forward Andrei Kirilenko sat out with a sprained ankle; the Jazz have the league’s best record and are an astounding 33-1, including playoffs, against the Clippers at the Delta Center since it opened in 1991 (talk about a house of horrors – that’s Susan Lucci level of futility). But losing of course magnifies the problems, and since it’s been two weeks since the Clips lost, it’s as good a time as any to take a closer look at the few things not going right.

With Mike Dunleavy seemingly settled in on an eight-man rotation – through seven games, the rest of the bench has played a combined 30 minutes; I could suit up and no one would be the wiser – it is more noticeable when players are not pulling their weight. Though virtually everyone played poorly last night, the two most glaring weak spots were the same people that have struggled so far all year: Chris Kaman and Shaun Livingston.

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In fairness to the wild-haired one, Kaman barely played at all in the preseason because of a nagging hamstring injury. His rust has showed, as he seems a step slow and unable to score with any kind of consistency on the low block. But after signing his monster $52.5 million contract extension, more is expected of him. His lack of post offense directly impacts Elton Brand's offense by creating double teams because the defense does not have to respect his presence underneath the basket. Kaman's size should be an asset on the boards, but his rebounding stats are at career lows in terms of per 48-minute averages. And with the ongoing trend of small ball around the league, Kaman does not bring much to the table if he's not posting up and rebounding since he becomes a defensive liability against smaller, quicker centers. Memo Okur, who will never be confused as being small or quick, continually abused Kaman all over the court yesterday (Okur 27 and 6, Kaman 3 and 3 with 6 fouls in 19 minutes).

For Livingston, after a strong preseason, it appeared that he was ready to take over for Sam Cassell as the starting point guard (or at least 1A). Not so much. After a poor opening night, Livingston has been relegated to the bench because of his spotty play. The Prodigy had spent the offseason focusing on improving his outside jumper, since that was believed to be the missing piece that could make him unstoppable, given his terrific playmaking skills. It looks like he may need a bit more gym time, shooting a miserable 34% so far. As is the case with Kaman, Livingston's struggles have spillover effects. Because the defense doesn't respect his outside shot, they are lagging way off of him to crowd the paint - Deron Williams and Derek Fisher were standing practically ten feet away from him daring him to shoot. His lack of confidence has made him tentative (he took only four shots with zero points in 22 minutes yesterday). The extra cushion defenders are giving him also makes it difficult for Livingston to utilize his strengths: finding open passing lanes to feed teammates and creating opportunities off the dribble. His inability to step up is forcing Cassell to play more minutes than Dunleavy would like, which could have detrimental effects as the season wears on. Since there were high expectations of dramatic improvement for Livingston, it has been disappointing so far that his numbers are virtually the same as his first two years.

But there's no reason to fret too much about these slow starts of Kaman and Livingston. They are both still extremely young - Kaman is 24 and Livingston is still a 21-year old baby - so they will undoubtedly bounce back. And because of the strength of the rest of the team, the Clippers have the luxury of building these guys up slowly without sacrificing any wins. If they are able to regain some confidence and play to their capabilities, watch out. It will make it a lot harder to find something negative to write about this team.

AP photo by Ric Francis