When Baron Davis came back a couple of games ago, I couldn’t help but wonder how it would impact the Clippers’ backcourt rotation. Eric Gordon had taken his game to another level in Davis’ absence, seizing control of the offense and assuming a majority of the playmaking duties. Hopeful point guard of the future, Eric Bledsoe, made his case that the future could be sooner than we thought. We even saw encouraging signs from 2nd round pick, Willie Warren, when he was forced into duty. And Rasual Butler hasn’t gone anywhere, playing about 20 minutes a night despite the best hopes of some (many?) Clipper fans. Now with Randy Foye set to return from a hamstring injury, the backcourt is on the verge of being completely healthy and, from the looks of things, overcrowded. Gordon is firmly established as one of the best guards in the NBA, but there are five others worthy of varying amounts of playing time. The timing of Breene’s trade post couldn’t be better, as it seems unlikely Vinny Del Negro and Neil Olshey will be able to accommodate everyone if healthy. Of course, teams are rarely at full health, and it makes no sense to make moves with this group counting on it. But this is a particularly interesting situation, thanks to the precociousness of the rookies, the underperformance of vets (Butler and to a lesser extent Foye) and, of course, the contract of Baron.
The ideal solution for the Clippers would be to close the book on the Baron Davis story by trading their highest paid player. Any value he brings to the team with his passing ability and occasionally inspired defense is easily outweighed by the negative impact of his deal, which is undesirable in both dollars and years. As Breene said, it’s unlikely any team will take him on, save possibly for a swap of a similarly bad deal, and as much as I like Gilbert Arenas, I’m not sure acquiring him would do much to solve the Clippers’ backcourt puzzle. Baron’s play has been uneven since his return, as it tends to be in general. He has flashed the ability to distribute the ball to scorers, but remains inconsistent as one himself. Assuming he is not traded, he figures to remain the starter but share point guard responsibilities with Bledsoe, leaving Foye looking for minutes at the 2, where he may find them to be limited. Left out of this mix almost completely would be Warren.
The question of “who should start at point?” is important to me only as far as it impacts the development of the U-23 lineup, and Bledsoe in particular. If Del Negro believes that Bledsoe can develop best with significant minutes off the bench, then he should let Baron start and battle the guys he’s paid like. Unlike typical rookie vs. veteran conversations, it is not, actually, clear that Baron gives the team it’s best chance to win now, which makes the decision even more challenging. According to 82games.com, the team’s least productive five-man unit (playing to a -44 point differential in about 52 minutes on the season, fourth most of any combination) features Davis at the point. Bledsoe has struggled with turnovers, but it turns out that he (3.7) and Baron (3.6) average nearly identical turnovers per 36 minutes. The rookie Bledsoe has a much higher True Shooting Percentage (.474 to .348), than his veteran counterpart, and would appear to make up for rookie lapses on defense with superior athleticism and effort. He averages two fewer assists, but you could argue that by deferring to Gordon, Bledsoe actually does more for the offense. In addition, it’s possible that Baron’s style, which involves domination of the ball, might be better suited to lead the second unit that lacks playmakers. Either way, it’s clear that minutes and the starting spot should dispensed with a focus on development, with the possibility for that to lead to similar or more success in the meantime.
What’s also clear is that, upon returning, Randy Foye may be forgotten (although with Donald Sterling’s quip, he may have felt that way from the start). When the Clippers signed Foye to a two-year deal, they imagined him being a versatile combo guard capable of filling in at either spot. What they have found is that he is a shooting guard in a point guard’s body, a scorer at heart that isn’t all that efficient. At 6’4”, he isn’t a big shooting guard and when teamed up with Gordon, it will at times leave the Clippers undersized against bigger backcourts.
With Gordon warranting a bulk of the minutes at the two, Foye is left to battle Rasual Butler for the remaining minutes, and here is where the team needs to make a decision on who will be the odd man out. Both players have significant flaws, and despite their drastically different styles of play, they are battling for the same role. Foye is more of a combo guard (but neither a strong distributor nor scorer) and Butler has prototypical size and a reputation for shooting threes (though he is neither a strong defender nor a particularly accurate shooter from deep). Foye has added value as an insurance policy at point if/when Baron is hurt. Butler should never be put in that role, and Olshey went out of his way this summer to express his disinterest in masquerading ‘Sual as a small forward. A trade is by no means necessary, considering the likelihood that both can accept diminished roles, at least for the time being. But in the unusual case of extended health in the Clippers’ backcourt and a need to do something, the team could afford to deal whichever player could bring back the most in return.