If you want to do some scouting on the Spurs today, you should head over to 48 Minutes of Hell, the dynamite Spurs blog run by Graydon Gordian and Timothy Varner. How good is 48MoH? Their powers of persuasion are almost enough to make you appreciate Bruce Bowen. Prior to Spurs games, 48MoH likes to catch up with bloggers from opposing teams in a Q & A format. I’m their guinea pig today, and you can find my dialogue with Graydon here.
One of the reasons I like doing Q & As with other bloggers is that it forces me to observe the Clippers from 30,000 feet. When you watch every second of every game, there’s a tendency to absorb yourself with the minutiae — whether Marcus Camby adequately defends the S/R, who’s missing perimeter rotations, whether Baron Davis is a better shooter off the dribble or in a catch-and-shoot sequence. Because the NBA schedule is packed so tightly, a blogger often falls into the trap of pouring everything into recaps. The unintentional result is that weeks go by, sometimes months, between close examinations of the big, meta questions facing a team.
Graydon posed three questions, the last of which was this:
GG: During the 05-06 season, I thought the Clippers were well on their way to building a team that would be a perennial playoff presence. After an impressive postseason run that year, what went wrong? What moves (roster, coaching, front office) are necessary to get this team back on track?
KA: Elton got hurt; Cassell and Mobley got older; Kaman improved, but not enough. To get back to respectability, the Clippers need able bodies first and foremost. A healthy Baron Davis and an emerging Eric Gordon are nice anchors in the backcourt. With Randolph, Marcus Camby, and Kaman, they’re more than spoken for on the block. What the Clippers need to get back to 45-50 wins is a 3 who can facilitate and pass. Thornton is a bit of a black hole. A 3 out of the Odom, Battier, Turkoglu mold — even a Luke Walton or Nicolas Batum — would serve them well.
“What moves (roster, coaching, front office) are necessary to get this team back on track?” Simple enough, but the question caught me off-guard, largely because our attention has been consumed in recent days with things like Cheikh Samb, who’s going to play point, and how a team profits from waiving guys they trade for.
I suspect that many in this forum would put “Fire Mike Dunleavy” as item number one on their list of things that are necessary to get the Clippers back on track. I’m not interested in going down that road. Why? However you feel about Dunleavy as a coach or general manager, he’s not going anywhere because it’s not in Donald Sterling’s constitution to pay people not to work. I’ve maintained an agnostic position on Dunleavy since he arrived, and that’s still where I am.
Once the Clippers are healthy again, they’ll desperately need some depth on the perimeter, but starters generally play 80% of minutes in this league, so any discussion about a team’s prospects for respectability has to begin and end with the guys who will take the lion’s share of those minutes. Baron Davis and Eric Gordon figure to preside over the backcourt for years to come. Some combination of Chris Kaman, Zach Randolph and Marcus Camby will hold down the block. Both Randolph and Kaman have long-term contracts with the Clippers. Marcus Camby will either finish out his contract with the team next spring or, just as likely, he’ll be dealt at some point in the next 14 months for a nice complimentary piece that can address the depth issue at the wings.
If you believe that Eric Gordon will be a complete player who solves the Clippers’ need at the 2, that Randolph in the post will challenge the defense, that a healthy Kaman is a solid presence at center, and that a healthy Baron Davis is, at the very least, serviceable, then this conversation quickly turns to Al Thornton.
Initially, I wasn’t one who believed that Thornton’s advanced age as a rookie meant that he’d be less likely to grow as an NBA player. But as we look at the first 113 games of Al’s career, I’m afraid that’s exactly where we are. Al’s numbers suggest a player with fixed abilities and shortcomings. His usage rate is roughly the same as last season. His true shooting percentage? Last season: 50.4. This season? 49.8. While his turnover rate has dipped slightly, so has the assist rate that ranks him dead last in the league among starting SFs.
Those are the numeric realities, but I think the larger question is how Al’s skill set comports with the Clippers’ needs. When you look around the league, you see that capable teams have one of a few varieties of small forwards: Teams like Cleveland, Boston, and Denver have high usage small forwards who are pure, complete scorers, who can do everything well [check out Carmelo Anthony's rebounding rate]. Teams like the Lakers, Orlando, Utah, and Detroit have smart facilitators who can pass, handle the ball, and use their length to defend. Teams like San Antonio and Houston have historically allocated the SF position to a defensive specialist who doesn’t need the ball, but can spot up if necessary.
It seems to me that if a starting wing player is not one of the two most efficient scorers on the floor, then you need him to create opportunities for others, or deny the opponent’s most potent perimeter threat similar opportunities. Al Thornton has little capacity or inclination to do either of these things.
In fact, the only skill where Thornton is measurably better than average is getting to the line — he’s 12th in the league among SFs in both FTA/game and FTM/game. His defense has improved from abysmal to below average and it’s unlikely that he’ll ever have the wherewithal to give the Clippers an edge against the league’s better perimeter scorers. In short, Al Thornton is Corey Maggette without the efficiency, and there’s nothing in his body of work on a nightly basis that offers much hope that he’ll cultivate the skills or instincts to become much more than that.
The Clippers exercised Thornton’s third-year contract option this past October at the very reasonable price of $1.9M. The organization’s next decision on Al will be his fourth-year option for the 2010-11 at $2.8M — again, not a bad deal for a guy of Thornton’s talent. The question Mike Dunleavy will face going forward is whether the Clippers aren’t better served by a more complete, less athletic small forward who can create opportunities for the guys on the floor who know how to score efficiently. The likely emergence of Eric Gordon at the other wing position makes that proposition all the more logical.