One of the storylines lost amid the turmoil has been the development of Al Thornton. The question facing the Clippers and, specifically, Al coming into the season was whether he could emerge as a useful starting small forward for the Clippers. During his auspicious 2007-08 rookie campaign, Al demonstrated incredible athleticism but, like most rookies, his weaknesses were also very apparent. At times, he navigated the floor with blinders on. This was especially problematic because, like a car going 90 on a single lane road, Al didn’t have the ability to slow up or adjust when adverse conditions presented themselves.
Unquestionably, Al has improved his shot selection this season. At times, he’s been a passable defender, particularly against smaller opponents — though he often suffers late in possessions once the man-to-man defense gets scrambled and help decisions need to be made. His rebounding…comme ci, comme ca.
Where Al fails most profoundly is in his inability to pass the basketball. In his first 14 minutes of action Monday night, Al threw the ball away three times, resulting in seven Magic points:
- [1st, 11:08] Second possession of the game. Gordon dumps the ball into Thornton, posted up against Hedo Turkoglu just off the left block. Once he feeds Al, Gordon shifts back up top. His man, Keith Bogans, hedges midway between Al and EJ. Al faces up against Turkoglu, rocks, hesitates, rocks again, before offering a little upfake, then putting the ball on the floor with his left. Turkoglu anticipates this, and slides quickly to his right to cut off the baseline. There’s nowhere for Al to go. There’s still :14 left on the clock — that’s one of the positives of getting into a set early, something the Clippers have historically failed to do — so there’s absolutely no need for Al to panic, even with Bogans coming over to trap him against the baseline. Unfortunately, Al…panics. He leaps up in the air, thereby committing himself to the pass. He wants Gordon, who’s still up top, but the ball hits Jameer Nelson in the numbers.One thing you notice about Al is that from the moment he receives the ball in the post, he never appraises the court. Watch Paul Pierce in isolation. Or Tayshaun Prince. Or even guys like Caron Butler or Trevor Ariza when they get the ball on the wing. They don’t just size up their defender; they take a full mental picture of the court. It probably doesn’t dawn on Al until he jumps in the air that he doesn’t have any idea where the other four white shirts are.
- [1st, 8:55] Off an inbounds play, the Clippers isolate Al Thornton on the high wing against Turkoglu. Baron Davis sets a back screen at the weak side elbow that’s designed to free up Zach Randolph. Comically, Randolph’s man — Rashard Lewis — detects it before Randolph. Lewis actually beats Randolph to the post, then fronts him. This denies Thornton the entry pass into Randolph. There’s good news, though: Eric Gordon has been left alone in the weak side corner because Jameer Nelson has positioned himself well off EJ near the edge of the paint. Gordon dives to the hoop. Unfortunately, Al’s lob pass for the alley-oop clanks off the front of the rim. Ready. Fire. Aim.
- [2nd, 7:37] Al, now without headband, holds it on the perimeter against Turkoglu. The set is clearly for Randolph on the right block, but Tony Battie and Jameer Nelson smother Randolph, denying Thornton the pass. Nelson’s decision to help on Randolph frees up Taylor to return to the perimeter to collect the ball from Al for a reset. But here’s why Orlando — ranked 3rd in defensive efficiency — is so good. Rookie Courtney Lee, assigned to Mardy Collins in the far corner, rotates onto Taylor. Lee recognizes that Collins poses no threat, not only because he’s a terrible offensive player…but because he’s also a terrible offensive player 25 feet from the play. Lee is rewarded for his good instincts because Al telegraphs his pass to Mike Taylor, practially announcing it on the PA system. Lee leaps in front of Taylor, intercepts the lazy pass, and goes in for the breakaway slam.
It’s easy to cherry-pick a few plays to tar a player, so it’s only fair to disclaim that Al’s turnover rate, which hovers around 10.0, is about average for his position. Unfortunately, his assist rate is a meager 8.1, which ranks him 49th among NBA small forwards. If he were primarily a spot-up shooter like Peja Stojakovic [who has notoriously low assist ratios at the SF], that would be one thing. But Al simply doesn’t have the capacity to pass out on a drive, or to create plays from the wing with a pass to an open or semi-open teammate. Moreover, he struggles with many of the basic fundamentals of passing. As a result, the range of good things that can happen to the Clippers when Al has the ball in his hands is severely limited.
I appreciate that a fixation on passing ability can come across as quaint or, worse, priggish. Yes, there’s a reason that points — not assists — is the criterion by which Ws and Ls are decided. But it’s also important to realize that passing isn’t merely one of those elements of the game that traditionalists dwell on because it’s pretty or because passing speaks to their love of basketball as a team sport. Passing matters, particularly now that the pro game has moved away from isolations as its primary offensive scheme. There’s generally a mismatch somewhere on the floor in a given possession. Good defensive teams make it difficult for the offense to find that mismatch. But good offensive teams have the ability to move the ball over to that man. They have players who intuitively know not only where the open guy is [that's relatively simple if you have any kind of court vision], but how to get him the ball. Eric Gordon can dive to the rack all night from the weak side when his man sloughs off him, but if the other wing can’t deliver the ball underneath from the perimeter, EJ isn’t going to score. If Tony Battie fronts Randolph in the post, a good wing knows how to finesse the ball over the top for an easy two. A 24-second possession offers a couple good opportunities. Sometimes those opportunities don’t require a pass — but often, they do.
Al is still a young player and he can develop these skills. Carmelo Anthony couldn’t dish the ball to save his life his first couple seasons in the league. Today he can deliver a nice baseline pass when the big weak side help defender comes over to cut off his drive. Just ask Kenyon Martin or Nene. Al doesn’t need to be Tayshaun Prince or Paul Pierece out on the wing, but the Clippers desperately need him to be able to do more than just create shots for himself if they want to win games.