In many respects, today is a lousy moment to discuss what Al Thornton means to the Los Angeles Clippers in the long term. For one, making wholesale evaluations of a team or a player following a game like last night’s win over Boston is always dangerous due to the lightning-in-a-bottle quality of the victory. Would the Clippers have won last night’s game had Thornton played 38 minutes, and Mardy Collins been used in a limited role? Unlikely, but as sample sizes go, one game against a unique opponent is an unfair measure of a single player’s value. Collins is the only guy on the active roster with the defensive skills to render Paul Pierce ineffective, and the results of a Thornton-Pierce matchup would’ve likely produced far less favorable results for the Clippers.
Second, Eric Gordon’s uncertain status presents another challenge, because it’s impossible to look at a team’s small forward in an isolated context without also considering his counterpart at the 2. What Thornton can or can’t do to help the ball club is an entirely different conversation if that team has Eric Gordon at shooting guard versus, say, Fred Jones, Cuttino Mobley, or Kobe Bryant for that matter. Wing players on a good team will always share a symbiosis beyond sheer chemistry. Trying to glean something meaningful about Thornton’s absence is virtually impossible while Gordon is also out of action.
Those disclaimers aside, Mardy Collins’ performance last night provides, if not a proper parallel, then at least an interesting prism through which to view the Clippers’ wing personnel. Collins and Thornton possess some of the same properties. Both are historically inefficient offensive players, and they share a virtually identical, poor true shooting percentage as a Clipper this season [49.2 TS% for Collins/49.3 TS% for Thornton]. Apart from that, they’re quite different. Al is your prototypical small forward who relies on his very singular athleticism to create his own shot. Collins, meanwhile, lacks quickness and athleticism and must use his versatility as a role player with a passable handle, decent ability to move the basketball, and a capacity to defend multiple positions.
The Celtics were the perfect opponent for Collins to showcase his limited talents. Boston runs multiple pick-and-rolls on both sides of the floor, always looking for the defensive switch they can exploit in an instant. Collins is a flexible defender who knows what he’s doing on the S/R, and doesn’t cost you a lot on a switch, whether he ends up on the ball, the roll, a PG, and even some bigs. When Boston goes to an isolation set, Pierce is their guy — particularly when Garnett is out of the lineup. Collins proved last night that he’s a capable man-to-man defender, something Thornton struggles with on a nightly basis.
Enter Eric Gordon. Asked recently if he could think of anything wrong with his rookie phenom, Clippers head coach Mike Dunleavy shrugged.
“He’s not 6′ 5″?”
Here’s what we can infer from Dunleavy’s point: Gordon has demonstrated some serious defensive chops against many opposing shooting guards, but as capable as Eric is in that regard, he doesn’t afford his coach the luxury of assigning him to the opponent’s small forward. For a lot of coaches, that flexibility is crucial. Many Clippers fans became frustrated with Dunleavy’s reliance on Cuttino Mobley for big minutes in recent years. What was often missed is that Mobley could guard athletic 3s, something Dunleavy desperately needed against more complicated offenses. Whatever shortcomings Mobley demonstrated — and there were many — the ability to stick him on a Carmelo Anthony or Paul Pierce was helpful.
Since Eric is unquestionably the Clippers’ shooting guard of the future — and since height is one area where Eric won’t improve — the next question is this: Given Eric’s size limitation, what do the Clippers need out of their small forward?
When you look at the rest of the personnel: Baron Davis, Zach Randolph, Chris Kaman/Marcus Camby, I think it’s fair to say that the most important attributes you want in a small forward are  Solid, if not lockdown, defensive skills against the league’s most dangerous small forwards, because Eric — for all his wonderful qualities as a shooting guard — can’t pick up those assignments.  An ability to keep the ball moving in the halfcourt.
If Al Thornton isn’t the long-term answer for the Clippers at the starting small forward spot, then neither is Mardy Collins. He’s far too ineffective an offensive player, even taking into account his redeeming qualities. The Clippers won last night because Collins did steady defensive work on a dynamic player, not because of his offensive output, which was a neutral contributing factor to the victory at best. The fact that Collins isn’t all that much worse than Thornton says a lot more about Al than it does about Mardy.
Barring another catastrophic injury, it’s widely assumed that the Clippers will deal one of their big men between now and the next trading deadline. When thinking about what the Clips might want in return, a well-conceived idea of how they can improve on the wings will be very helpful.