Profiles In X-Factordom: Chris Kaman

by August 28, 2008

by John Krolik

In one of the craziest off-seasons in recent memory, perhaps no team had a face-lift as dramatic as the Clippers. Gone are Elton Brand and Corey Maggette, not only the Clippers’ two best players but also the vanguards of their style of play.

Completing the troika was Chris Kaman, a flash-less double-double guy who was probably the Clippers’ best player last year and still remains on the team. The question facing the Clippers is whether or not Kaman’s extremely solid play and skills package can serve the team in the Baron Davis era.

Baron brings swagger, style, and a hearty dose of amazing. While I can’t remember Elton Brand ever doing something interesting, Baron is a borderline folk hero. When circumstances line themselves up correctly, there aren’t 10 players in the league who can have a bigger impact on the game than Baron Davis.

Where previous Clipper leaders made their living by carving out esoteric and specific niches and repeating soundly, Baron is an explosive polymer who can slash to the basket, drain threes, post guys up, and make stunning passes at the drop of a hat. Even more amazing, he does all of these things at an elevated level with the game on the line, picking the exact right move at the exact right time with stunning spontaneity and regularity-there’s a reason the Warriors were 9-2 in games decided by 3 points or less last season. (Only the Blazers, 10-2, fared better).

But when Baron is not moved by the harmonics of possible glory, he shifts not into a base of solid production but rather pursues his own inscrutable agenda, dribbling the air out of the ball, breaking any possible offensive flow, refusing to attack the basket or get to the line, and bombing threes off the dribble in search of answers to questions only he knows, or possibly just for amusement.

There is perhaps no player with as symbiotic a relationship to the flow of the game as Baron Davis. Quite simply, he is an all or nothing proposition-a bona fide All-Star or a complete albatross depending on whether or not the game’s rhythms allow him to play the music only he can hear.

With Brand and Maggette gone, Kaman is the player most likely to steer the Clippers away from playing BaronBall and into the mediocre, grinding style of play that would cause Baron to lie effectively dormant.

In Golden State, Baron was made into a savior following a disastrous 05-06 season in which Baron spent his time watching Troy Murphy jacking up funny-looking step-back jumpers, Jason Richardson joining Nate Robinson and Vince Carter in the “dunk contest winners who actually hate driving to the basket” club, Mike Dunleavy the Junior desperately searching for some source of meaning, and Adonal Foyle standing around in a state of stunned disbelief that he was being paid what he was. It was 5 different players playing 5 different games, and Kaman is the lone member of the Clipper starting lineup whose game is already crafted and pre-packaged for deployment instead of ready to be made complete by what Baron creates.

Then Golden State ditched overmatched tactician Mike Montgomery for Don Nelson, the basketball Zampano, traded Troy Murphy and Mike Dunleavy for Stephen Jackson and Al Harrington, and decided that they would play a style in which they would be able to beat the league’s best team or lose to its worst on any given night depending solely on the moods of their spirit animals.

The results were immediate and fantastic: a legendary playoff upset, a subsequent 48-win season, which failed to get them to the playoffs but was the Warriors’ best regular season in decades, and the spawning of a legendary but tragically now-defunct blog.

The parallels between Baron’s last project and his new one are nearly uncanny. Both the Warriors and Clippers have experienced extremely limited success in the current era, and the management philosophy of both teams seems to be crafting teams “just good enough to lose.”

Seriously, just compare Jason Richardson and Antawn Jamison, the Warriors’ best players in between the Sprewell and Baron eras (ARENAS DOESN’T COUNT), to Corey Maggette and Elton Brand-they’re nearly identical in both production and ethos. (I know Antawn left well before Baron and J-Rich actually played with him during their playoff run – it’s still prescient).

For the Clippers, the key to succeeding with Baron is stripping the franchise of all that is “good enough” and going for broke in all facets of their strategy. If one needed to find a perfect microcosm of why the Clippers have struggled so badly for so long, I can’t think of a better instance than the Chris Kaman pick. Not only were the Clippers a victim of horrifyingly bad luck, getting the 6th pick in a draft with franchise players at 1, 3, 4, and 5, but they compounded their own misfortune by making the worst possible play. Here’s how I imagine the Clippers’ war room leading up to the draft:

“Which direction should we go in with this pick?”

“Well, I don’t think spending a mid-lottery pick on a big man who nobody really thinks will be a star ever backfired.”

“Yes! Guys with size and great talent don’t last past the first 5 picks, but talented players don’t get big, and theoretically big players could become talented!”

“Absolutely! That is technically true! I’m sure it’s even happened before!”

