With the Clippers playing out the string and college basketball at center stage, it’s time to take another look at the Clippers’ prospects in the upcoming draft. Back in January, we briefly discussed the Clippers’ needs, but didn’t take more than a cursory look at the field. More than two months later, we now have a better grasp of the state of the Clippers roster, as well as those who’ll be sitting in the green room at Madison Square Garden on June 25.
Best Case Scenario: The Clippers Pick #1
As of this morning, there’s a 15.6% chance that the golden ping pong ball will roll the Clippers way at the lottery in Secaucus, which means there’s a 15.6% chance that Oklahoma big man and consensus #1 pick Blake Griffin will put on a Clippers’ cap the evening on draft night. The Clippers’ purported logjam up front amounted to a whole lot of nothing, with Chris Kaman, Zach Randolph, and Marcus Camby all missing considerable time with injuries. The likelihood that the frontcourt troika could play anywhere close to a collective 7,000 minutes next season is remote. If the Clippers were fortunate enough to land Griffin, they would have little difficulty moving Marcus Camby, whose modest $7.65M contract next season comes with a June 30, 2010 expiration date. The Clippers would drop Griffin into the frontcourt rotation with Kaman and Randolph, with DeAndre Jordan as the fourth big man, along with Steve Novak as a smallball option, provided the 180 Shooter stays with the team.
Most Likely Scenario: The Clippers Pick #3
Though the Clippers could end up with anywhere from the first to sixth pick, the third slot is their most likely destination. Most years, picking third would almost guarantee a franchise player, but beyond Griffin, the 2009 field offers few locks. Virtually every projected lottery pick features a red flag…or five. The spotty and unremarkable collection of prospects in this year’s class should point the Clippers toward the best talent on the board, irrespective of position. For more on the rationale of choosing talent over need, visit Brian McCormick’s terrific piece from last June.
The Clippers are an interesting sub-20 win team, in that they don’t have a glaring hole at any one starting position. Eric Gordon has solidified the 2 spot. They have immovable contracts at the PG [Davis], PF [Randolph], and possibly at C [Kaman], and each of these players — for all their numerous flaws — is indisputably an NBA starter. Al Thornton would be better suited coming off the bench for 25 minutes a night. Unfortunately, the depth of this draft class at SF is baby pool shallow. Only Earl Clark and Al-Farouq Aminu rank as potential Top 15 picks — unless you project DeMar DeRozan at SF, which is a reach — but none of these guys qualify as a #3.
So who’s the best talent in the draft pool after Griffin? There are conflicting stories on Spanish wunderkind Ricky Rubio‘s intentions. Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated reported a couple of weeks ago that the phenom wants to cross the water and enter the draft. The problem, as Mannix reports, is the complicated buyout clause Rubio has with DKV Joventut Barcelona. Here’s what Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress wrote in February:
There’s been some talk that Rubio’s contract would not hold up in court if challenged, as a 6 million Euro buyout is obviously not proportionate to an 80,000 Euro contract. It’s highly unlikely that it would get to that, though.
According to David Carro, the Spanish partner of Rubio’s NBA agent, Dan Fegan, who we spoke with here at the Copa del Rey, there is “still a chance that Rubio could find his way into this year’s draft.” Negotiations are reportedly underway to lower his buyout to more manageable proportions, possibly 3-4 million Euro. A solution could come as early as “this month” Carro told us, and in that case, Rubio would be able to afford getting out of his contract if he were to be “a top-3 pick” (which he very likely is), as long as he could pay off the buyout over the course of his rookie deal. Asked why Joventut would have any reason to even negotiate considering the leverage they hold in this situation, Carro responded that Rubio is the “image of the team” and that they “would not want to have a mad player.”
Obviously the door has yet to be completely closed on Ricky Rubio and this year’s NBA draft, so we’ll have to stay tuned.
If Rubio decides to enter the draft and there’s a confident belief he’ll stay in the States, he’s widely regarded as the #2 pick behind Griffin, so the Clippers would have to jump a spot to nab him.
Drafting for talent is predicated on identifying the talent — no easy task this spring, which is why you see a lot of mock drafts online that bear little resemblance to one another. What does the field look like after Griffin and Rubio?
Let’s start with the potential Top 5 big men. Arizona’s Jordan Hill was the flavor of the month in February through the PAC-10 Tournament, and a lot of observers have him as the second big man off the board after Griffin. Maybe it’s just the hair, but Hill looks a lot like a Ronny Turiaf-ish forward. Turiaf is a useful rotation big, but in the words of Givony, “[Hill] looks a lot more likely to develop into a solid energy guy/role-player rather than the game-changing presence you might expect from a potential top-5 pick.”
If the Clippers want to solidify their interior defense for the next several years, they could snag Hasheem Thabeet with the #3 pick. Size doesn’t slump, and the 7′ 3″ Thabeet is the kind of basket defender who can instantly transform a team’s defensive and rebounding efficiency rates. His presence would be an important compliment to Zach Randolph, providing just enough weak side help to protect the rim. Unfortunately, Thabeet’s offensive game presents a number of problems: Situate him on the block and he clogs up the box; place him away from the basket and an offensive threat like Randolph will be double-teamed at will by the opposing center. Still, Thabeet is mobile and a 65% shooter from the field, athletic and has adequate hands. For a Clipper team that ranks 26th in Defensive Efficiency and 28th in Rebounding Rate, Thabeet could be an instant contributor.
