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Who's the Man?

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After watching the Kobe take over the first Laker-Clipper game last week in the fourth quarter, then watching the ensuing Clipper hangover that resulted in a five-game losing streak with multiple fourth quarter collapses, it became evident to much of Clipper Nation that something might be missing from this team. ESPN.com writer and Clipper season ticket holder Bill Simmons (the Sports Guy) hosted a chat about the team yesterday on Clippers.com, and articulated this very point: “They need someone who can score in the last 3 minutes of a game.

Anyone who saw Kobe hang 52 on Utah in last night's dismantling of the Jazz knows what it looks like to have a player who can score whenever he wants to and whenever he needs to. For the Clips, it is unclear who this player is. Sam Cassell is fearless and loves to take the big shots. This season, he’s been the guy that has shown the stones most frequently, surprisingly leading the team in scoring (can you imagine where the team would be if they hadn’t resigned him?). But it is unreasonable to expect that at 37, he can consistently deliver the goods all season. Elton Brand seemed to breakthrough last season into superstar status, but his frequent disappearing acts offensively and inability to regularly generate his own shot suggest that he isn’t necessarily the solution either. Maggette. Mobley. Thomas. Nice players, not alpha dogs.

The Clippers are a good team. No one disputes this (despite the sluggish 7-7 start). This team should win 50 games; anything less would be a disappointment. Historically, in Clipper Nation, 50 wins would call for a ticker tape parade. But the bar has been raised. Fans now want a deep playoff run, not just a quick dip in the pool; they want a great team. In order for the Clippers to evolve into that championship caliber team, they need someone that can be the man, night in and night out.

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So far this season, seven different players have led the team in scoring in their fourteen games. Corey Maggette, who comes off the bench, has been the high scorer most frequently at four games. This speaks volumes to the depth and balance that the Clips have. It also speaks volumes about the identity of the team, or lackthereof. The Lakers, for better or worse, clearly are Kobe's team. Who do the Clippers "belong to"?

Thinking about the recent champions, virtually all of them had an alpha dog, a bonafide crunch-time player: D-Wade, Tim Duncan, Shaq/Kobe (maybe one alpha dog too many), Jordan, Hakeem. The only team that didn't totally fit the mold was the '04 Pistons, but even they had Chauncey Billups (Mr. Big Shot) and a suffocating defense. Ensemble casts may be great for TV shows like Lost or Grey's Anatomy, but not so much for winning rings.

It will be interesting to see whether the Clips can buck conventional wisdom and win with a solid team of good to great players, or whether they'll need to go out and find that last piece to put them over the top.

AP photo by Kevork Djansezian