Top 50: Baron Davis, no. 43
The definitive ranking of the NBA’s best players.
by John Krolik
At the risk of getting fired, this is what makes lists like this one so frustrating sometimes: 43 is probably about the right place on this list for Baron Davis. At the same time, there’s almost no way that Baron Davis will be the 43rd best player in the NBA this season.
Some people will say that Baron should be much, much higher on this list based on his talents and past exploits. Others will say that his abysmal season last year and overall inconsistency throughout his career should mean he should be off this list altogether until he gets some accomplishments in a Clipper uniform. And I can’t definitively say that either of those viewpoints are wrong. The mean of those viewpoints is the 43 spot, but the reality will almost definitely see Baron on one side or another of that ranking.
First, the good. When Baron Davis is firing on all cylinders, there might not be 10 players in the NBA who can swing the outcome of a game the way he can. Baron is capable of doing anything a point guard can do-he can explode to the basket and destroy a team with forays to the paint, he’s an unbelievable passer, he’s absolutely deadly in the open floor, he can make the three, he can post up, he can disrupt another team’s offense when he’s ball-hawking in the passing lanes, everything. And when he’s engaged and has the right team around him, he has a tremendous basketball IQ, and seems to know the perfect time to use everything in his nearly bottomless bag of tricks.
What’s more, Baron is a true Alpha Dog; he makes everyone else on the floor better, he brings leadership and a sense of swagger, he wants the ball in crunch-time, and he can generally be trusted with it: the 07-08 Warriors were 9-2 in games decided by 3 points or less. To re-iterate: when Baron has it together, few players can match his impact. And it’s not like Baron getting his whole game together is an Andray Blatche-like pipe dream: he’s a year removed from leading the Warriors to a 48-win season, barely missing the playoffs in possibly the most stacked conference in the history of the league, and only two years removed from absolutely destroying the Mavericks in one of the greatest playoff upsets in the modern era.
So why did Baron Davis, in his own opinion and the opinion of many others, suck last season? That’s the question Mike Dunleavy’s job depends on this season.
The first explanation for Baron’s ineffectiveness last season is ideological. Baron’s greatest strengths are his passing and versatility. The more players are involved in the offense at a given time, the more the game is played in the full-court, and the more opportunities for improvisation exist, the better Baron gets. Baron’s gift is to visualize, control, and alter the flow of the game to his liking; when the game gets reduced to a rigidly scripted combination of one-on-one matchups, many of his talents are neutralized.
In his career, Baron has struggled in the half-court, Iso-heavy systems of Paul Silas in New Orleans, Mike Montgomery in Golden State, and now Mike Dunleavy in Los Angeles. In a lot of ways, Nellie’s system in Golden State was perfectly suited for Baron-it prized versatility and cross-matching, looked to push the ball at every opportunity, encouraged ball movement and featured multiple playmakers, and shot volume was emphasized over shot selection.
On the flip side, the 08-09 Clippers were horribly suited for Baron. Not only is Mike Dunleavy a half-court coach whose best team was built around the ISO stylings of Sam Cassell, Elton Brand, Corey Maggette, and Chris Kaman and a grind-it-out, defense-first philosophy, the roster was ill-suited to work with Baron. Al Thornton is the opposite of the point forward Stephen Jackson was Golden State. Chris Kaman wants to have a side of the floor cleared out for a post-up. Marcus Camby is not a guy who can move the ball. Zach Randolph was brought in as a desperate solution, which compounded the problem to a degree between trying to put out a fire with gasoline and trying to remove a zit with a handgun.
With a roster ill-suited to use Baron’s strengths, his weaknesses were allowed to run wild. When Davis loses his freedom to do anything, he often tries to do everything, and the results aren’t pretty. Even in his glory years, Baron’s never been a great one-on-one scorer in terms of efficiency-his career-high True Shooting is 53%, which is still below the league-average. However, that doesn’t keep Baron from launching when he thinks nothing better is happening, and last year saw Baron’s long-ball vice go completely out of control.
Baron loves to shoot the ball off the dribble, even though he’s not all that good at it. In Golden State, Nellie was forced to remedy this by having Monta Ellis bring the ball up, curbing Baron’s opportunities to launch a jumper with 18 seconds on the clock. The most visible result of this tendency is Baron’s affinity for the three-ball, even though he’s only a career 32% shooter from beyond the arc. Last season, Baron was 20th in the NBA with 5 three-point attempts per game, only making 30% of them. What’s more, the degree of difficulty on those shots was insanely high-a full half of Baron’s threes were taken off the dribble, and only five players took a higher proportion of their threes off the bounce. Remarkably, this represented restraint for Baron-he took less threes per game than his career average of 5.3.
