Last summer, just like they will this summer, the Clippers searched for a small forward. At the time they only had Blake Griffin, Eric Gordon, Baron Davis, Chris Kaman and DeAndre Jordan signed and had drafted Eric Bledsoe, Willie Warren and Al-Farouq Aminu. There were no quick solutions at the small forward position as Blake and Aminu were the only possible fits in that core seven players and they were both unproven and playing out of position. Some had hopes that the Clippers would lure LeBron James (or maybe Rudy Gay) but those dreams seem pretty terribly unfounded with hindsight. So, the Clippers signed Ryan Gomes.
At first, I thought the signing was pretty brilliant. After inevitably losing out to the top tier free agents, the Clippers were in no way baited into signing a terrible contract for a mediocre player like Josh Childress. And Ryan Gomes seemed to fit the needs of the Clips. He was a veteran player, who played intelligently, didn’t need the ball a lot and to go along with a career 45+ percent field goal percentage and a 36+ percent three-point percentage. After all, if the Clippers weren’t going to get a franchise transforming free agent, wouldn’t a better idea be to get a complimentary piece that would allow the foundation of the Clippers to grow?
Gomes was in that role player mold. He wouldn’t take away touches from Gordon, Blake or Kaman (theoretically, had he not been injured) get his shots, and Baron would have one more weapon from outside. He would have been a great mentor for Al-Farouq Aminu, even. It should have been perfect.
But that was not the case. Instead, Gomes played terribly, there’s really no other way to put it. He averaged 7.2 points on 41 percent shooting (34 percent from three), 3.3 rebounds per game, 71.8 percent from the free throw line and had a 9 PER, all of which were career lows (the three point percentage was almost a career low, which is why it was in a parenthetical aside). He played terrible on defense as well as offense. I remember the Pistons game in November when Charlie Villanueva torched the Clippers for 30 points and those bursting performances from opposing small forwards began to lose their aberrational tags as Ryan Gomes and the Clippers just struggled against small forwards, especially ones that loved corner threes (a notable exception will be made for Ryan Gomes’ and Aminu’s defense on Kevin Durant this year, they held KD to 22.3 points on 35.9 percent shooting, KD’s second worst numbers for any team that he faced more than once). Gomes’ offense went from underwhelming fifth option as a starter, to cringe-worthy because of the hesitation on even the simplest set shots. His intelligence just seemed like a hindrance and his veteran status kept himself out of the core, instead of leading it.
However, there is something larger to the season of Ryan Gomes that might be the hidden vestiges of Sterling’s negative influence on the team and why players (Lamar Odom, Andre Miller, Baron Davis and now Gomes) play their worst seasons with the Clippers, which I was reminded of because of Phil Jackson’s retirement.
Regardless of your distaste for the Lakers, you can’t argue with Phil Jackson’s success of 11 championships in 20 years of coaching. He may have had a few of the greatest players ever to play, but he also did a masterful job of managing them over the course of the year. He has become a profound influence on the history of basketball and his retirement has caused many to opine on his legacy as a coach. As always, there are some interesting tidbits, but what resonated with me, what I thought could help the Clippers the most came from Dr. Jack Ramsay’s take on Phil’s greatest strength as a coach in ESPN’s 5 on 5:
He takes an interest in every player on his team. From the best player to the last player on the bench. He buys them books, he gets them special training, and he takes time for every player that he coaches.
The ability to invest in players, not just financially, is a huge reason why Jackson had the ability to keep his teams composed and successful despite the standard bits of infighting amongst teammates over the course of the season. Not only does Donald Sterling not do that, but I’m reminded of his “joke” at the white party about Ryan Gomes and Randy Foye, which LA Times’ T.J. Simers broke open:
“If I really called the shots we wouldn’t have signed Gomes and what’s the other guy’s name?
“You know, they told me if we built a new practice facility we’d attract all the top players in the game,” Sterling adds. “I guess I should have doubled the size of this place.”
He’s no different than most Clippers fans.
“I swear to you, I never heard of these guys,” Sterling says, “but what if the coach says he wants them?”
That’s the exactly the opposite type of behavior needed to foster a winning environment (Kevin Arnovitz even wrote as much when it happened). And while you could write off Phil’s ability to really reach out to all players as a sort of outlier, know that it’s not an outlier of success. Just ask the Celtics who won a championship, went to two finals in the last 4 years. They built their team around “Ubuntu” or togetherness. The Oklahoma City Thunder have taken their giant leaps due to their ability to retain strong chemistry, from which Sam Presti learned the need from the epitome of a unified franchise, the Spurs.
R.C. Buford, Greg Popovich and Tim Duncan won 4 championships over the last 12 years in a city that is far from a major market or a natural destination for basketball. But they have chemistry. I’m reminded of a post back in October, the TrueHoop Affiliate for the Spurs, that dealt with the departure of little known player that was either Alonzo Gee or Garrett Temple. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the specific article, but there were plenty of others on the internet detailing the classiness of the organization. Like this one, a simple story about Popovich caring for his players. The best part is at the bottom though, where it shows the extent that the Spurs have looked out for the best interests of all their players:
But Popovich’s fatherly concern goes beyond personality and comes across in the team’s policies. For example, the Spurs almost always facilitate requests for trades and releases. The Spurs are willing to bend to the professional interests of players. Marcus Haislip isn’t playing much and has an opportunity to return to Europe. No problem. The Spurs simply release. Michael Finley wants out so he can sign with another title contender. Print up the press release. Most recently, the Spurs traded Curtis Jerrells to the Hornets for a fake second round pick. Why? Because they liked him, and because he was an NBA quality player for whom they didn’t have a roster spot. The Spurs were trying to find Jerrells a job.
Does this sound like a Donald Sterling run organization?
The Clippers make steps, like the release of Sam Cassell during the 2007-2008 season and Rasual Butler’s release this season to go play for championship caliber teams, but they have a long ways to go before they create the right type of organizational environment, not just a blip on the screen due to a fantastic and well rounded player. Maybe Ryan Gomes would have fit with the team had he not been so negatively received or maybe Ryan Gomes just had a bad year, and will bounce back next year. But if the Clippers choose to search for another small forward because they think that it’s their missing link, then the problems will remain. It’s not just about the small forward, it’s about the small things.