Based on the Clippers recent free agent targets, it’s natural to assume that the guard position is the biggest need. After all, the Clippers only have 3 *true* guards on their roster, and all we’ve heard for the last month is an overload of Sessions talk mixed with an occasional A.I. flare up. The acquiring of a defensive minded wing, for the time being, has apparently drifted out of focus.
Management has done nothing thus far to address the glaring needs on the wing, and Dunleavy appears content with starting Al Thornton again next year. Thornton played the lion’s share of the minutes last year at small forward, so let’s take a look at the Clippers production by position numbers compiled by 82games.com.
Net Production by Position (2008)
The first thing that pops out at you is how absolutely atrocious the shot selection of Baron Davis was last year, but you likely didn’t need a chart to come to that conclusion. The next thing that jumps off the page is all the negatives in the small forward column. The Clippers small forwards last year got out rebounded by a margin of 2.4 rebounds per game, and the shooting guards weren’t much better, losing the rebounding battle by 2 rebounds a game. That’s a -4.4 rebounding margin on the wing, which is absolutely awful. Eric Gordon is an expected poor rebounder at 6’3, but Al Thornton has all the physical tools to at least be serviceable. Instead, he’s one of the worst in the league at his position. The Clippers small forwards assist margin was the worst of the 5 positions. The small forwards also got outscored by opponents to the tune of 2.8 points a game, which was the second worst position total on the team. Hollinger’s PER system is less than perfect, but it is telling that the Clippers’ small forwards were 4.7 PER points worse than the opposition, which was by far the lowest total of the 5 positions. Based on these stats, the small forward position was where the Clippers were outmatched most often last season.
Going forward, Gordon will desperately need a good rebounder and defender on the wing next to him to cover up for his lack of size. Al Thornton doesn’t appear to be that guy, as his skills just don’t seem to mesh well with the rest of the young core. If the Clippers are serious about contending this year and in the future, they simply have to upgrade the starting small forward position. Players who are primarily scorers at the small forward position just aren’t on championship caliber teams. Looking back at the NBA Champions of this decade reveals a slew of starting defensive minded small forwards:
Los Angeles Lakers, 2000 – Glen Rice was the starter, but Rick Fox played a valuable defensive role off the bench.
Los Angeles Lakers, 2001 – Rick Fox
Los Angeles Lakers, 2002 – Rick Fox and Devean George
San Antonio Spurs, 2003 – Bruce Bowen
Detroit Pistons, 2004 – Tayshaun Prince
San Antonio Spurs, 2005 – Bruce Bowen
Miami Heat, 2006 – James Posey
San Antonio Spurs, 2007 – Bruce Bowen
Boston Celtics, 2008 – Paul Pierce was the starter, but James Posey played lots of crucial minutes.
Los Angeles Lakers, 2009 – Trevor Ariza
What do all these players have in common? First, they all have the height (6’7 or above) to shut down every type of perimeter player. Second, they can all knock down the corner 3 with consistency. It’s overly simplistic, but that’s basically the requirements of a “glue guy”. Al Thornton, despite his immense talent, currently meets neither of these requirements.
The promising thing for the Clippers is that “glue guys” can be found anywhere. Bruce Bowen bounced around the league and played for 4 different teams before finally landing in San Antonio. James Posey followed the same path as well, playing for 4 different teams before landing in Miami. Devean George was drafted out of a Division III college. Trevor Ariza was acquired last season for Brian freaking Cook.
Some Clippers fans believe that wing player Mardy Collins can fill that defensive role for this team. Collins may be a good enough defender, but he’ll need to develop something that at least resembles a jumper before reaching true “glue guy” status. Witness:
In his nine games as a Los Angeles Clipper, Collins has taken 29 shot attempts from the floor. Only ten of them have been successful, while 13 of the 29 haven’t drawn iron. -December 15th, 2008.
Mardy Collins, and for that matter, Al Thornton, may eventually develop into prominent defensive stoppers with the ability to stretch the defense, but both clearly have a long way to go.
So where is the next championship level perimeter defender and shooter hiding? He could be anywhere…but the Clippers will never find him unless they start looking.