Even before the off-season started, it was quite obvious what position the Clippers were going to focus on: acquiring a small forward. As a part of a financial overhaul to potentially lure a top free agent SF, the Clippers cut ties will all but five players, keeping Baron Davis at PG, Eric Gordon at SG, Blake Griffin at PF, Chris Kaman at C and DeAndre Jordan at C. Not a bad foundation at all and with the quality of free agents at the small forward position (LeBron, Rudy Gay, Joe Johnson, etc.) as well as the small forwards in the draft (Wes Johnson, Al-Farouq Aminu, Gordon Hayward, Paul George, etc.) it was really easy to imagine that the Clippers were going to easily find their need and make a clear ascent.
After the loss to the Kings in the final pre-season game, the Clippers are 1-7. And for most fans this is discomfiting even though this record means nothing as it pertains to the regular season. But there are reasons to search for blame, regardless, and the most obvious answer has been lack of production at small forward (and to a lesser extent, back up point guard), the position that we so easily imagined filled and completed. How did this happen?
Considering how inevitably rigged LeBron’s signing with the Heat now seems, I feel foolish that I ever believed that the Clippers (or anyone else for that matter) had a chance. Although, I still believe the most disappointing aspect regarding the whole boondoggle was that the Clippers finally had an opportunity to make a positive impact in their national image and they blew it. Even if the management already knew LeBron was going to the Heat, couldn’t they have gone in with a real presentation, spoke confidently about their chances and made it look like the Los Angeles Clippers were an emerging destination team? Couldn’t they have avoided the sheepish comments about being “honored”? Ugh. Little things. Moving on.
From the LeBackups (Joe Johnson, Rudy Gay and Mike Miller), Miller actually went to back LeBron up in Miami for a smaller contract and the other two two signed ridiculously large contracts BEFORE LeBron even signed, before the teams that lost out on LeBron became desperate. I was as shocked to see that as I was to see the awful Darko Milicic and Amir Johnson contracts. If you’re going to be thankful about anything, make sure you count your blessings that those didn’t happen to the Clippers (sidenote: a ton of Clipper contracts will be shed in 2013 to make room for what should be the future core surrounding Blake and Gordon. Bosh and Lebron have opt outs in 2013. Perchance to dream). The Clippers may not have signed the guy you wanted, but the guy you wanted’s contract could turn into a franchise crippling contract (Enjoy those last years on Joe Johnson’s contract, Atlanta).
After that, the depth at small forward really fell off. For those of you that thought the Clippers should have gotten Matt Barnes, well, he was either going to be overpaid by Toronto (glad the Clippers didn’t do that) or he was going to take a discount to play with a title contender, which he did when he signed with the Lakers.
(Similarly, with regards to back-up point guard Steve Blake, he either needed to be paid more than was fiscally sustainable for a back up or he was going to play for a contender, like the Lakers.)
A case could be made to have signed John Salmons, too. It’s easy to forget him in the mix considering he signed with Milwaukee, and I’m glad that the Clippers didn’t try to one up his 5 year, $39 million contract, especially with how much he dominates the ball and how atrocious his shooting percentages are.
If you’re starting to notice how crazy these contracts are then it won’t surprise you why the Clippers didn’t even sniff out Wesley Matthews. Sure, he’s had a pleasantly surprising rookie year, but that doesn’t mean that he should be signed to a 5 year, $34 million dollar deal. That’s just ludicrous, Portland.
If you’re looking for the biggest potential miss for the Clippers, I think it was Josh Childress. Even still, statistically he hasn’t been that much different than Ryan Gomes other than the fact that he shoots a higher percentage from the field (but not from 3).
A comparison of Josh Childress’ and Ryan Gomes’ Career Averages:
JC: 11.1 points, 5.6 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1 steal and .5 blocks per game on .522 FG% and .360 3FG%
RG: 11.5 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, .7 steals, .2 blocks per game on .453 FG% and .361 3FG%
From those averages, I’d want Josh Childress. More efficient, better defender.
A comparison of Josh Childress’ and Ryan Gomes’ contracts:
JC: 5 years, $34 million.
RG: 3 years, $12 million.
Josh Childress is not 2 years and $22 million better than Ryan Gomes. Frankly, I like the Ryan Gomes signing. 3 years, $12 million and his numbers the last few seasons would be a perfect compliment for the Clippers this year. He shot 37.2 percent from three the last two years and he has a career average of 5.1 rebounds a game which is good at small forward. Both those are sound enough reasons for me to understand the signing. Gomes will be the 5th option amongst the starters and the majority of his looks are going to be jump shots and threes and he’ll have to compensate for Eric Gordon’s underwhelming rebounding numbers (3 a game? Not great). True, Gomes has not looked coherent in the Clippers pre-season games yet, but that’s what the pre-season is for, to iron out the wrinkles, especially in his first season with the team. I’m not expecting him to play amazing basketball because that’s not what he’s being asked to do. And I want to at least watch him play some regular season games (as opposed to the two games I’ve seen live this pre-season) before I declare him a flop.
