Clippers still best in L.A.

Justin Satzman

It is fitting that the 2006-07 NBA season begins on Halloween night because something is getting mysterious in the city of Los Angeles. The Clippers, and not the Lakers, are the better team that calls Staples Center home.

After a season that saw the Clippers win 47 games and their first playoff series win in franchise history, the Clippers are poised to have an even better season.

The Clippers return almost every player from last season, including Elton Brand, who was an all-star last season and was in the conversation for league MVP. With Brand, a healthy Corey Maggette, a rested Sam Cassell, a veteran like Cuttino Mobley and a star in the making in Shaun Livingston, the Clippers should contend for the Pacific crown.

The only major loss for the Clippers was Vladimir Radmanovic, who went down the hall and signed with the Lakers. However, the Clippers did pick up Tim Thomas, the same Tim Thomas who hit the huge three in game six against the Lakers in last year’s first-round playoff series to send that series to a seventh game, which the Phoenix Suns won easily. Thomas is an upgrade from Radmanovic. He can shoot the ball just as well and is a better rebounder and defender.

Last season’s success was new to most of the Clipper players, so at times they seemed to be in amazement of the situation. Do not expect the same thing this year. They are a more experienced basketball team, which is all they really needed.

Health was an issue last season with Maggette not playing a full season and Chris Kaman getting a little banged up at the end. Maggette and Kaman must stay healthy if the Clippers realistically want to make a run at the NBA Championship. Maggette is the team’s best slasher and gets to the free-throw line at will. Kaman is the team’s best center, and must remain healthy to bang with the other giants in the Western Conference.

There has also been some talk about starting Livingston over Cassell and I think it is a good idea for two reasons. Cassell will be 37 in a few weeks and the season is long. If Livingston starts, at least for the first half of the season, Cassell should be rested enough to make a second half push into the playoffs. Also, Livingston is the future of the Clippers and he needs to get more experience because Cassell is not going to be here for much longer.

The Clippers’ front office is also getting the job done. It locked up Kaman this year with a five-year extension and has all the other important players locked up for a while. The only business that the front office did not take care of was signing head coach Mike Dunleavy to an extension, which should be the next item of business.

The Clippers must play better defense this season in order to catch the Suns, who will be battling Los Angeles for the division. The Clippers can score with anyone, but must learn to get those important stops against teams, especially the Suns.

Phoenix will also be better this season if Amare Stoudemire is healthy. Two-time MVP Steve Nash will again ignite the Suns’ fast break and Nash should contend for a third MVP trophy in a row.

It will be difficult for the Clippers to win the Pacific over Phoenix but L.A. should come in second in the division with around 50 wins and a fourth spot in the playoffs come April.

The Clippers may not be the Lakers. The Clippers do not have banners on the wall or numbers that are retired but they soon can become Staples Center’s favorite team. They already are the better team, so as crazy as that sounds, it is realistic.