“Tell me about this Kaman. Is he a 7-foot white guy who doesn’t have great athleticism or perimeter skills?”

“You’re damn straight he is!”

“Did he go to a small school where he could dominate just by being tall and never actually got tested by an NBA-level big man?”

“Central Michigan, baby!”

“Who did we draft last year?”

“Slow-moving post player Chris Wilcox!”

“The other options here are T.J. Ford and Kirk Hinrich. Did we just lose Andre Miller and leave ourselves a gaping hole at point guard?”

“Yes indeed!”

“Get this kid ON THE PHONE!”

Kaman did beat the mid-lottery big man odds by significantly outperforming the likes of Patrick O’Bryant and Rafael Araujo, and while he didn’t explode out of the gate the way some of the players from that class did, by the time his rookie contract was up he had posted an extremely solid season-12 and 10 on 53% shooting for the year.

Then the Clippers made another move straight out of the “moves that seem logical but are only executed by bad teams” playbook, giving Kaman a $50 million dollar deal based on the accepted and completely insane theory that a decent big man is worth the price of a great player at another position. Every off-season, the biggest extensions are given to 7-footers who either play solid offense or solid defense, and the biggest trades are made with those same players’ expiring contracts from years earlier.

Samuel Dalembert, Kwame Brown, Theo Ratliff, Adonal Foyle, Ben Wallace, Raef LaFrentz, Jerome James, Erick Dampier, Eddy Curry, the list goes on. And watch what happens with the Bogut extension. Really the only time one of those signings has worked out is the Zydrunas Ilgauskas deal, and that was a complete serendipity, as Z miraculously turned from a scoring center who couldn’t play a lick of defense into a paint-patrolling menace and ego-less backup offensive option under Mike Brown, and even still he’s vastly overpaid.

While Baron is virtually useless on a non-contending team, Kaman’s career so far seems to suggest his destiny is being the bright spot on a bad team. Kaman’s chief attribute, other than the fact he is, I suppose, technically a German citizen (playing on a front line in the Olympics which included Dirk Nowitzki, who is technically an NBA MVP much in the same way) is that he has a “refined post game” – he is completely ambidextrous around the basket, and has a feathery touch on a variety of hook shots and bankers. This made Kaman the Clippers’ most reliable offensive threat this season when Maggette didn’t come to play and Al Thornton worked on putting his arsenal together, and he put up a career-high 15.7 points per game.

The issue: if Kaman has the same offensive year this year as he did last year, he’s going to hurt the team.

Kaman is a decent enough scorer, but not nearly good enough to be a team’s primary scoring option – 48 percent shooting really isn’t all that good. The middling post player has replaced the middling shot-happy combo guard as the player who most commonly puts up good numbers for bad teams and is given carte blanche to jack up shots that look nice enough but ultimately aren’t a winning proposition. Kaman stagnates the offense and will often hurt the play of those around them.

With the trade for Marcus Camby (a move I equate to finding a used La-Z-Boy for $25 dollars, pouncing on the bargain, then getting back to your dorm room and finding you have no idea what the hell you’re going to do with that recliner), the Clippers, and Kaman, can go in a number of directions. They can trot out a Camby/Kaman frontline, rebound tenaciously, let Kaman force in 15 points per game, watch Baron try to keep himself interested by jacking threes and win 42 games.

The other option is the Clippers, and Kaman, give in to the Baron ethos.

A Camby/Kaman frontline can most certainly work if Kaman stops trying to be a poor man’s Al Jefferson and works on being a poor man’s Gasol – working the pick-and-roll with Baron, capitalizing on deep position if the offense gets in for him, getting tip-ins (Kaman is a fantastic rebounder), running the court with “deceptive speed” (translation: white and actually mobile), hitting open jumpers, and putting energy in on defense. Or the Clippers can swallow their dollar-sign related pride and have Camby or Kaman come off the bench and get some face-melting lineups like Baron/Gordon/Davis/Thornton/Camby (or Kaman) out there, with some Tim Thomas mixed in.

Kaman is the lone holdover from the “good enough” days of the Clippers. Now he must give himself over to the ethos that if you even want a playoff spot in the Western Conference, there is no such thing as good enough.

Although Mike Dunleavy Sr. being involved makes me nervous, I’m excited to see what Kaman and the rest of the Clippers do with Baron giving them a slice of the spotlight and the talent on their roster giving them a chance to shine in it. If nothing else, I’m excited to watch Ricky Davis and Baron complete what Ricky and D-Miles started the last time the Clippers were starting to feel like the hippest team in LA. The “temple-horns” thing was just the beginning.