As the midpoint of the season approaches, players’ roles and rotation spots, as well as team identities, begin to reveal themselves. The contenders begin to separate from the pack, understanding their strengths and weaknesses, analyzing what line-ups work and don’t work, and accepting what to expect from their players on a nightly basis.
Though they’re undoubtedly a top-10 team in the league, the Clippers remain a step behind in this process. Injuries to Chris Paul, Mo Williams, Eric Bledsoe and Chauncey Billups (out for the season) – as well as the sporadic additions of Reggie Evans and Kenyon Martin – have prevented them from playing at full strength and ironing out their rotation.
The Clippers, even after 27 games, still need time to adjust and gel together. To grow together. Of course, time is not on their side. As impressive as they’ve played thus far, they can definitely play much better. There seems to be something missing, though. A piece that, if found, could propel the Clippers to new heights.
They need a jolt of energy. They need another player capable of alleviating the offensive duties of Paul, Williams and Caron Butler. They a shot-creator and maker. They need a player like J.R. Smith. To some, he represents the Clippers’ best chance at contending for a championship beginning this May (regular season ends in late April). To others, he’s an inconsistent gunner with a crazy personality, capable of derailing L.A.’s seemingly stable locker room.
Nonetheless, the prospect of signing Smith is enticing. Even with Billups healthy, the Clippers were courting him to add firepower to their unsurprisingly thin bench. Now, with Billups out and Randy Foye starting, the Clippers have no back-up shooting guard and are forced to platoon a backcourt of 6-foot (Paul), 6-foot-1 (Williams), 6-foot-1 (Bledsoe) and 6-foot-4 (Foye) guards.
At the start of the season, Los Angeles’ two weaknesses were a competent back-up big man and a long, athletic, defensive wing. Adding Evans and Martin successfully addressed the first problem, temporarily putting a stop to the bleeding inside.
And the perimeter player? Well, they’re still looking. Smith doesn’t cover the defensive part, but makes up for that with elite athleticism, size and the ability to play both the small forward and shooting guard positions.
Smith is capable of changing a game’s dynamic with a few made baskets and single-handedly keep his team within striking distance. He’s not a willing passer or good defender (in fact, he’s pretty terrible), but he can handle the ball, has shooting range out to 30 feet (and in some cases beyond), and can create his own shot against any defender.
The only concern would be the risk factor. He’s a loose cannon – you never know what to expect. He takes bad shots and plays uninspired defense. He has a bit of a temper and is a questionable personality, but having three former teammates – Paul, Billups and Martin – should help ease him into the Clipper environment and keep him in check. At the veteran’s minimum, $1.2 million, this is a no-brainer.
If the Clippers can sign Smith, they have to. They need an upgrade at the shooting guard position that can relegate Foye back to the bench. Foye is clearly not the right starter for this team and the cliche “addition by subtraction” applies.
Smith isn’t necessary the ideal fit, but he can spot-up (ranked eighth in the NBA in spot-up shooting last year — 46.6 percent on 3-pointers), finish at the rim, score off the ball and play in the pick-and-roll. He could take the ball out of Paul’s and Williams’ hands and make plays. He’s not extremely efficient, but neither is Billups or Foye.
At the very least, he’s guaranteed to be a massive improvement over Foye. Anything else is gravy. With teammates, friends and a starting role awaiting him, the only reason Smith would turn down the Clippers would be money (the Knicks can offer the mini mid-level of $2.5 million).
During pregame of the Clippers’ 102-84 victory over the Wizards, Vinny Del Negro said he had a “very, very good conversation” with Smith over the phone. Paul and Martin have both admitted they’ve been pursuing him, using their previous ties as teammates — and current bond as friends — as their primary tactics.
Truth is, the Clippers don’t have much to lose. He’s a cheap, low-risk option. And someone has to say it — the Clippers are not winning a championship with Paul, Williams, Bledsoe and Foye as their backcourt.
They need to add someone else to return to the legitimate contender status they were on the cusp of with Billups. They need J.R. Smith.