Those guided by superstition have traditionally characterized the Clippers’ misfortunes as preordained — as if management, a willingness to invest, talent evaluation, and coaching had nothing to do with a team’s performance during its first 25 years in Los Angeles. But even hard-boiled empiricists would have to concede this morning that the Clippers have been blessed over the past month and a half. A cursed franchise doesn’t typically defy probability and land the top pick in a one-player draft, or find a willing sucker to take on their most toxic asset a full week before the moratorium when such a trade can be consummated.
The Clippers have gotten lucky. Although diligence is often the mother of good luck, that’s probably untrue in the Clippers’ case. Only by virtue of drawing Blake Griffin on a losing hand, and finding a franchise more desperate and financially beleaguered than them, were the Clippers able to graduate overnight into a team with the opportunity for a bright future. The Clippers’ ability to finesse a new home for Zach Randolph doesn’t absolve the November deal any more than hitting on 18 and pulling a three at the blackjack table makes that blunder excusable. Having said that, luck (there’s that fussy word again) sometimes offers generous reprieves, and the Clippers were certain beneficiaries of those breaks.
I’ve been rough on Zach Randolph, so I’d like to take this opportunity to offer a more rational critique of him as a player. Is Randolph is a bad guy? I’ve had several conversations with him, but I generally hold the position that a series of locker room encounters tells us precious little about the inner life of athletes. There’s enough evidence to suggest that Randolph has applied lousy judgment throughout his professional life. On the court, he’s a statistical beast, but there’s a body of work that reveals tendencies which aren’t conducive to the formula the NBA demands at this moment for a successful franchise. Randolph was born about a decade too late, and would’ve been much more helpful pre-2001, before the revisions of the hand-checking rules produced a more perimeter-oriented game more hospitable to face-up 4s. His defense would’ve been less of a liability in an era when “taking up space” was a more essentially defensive quality, and Zach certainly does that. But today’s game presents insurmountable problems for Zach. Defensively, he simply can’t defend the collection of athletic 4s who dominate the league. When his man works his way down low, Zach has a horrible habit of bailing out, leaving a basket defender like Marcus Camby as the last line of defense. That’s an excusable tactic for a perimeter defender who’s gotten beat, but power forwards have certain responsibilities down low and, unlike front line defenders, they can’t hide from those.
Offensively, Randolph is a black hole down low. If we’ve seen nothing else since April 18, the ability of bigs to move the ball can’t be overstated. It’s no longer merely a luxury; it’s a prerequisite for longterm success. On Monday, John Krolik of Cavs the Blog composed this pithy axiom: “Simply put, some guys create shots and plays offensively while other guys finish them.” Randolph is undoubtedly a one-on-one finisher — and a pretty good one. But that’s not what the Clippers needed in 2008-09, or or necessitate going forward. They need guys who can create for others. Even Dwight Howard, he of the so-called (and mischaracterized) one-dimensional game, became an effective post-and-kick man for Orlando. Yet, Clippers fans went days without seeing Randolph make a smart pass to set up a shooter.
That’s our final word here on Randolph. Maybe he’s capable of giving the Grizz a jolt in a frontcourt that needs a productive one-on-one scorer. Who knows?
For all of Randolph’s deficiencies, the Clippers probably didn’t improve their 2009-10 win total yesterday, but they opened up space for Blake Griffin — obviously — and also for DeAndre Jordan. Watching Jordan workout and talking with talent evaluators and Clippers assistants, I’m becoming increasingly bullish on Jordan’s capacity to log quality NBA minutes at center. If he continues to refine his game, Jordan has a real chance to become a Chris Andersen-type shot-blocking energy big man who can collect garbage off the offensive glass, finish on the break, put up a gaudy FG%, and rebound like a fiend. Assuming that Kaman and Camby miss a collective 40 games this season — and that’s not an unreasonable assumption — Jordan will have the chance to hone his skills. That’s important, because it’s very likely Jordan will be an essential part of a Clippers frontcourt that, crowded as it’s been the past year or so, will soon thin out.
The wings? Still a concern. According to sources, the Clippers’ brass is gradually coming around to the idea that Al Thornton might be best utilized off the bench. Unfortunately, their only other options at the SF right now are Mardy Collins and Quentin Richardson — they of the combined 21.16 PER, plantar fasciitis, and a sore back. With the Richardson deal, the Clippers will be just barely under the cap, though they acquired a $7.3M trade exception. Although the Clips have been mentioned as a possible destination for Trevor Ariza — and wouldn’t that be glorious — they can offer him only the MLE (barring an improbably sign & trade with the $7.3M exception), which puts them in the boat with everyone else. Maybe Ariza, as a local product, would be receptive to moving across the hall at a discount, but it’s more likely he’ll land where he can either [a] get more cash (i.e. Toronto), or [b] contend for a ring (i.e. Cleveland).
To those dreaming of the promised land in 2009-10, it’s vital to exercise patience. The Clippers are still a year away from adding the personnel that can elevate them from curiosity to contender. But for the first time since the summer of 2006, the sun is out across the Nación this morning. Overnight, the Clippers became a younger, more likeable, more watchable, nimbler group. The effect on Baron Davis should be a positive one, and they can begin to sculpt an offense around a potentially devastating big-small/inside-outside combo in Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon.
When the season is over, the Clips will have nearly $20M available to them in free agency depending on the cap number. They’ll be able to compete for the 6-7 Joe Johnson, who would make a sensible wingmate for Eric Gordon. They could throw some shekels at the restricted Thabo Sefolosha, who would be a stellar addition for a team in need of facilitators and defenders. The Clippers will also have the flexibility to execute a sign and trade if there are contracted players on other rosters they covet (though the Clippers’ assets will be limited unless there are Al Thornton fans out there). Whatever they decide to do a year from now, the Clippers now have one of the most valuable assets a team with a promising young core can have: the means and flexibility to add complementary pieces.