The Rasual signing I was less than enthusiastic about because he didn’t strike me as a player that did much more than chuck last year. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good chucker, but he struggles going to the rim, plays mediocre defense and rebounds poorly. True, he might be used in a much more limited, specialized role that befits his talents of chucking and his contract isn’t bad at all, but it was still an underwhelming signing (for me the other one was Brian Cook).
As for trades, I still think that it can happen but it probably won’t happen until after December 15th because that’s the first day that players with newly signed contracts can be traded. The only players that can be traded before that deadline are Baron (his contract is pretty much untradeable right now), Blake (please no), Gordon (please no), DeAndre (potentially, but his salary is so small he’d have to be paired up with someone else to get anyone worthwhile back, so probably not), and Kaman (most likely since he came off an All Star season, but I still doubt it). Earlier in the summer, it would have been a great move to bring in Ariza, and while the Clippers did have a Courtney Lee-like player/contract that the Rockets wanted, I’m glad they didn’t give that up, I’d miss Eric Gordon. I think that this trading season potentially could see some movement because the Clippers have so many young assets (there will be swirling, dirt-devil rumors about Carmelo Anthony), but I doubt it. The team has the feeling that Oklahoma City did when they were building and were, ahem, kind of crappy but really talented, which means the Clippers are going to draft young assets and hold unless they get great deals.
The Clippers do have good assets right now and I am hesitant to make any rash judgments on Aminu. He did play poorly in his first televised games when he received sparse minutes, but in four other games when he received more than 25 minutes he averaged 15 points and 7.3 rebounds. In his last game against the Kings, he looked shockingly good. He still made a few bad turnovers (two offensive fouls by the basket and a bad pass in the back court) but he had a phenomenal reverse alley-oop lay-in, a beautiful three from the wing, grabbed 9 rebounds and buried a game-tying three with 22 seconds left (unfortunately the Clips blew that opportunity). That’s way further ahead than I thought he’d be right now. Besides, it’s not like the Clippers didn’t know he was going to be a project when they drafted him. He has only played 2 seasons of college ball and he’s expected to change positions to fit the swingman mold instead of the power forward position. I’m hoping that they give him some consistent burn so that he can develop. I don’t have high expectations for him this year but I think he can improve to become a valuable player for the Clippers. (He even has Ralph’s stamp of approval. From the Sacaramento game: “I just like the way he moves. He is definitely a basketball player.”)
In the draft there were a few alternatives, namely Paul George, Gordon Hayward, Luke Babbitt and, if he fell precipitously, Wes Johnson. Well, Johnson didn’t fall. Of the last three I thought they were all pretty good players. Seeing them in the Clippers workouts, Paul George was the most impressive defensively and was extremely athletic but he had an ugly rotating shot that clanked of the rim frequently. Gordon Hayward I thought had a really complete game, he’s a great shooter, good post moves, pretty athletic but he’s really skinny and it’s that narrow skinny that suggest that he won’t ever fill out. He’d play good D on some small forwards, but there would always be strong small forwards like Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Ron Artest, etc. that will just man-handle him. Luke Babbitt also had a really polished game: posted up well, pretty lefty stroke, strong on the glass but he’s a little bit slow. Where Hayward would struggle against the bigs, Babbitt would inversely struggle against the zippier small forwards. I just felt like Aminu had the best combination of all them. I didn’t get to see him in person but from highlights he looked potentially good defensively, with a decent looking outside shot, and a semi-polished game. I thought he’d struggle at first but eventually he’d find his game. We’ll see.
My secret favorite player on the team is a small forward buried deep on the bench and may not make the team. When I was working for the Clippers, I went to draft workouts to interview the players and write about them. Because of the secrecy of the draft, the team doesn’t disclose the names of the players in advance, so each day I would show up and get the names 30 minutes before and do as much research as possible. Well, Marqus Blakely was at one of them (Willie Warren, Eric Bledsoe, Gordon Hayward, Paul George, Luke Babbitt were also at these workouts) and I had never heard of his name, I mean he went to Vermont. But in the workouts it was clear that he was not only athletic and hungry (some of his dunks were jarring), but he was a nice guy too. He smiled and was polite, when I asked him about his college career he knew that it he had some obstacles to overcome but thought that he could do it with some hard work and tough defense. He’s easy to like and with his surprise play in the Summer League, it was even easier. He just seems like a guy that would be good to have on a team, even if it’s at the end of the bench. I doubt he gets much playing time this year because he has to find his playing time by means of defense. And unlike rebounding and scoring, defense rarely comes first for a player. I hope he sticks around and does eventually find a place though.
All in all, I like the moves that the front office has made to fill the small forward spot. Were there better players out there? Yeah, but there weren’t better possible deals. The Clippers didn’t get fleeced. Of course they weren’t any flashy deals, but it’s marked improvement with quality character players on decent contracts. I think people will be pleased with what the front office has done as long as they don’t expect this team to make the playoffs right away. There will be improvement from last years 29 wins, even Vegas has the win total line at 38.5 games, far higher than could have been expected in past years, which leads me to believe that even though they didn’t make the big splash moves at small forward, at least the Clippers are headed in the right direction.