I love the multi-skilled player that Georgetown freshman Greg Monroe might become if he can refine his game under the tutelage of John Thompson. A rough, charcoal sketch of Monroe’s potential could be glimpsed on occasion this season — a deft pass to a cutter from the high post, his soft touch from mid-range — but that portrait was washed away in Big East play as Monroe’s selflessness dissolved into deference. Monroe might become a great basketball player, but he isn’t yet. Nevertheless, he can be found in the Top 5 of many mock draft boards.
Moving on from the big men, a lot of smart people regard Arizona State’s James Harden as the best talent in the draft not named Griffin [or Rubio, if he's wearing a suit the night of the 25th]. Harden is a steady, smart, intuitive ballplayer who plays dogged defense. Even at 6′ 4″, Harden is a good rebounder for his position and just seems to know where he’s most useful on both ends of the court. The Clippers, of course, already have their shooting guard of the future, so why would they mess with Harden?
Drafting on talent means just that: If Harden is the best pro prospect in a draft that has very few guarantees, then you find a place for him in the rotation. You tell Eric Gordon to spend the summer working on his pure point skills enough to play the 1 as effectively as, say, Jason Terry. The Clippers would feature a three-guard rotation with Baron Davis and Harden, with Mike Taylor as the next guard off the bench. Clippers fans should know better than anyone that the notion of Not Enough Playing Time is a chimera. For a team that has started Jason Hart, Fred Jones, Mardy Collins, Mike Taylor in the backcourt, worrying about having too much talent at guard is ridiculous, especially in a league that increasingly affords teams opportunities to run 3-guard offenses.
Outside-the-Box Scenario: Trading Down
It’s possible that the Clippers’ core group of veterans won’t amount to much in a competitive Western Conference. If that’s the case, then the organization would be wise to blow up the roster, and begin hoarding prospects and draft picks. The obstacle, of course, is a spreadsheet that includes three expensive, long-term contracts. One possible way to get a team to take on Davis, Randolph, or Kaman is sweetening the deal with a Top 5 pick. By trading down in a year in which the #3 or #4 pick may not have much more potential than the #12 or #13 pick, the Clippers might be able to package their high pick with one of those contracts for a mid-first rounder, and/or some future picks. Of course, this would relegate the Clippers to the bottom of the Western Conference for the immediate future. For a team whose upside is 42 games for the immediate future [if everyone stays healthy], this could make a lot of sense, provided management finds a sucker.
Right now, the Clippers’ offensive troubles don’t stem from a lack of scorers. It’s a lack of efficiency and facilitation, something they can find in the middle of the first round. The Clips could bolster themselves at the wing with a guy who can keep the ball moving and also defend. Earl Clark is a fascinating talent who can handle and pass as well as any wing of his size in the college game. 6′ 9″ forwards who can defend the perimeter, the post, and the pick and roll are a rare breed. Clark would seem to fall into that “heady 3″ category, but he doesn’t have the shooting range or consistency from the field that players in that mold do: Turkoglu, Battier, Batum…even a C.J. Miles. In fact, Clark’s TS% and eFG% have actually dropped, even as he’s demonstrated improvement in other areas.
If Baron Davis is dealt on draft day, the Clippers would almost certainly gravitate toward a PG, and there’s a lot of uncertainty as to how that field will shape up. Depending on whom you ask, Ty Lawson and Brandon Jennings might go Top 8 or fall to the 20s. Nobody is certain whether Tyreke Evans or Stephen Curry can play the point in the NBA. Jonny Flynn and Willie Warren are interesting, but their statuses are uncertain [though Flynn seems likely to come out, while indications are that Warren will stay in Norman] If the Clippers were able to deal Baron and end up with a lower pick, they could do a lot worse than Eric Maynor out of VCU. Maynor’s limitations are things that can be attenuated in the pro game. He won’t need to shoot the ball as much, and his defensive shortcomings are sins of commission. More important, he’d feed Gordon and Randolph and get Kaman the ball where he likes it.
Worst Case Scenario: The Clippers Pick #6
The gap between #3 and #6 isn’t vast this year, so don’t get too distraught if that 5 or 6 envelope produces a Clippers logo. Would the Clips go wing? If so, 18 year old Al-Farouq Aminu, out of Wake Forest, is a highly regarded SF prospect, though Dino Gaudio thinks he’s staying at Wake. Scouts love his potential, physicality, and nose for the basket, but in the few times I’ve seen him in ACC play, he’s exhibited the handle and range of King Farouq. When Aminu encounters a double-team, he has difficulty wiggling free, because he can’t pass, doesn’t have the ability to dribble out of trouble, and displays awful footwork. He’s very young and will certainly improve his fundamentals, but he looks like the impoverished man’s Thad Young…without the jump shot.
If there’s one kid who could jump up the draft board in the next ten weeks, it’s Carolina Forward Ed Davis. When the worst thing you can say about a 19 year old power forward is that he needs to hit the weight room, you’re talking about a bona fide pro prospect. He’s got a face-up game that gets better by the day, and has the length — if not the bulk — to do the necessary defensive work against opposing 4s. Davis isn’t ready to play 25-30 minutes a night in the NBA, and I’ll be surprised if he goes in the Top 10. But if he declares, Davis is my candidate for Class of 2009′s “Can you believe 12 teams passed on him?!” Award (which won’t be granted until 2013-14). If the Clippers want to build a nucleus of players who can win in 2011-12 instead of taking on lousy long-term veteran contracts [and lousy veteran short-term contracts], they could do a lot worse than plucking a kid like Davis at the 6 spot, and putting him in their pocket.