That kind of undisciplined, offense-choking launching from beyond the arc is bad. But here’s what makes it much, much, much worse: threes were the most effective part of Baron’s scoring last season. Baron’s midrange game was, to put it mildly, beyond abysmal. 93% of Baron’s midrange shots came off the dribble, the highest mark in the entire NBA. And Baron only made 33% of his midrange shots-among qualifying players, only Josh Smith had a worse mark. Josh Smith.
And yes, it gets worse. On “inside” shots, which should ideally be Davis’ bread and butter, Davis posted a miserable mark of 49%, which was the 5th-lowest mark among qualifying players. And Davis only had three dunks the entire year, which tied him with Raymond Felton and Matt Bonner.
That last troubling statistic at least provides a reason for Clipper fans to hope, because it suggests that Davis was nowhere near 100% healthy last season. However, as with all things Baron, there’s an optimistic and cynical way to look at that fact. Maybe Baron wasn’t in game-shape because of his injuries last season, which have plagued him his entire career. However, there is a sentiment that Davis was less than focused over the course of last season-many believe he began to give up when the Clippers lost Elton Brand and grew more apathetic from there over the course of the season. Baron has an extremely vibrant life outside of basketball, and is one of the league’s biggest personalities-his off-court antics are often hilarious, endearing, and even downright admirable. But Baron’s first responsibility is to be a franchise player, and some feel his priorities may have gotten a bit out of order over the course of last season.
ESPN’s John Hollinger says that the guards who remain successful into their thirties are the ones who have size, pass well, and shoot well. (I would add “or are Allen Iverson,” but he’s an exception.) Baron’s got two out of the three necessary skills, which can be enough if he adapts his game better than he did last season. He’s not this guy anymore, but Baron Davis is still more than capable of leading a team deep into the playoffs. He’s a truly remarkable passer; only Chris Paul and Deron Williams had both a higher usage rate and assist ratio than Baron last year. He’s still an absolute wizard on two-on-one fast breaks. He’s still one of the biggest point guards in the league, and might want to look into expanding his post game beyond his signature fadeaway from the left block, where he drifts backward while staying completely perpendicular to the floor-it’s a shot he can get whenever he wants, but it doesn’t go in all that often.
It’s impossible to talk about Baron Davis without talking about the team around him, as his impact is as closely tied to the players around him as any other superstar. Just like in his first full season in Golden State, Baron and the Clippers failed to gel in his first season with the team. But the Clippers have put a lot of effort into making the second go-round better, and there’s a lot that could go right. Baron is allegedly healthy, and one would imagine his focus might have been shocked back onto basketball after last year’s fiasco. Pick-and-roll, full-court running rookie superbeast Blake Griffin is in the starting lineup. Eric Gordon is ready to build on his promising rookie year. Al Thornton’s ball-dominance should be replaced in the starting lineup by Rasual Butler’s floor-spacing and versatility. Zach Randolph has been miraculously exiled. Mike Dunleavy must know that he has one season to learn new tricks or go down as one of the worst coaches in NBA history.
The Clippers are starting to look like America’s favorite underdogs again, and seem hungry to wipe away the memory of last season. So much of that depends on Baron, and so much of Baron depends on the team. Will the Davis lead the Clippers to reinvent themselves as young, dangerous, fast-breaking, pick-and-rolling, cross-matching, bats out of hell with a swagger never really seen in Clipper Nation?
Or will they be another mismanaged, ill-conceived mix of players, some too young and some too old, desperately ISOing up and haphazardly launching jumpers early in the shot clock, with Baron being the biggest culprit of all? I honestly have no idea. All I really know is that Baron won’t be the 43th-best player.
• Rankings are based solely on projected ’09-10 performance.
• Contributors to this list include: Jake Appleman, Brett Ballantini, Russ Bengtson, Toney Blare, Shannon Booher, Myles Brown, Franklyn Calle, Gregory Dole, Emry DowningHall, Jonathan Evans, Adam Fleischer, Jeff Fox, Sherman Johnson, Aaron Kaplowitz, John Krolik, Holly MacKenzie, Ryne Nelson, Chris O’Leary, Ben Osborne, Alan Paul, Susan Price, Sam Rubenstein, Khalid Salaam, Kye Stephenson, Adam Sweeney, Vincent Thomas, Tzvi Twersky, Justin Walsh, Joey Whelan, Eric Woodyard, and Nima Zarrabi.
• Want more of the SLAMonline Top 50? Check out the archive.