Technically speaking, the small forward position should be the easiest to fill in the NBA. The league is littered with athletes in the 6-foot-8 range – quick players with the skills to play on the wing and the size to help in the frontcourt. The skilled center comes rare, the true point guard capable of running a team perhaps even rarer. But wing players – they’re a dime a dozen.
But for years and years, the Clippers have struggled to fill the void at the small forward position. Physically, the guys they plugged in always passed the eye test. Ralph Lawler fawned over Corey Maggette’s frame on a nightly basis for a reason – he was the prototypical small forward in that he was strong enough to bang with the bigger 3’s and quick enough to go by the smaller ones.
For many teams, Maggette would have been a perfect fit. He was the type of efficient scorer offense -deprived teams covet. It’s why someone is always willing to trade for him, bloated contract or not.
But Maggette, quite famously, never fit into then head coach Mike Dunleavy’s scheme. Dunleavy wanted very specific pieces fulfilling very specific roles on the court, and Maggette’s strength (bull in china shop the hell out of defenses) never synced up with that. Maggette was a Bishop – slashing across the court, crashing into opponents, recklessly leading the attack off the wing with his diagonal assaults into enemy territory. Dunleavy seemed to want more of a Knight – a player capable of moving in multiple different directions, hiding behind the other big pieces and leaping out only when the time presented itself. He wanted someone defensive-minded, to protect guys from getting to the back line of the defense, and Maggette, as good as he was attacking, was never that.
And that probably explains the drafting of Al Thornton. He was athletic as could be, ACC-seasoned, and again, the perfect size. It was supposed to be round two at Maggette – a do-over. He was viewed as a player with similar offensive strengths without those nasty expectation of being the offensive bell-cow. Thornton was to be developed, honed, sculpted into what Maggette should have been, in the eyes of Dunleavy, anyway.
But after a promising rookie season, things began to regress. Thornton devolved, ironically, into a much less efficient version of Maggette – opting for perimeter shots instead of forays to the rim, playing defense only when directly challenged and wondering around on that end doing who knows what most of the time. But perhaps most damning for Thornton was his tendency to interpret every touch of the ball as an invitation from his teammates to shoot.
Somewhere around this time, the Clippers decided their needs for a small forward had changed. The Bishops had not worked, the smaller Pawns masquerading as big pieces (still love you, Quinton Ross) hadn’t fit the bill either. What the Clippers needed was what every team wanted: a Queen. The grocery list had grown too long for any regular ol’ wing to fill. The player the Clippers needed now had to be capable of doing literally everything on the court.
Management did all they could to put themselves in position for that player last offseason. The most coveted piece on the board was out there, and they received a meeting with him. It didn’t work out (he went to Miami), and the Clippers found themselves back in the familiar position of having a hole at the small forward spot.
That hole would eventually be addressed by drafting Al-Farouq Aminu and signing Ryan Gomes. Both brought versatile skill-sets to the table, a refreshing change from the forwards of the past. Aminu, although incredibly raw, could play passing lanes, get out in transition, handle the ball a little bit, and block shots with his length. Gomes could shoot from mid-range, handle physical 3’s, slide over to the 4 and score some out of the post. Their attacks were varied. Pairing their versatility and size with Eric Gordon — a player that provides threes and drives to the rim almost exclusively on offense and avoids rebounds like the plague defensively – made a ton of sense.
Well, you saw how that worked out. By every statistical measure, the Clippers didn’t receive adequate production at the small forward position last year. The average NBA player has a Player Efficiency Rating of 15 – the Clippers small forwards combined for a rating of 10.8. Gomes produced personal career-lows in nearly every statistical category. Aminu, despite a strong start to the year that saw him hover around 45 percent from behind the arc, saw his shooting percentages fall off the cliff to the tune of 39 percent from the field and 32 percent from deep.
The gut reaction was to claim the following: Signing Gomes was a mistake, and drafting Aminu over Paul George or Gordon Hayward was an even bigger error.
But let’s pump the brakes on that for a minute, and think back on how the small forwards were utilized last year. Do you ever remember Ryan Gomes getting the ball with his back to the basket? That’s just one example. To further bludgeon the chess analogy to death, Vinny Del Negro wants and uses his small forwards more like Rooks than anything else – planting them deep in the corner for most possessions, where they were to hide out for most of the game.
Unfortunately, neither Gomes nor Aminu are pure, stand-still 3-point shooters – an underlying reason we saw Del Negro play a 3-guard lineup quite heavily towards the end of the year, using Randy Foye much in the same way he used Kirk Hinrich in Chicago. Gomes is obviously nowhere near the caliber of player that Deng is, but both look more comfortable pulling up off one dribble for a mid-range jumper than as spot-up guys.
The developments of this past season bring back that familiar question to the upcoming speed-dating version of the NBA offseason – how do the Clippers get production from the small forward position?
The Clippers view Aminu as the answer — eventually. Presently, they’re less than committed to the idea of trotting him out as the starter. That’s not to say they don’t like Aminu, but they want the grown-up version of him right now – with a refined jumper and a basketball I.Q. – not the 20-year-old kid who looks lost out there more often than not.
Some of the other fine gentlemen on this blog have discussed the potential options for the Clippers, so I won’t repeat their work here. But I will say this – none of those players will matter without some serious changes.
Although the Clippers reoccurring theme of “small forward issues” trumps everything else, it should be noted that Del Negro had some problems with his small forwards in Chicago before he came to Los Angeles.
Although he only played roughly half the season, a young Luol Deng struggled mightily his first year in Del Negro’s offense. Per 36 minutes, Deng posted the worst point per game and rebounding numbers of his career alongside his second worst field goal percentage. In terms of PER rating, the small forward position was the worst on the Bulls team of the five positions. Deng’s production, like Gomes, was way down compared to where he was earlier in his career.
Good news though! The next season, Deng, although not a pure shooter by any means, adjusted and got back to his scoring ways. His points and rebounds per 36 minutes shot right back and beyond his career averages, he got to the line more and he basically found ways to be effective offensively despite not getting many sets ran specifically for him. When the ball found him in the corner, he attacked off it. The team numbers reflected it – in 09-10, the small forward position for the Bulls had the second most shot attempts of the five positions and posted the third best PER rating. Del Negro’s utilization of his 3’s – and synergy with his player– seemingly improved.
With that said, it’s a reality that small forwards will never be huge offensive factors in Del Negro’s pick-and-roll heavy scheme. With Eric Gordon and Blake Griffin on board, that’s not necessarily the worst thing. You want the majority of the possessions going their way. Mo Williams will do a lot of standing and shooting (and hopefully more of this), DeAndre Jordan will be a large human near the rim, and whoever occupies the three spot will likely balance between those two options while Gordon and Griffin demand all the action on their side of the court.
That doesn’t mean the Clippers current forwards are doomed for eternal failure. Gomes publicly pledged to get more shots up than ever before this offseason, and poor Aminu’s arms will probably fall off with how many threes the staff will make him shoot in practice.
The question though, after all these years, still remains. How do the Clippers get production out of their small forward spot?
Do the pieces need to change? Or do the roles the current pieces occupy need to change?
Like it usually does, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.