Asked to reflect on last Wednesday’s loss to the Nets, Vinny Del Negro spoke of missed rotations and the need to make shots, but he also praised his team’s effort in fighting back from an 18-point second half deficit. Slow starts had become more frequent, so the following question was, “what is this team missing?”
His answer: “Nothing.”
With Thursday’s trade deadline approaching, Neil Olshey would probably take a slightly different view of things. Del Negro’s rhetoric about needing more from his starters early in games underscores the bigger issue — that he needs more from his starters, period. He’s operating without a shooting guard and a troika of small forwards that is struggling even by recent Clipper small forward standards.
John Hollinger suggests that the Clippers’ uninspiring play of late — they have lost eight of their past 12 games and are just 8-10 since Chauncey Billups went down for the season — could increase Olshey’s urgency to get something done, but he will have to balance the pressure of seizing (or reaching for) a moment with the cost of a move that could shortchange them down the road.
He told Ramona Shelburne: “We’re willing to do anything we can to move needle this year. But unless it’s piece for the future that also gives us to win a championship this year, we’re not going to give up our longterm flexibility and assets to do that.”
Resources are scarce — the term “assets” (plural) probably overstates what Olshey has to work with — so we should probably assume right off the bat that any major acquisition will, indeed, cost him more than he’s comfortable giving up.
Shooting Guard — Before this season, Olshey always spoke about not wanting 2’s masquerading as 3’s. Well, he has now seen what 40 games of combo 1’s taking turns a the 2 looks like, and it ain’t pretty — especially on the defensive end.
With Chauncey Billups in the lineup, the Clippers were so potent offensively that they won in spite of shortcomings elsewhere. He scored efficiently by getting to the line as much as anyone but Blake Griffin and shot 38% from three, and even with eroding quickness and wavering shot selection, he was a key contributor to their winning identity. He fit in the starting lineup while allowing Randy Foye and Mo Williams, with limitations of their own, to come off the bench.
Olshey knows he has to find a legitimate shooting guard. Foye as a starter simply isn’t a viable long-term solution, and neither is the three point guard lineup that Del Negro frequently employs. There may be starter-quality options available, but the question is whether such a move would be best made now or after the season, when the only cost would be Donald Sterling’s money.
Small Forward — The Clippers need a wing that is capable defensively. Any scoring ability would be an added bonus, but really, they desperately need help stopping people on the perimeter.
Caron Butler spent the first two months of the season making good on his 3-year, $24 million deal, but after a 13-game stretch in which he’s shooting less than 30% from the floor, those days seem long gone. Among qualified small forwards, he now ranks 36th with a 12.01 PER. Bobby Simmons, who is on his second 10-day contract, has shot well from three in limited action, but has performed below replacement level overall. Ryan Gomes has lost his place in the rotation altogether.
It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which the Clippers do anything in the playoffs without some reinforcement on the wing. That said, Butler’s contract limits Olshey’s flexibility to upgrade the position in the next few days. The smart money here is on a minor fix, if anything, with an eye toward the offseason to pursue more impactful changes.
Eric Bledsoe — He is by far their most attractive chip on the trade market, but Neil Olshey knows what he has in Bledsoe (22), the guy he traded for as the 2nd best point guard in the 2010 draft.
As he fields calls from Boston, Portland, and any other team looking to cash in on a veteran swingman, he’ll consider the following:
- Present value. He is the only pure point guard on the roster behind Chris Paul; his assist rate trails only Paul’s, and that includes what Chauncey Billups did in 20 games. He is by far the team’s best rebounding guard. In fact, he is in the top five in the whole league in rebounding among point guards. Ball control was a problem as a rookie, but despite missing training camp and the first two months of the season, he has improved since his rookie year to just about league average in turnover rate. His line against Golden State on Sunday (2 points on 1-4 shooting, 3 rebounds, 3 assists and 4 steals) wouldn’t jump out at you, but his impact on the game gave a glimpse of what he can provide down the stretch.
- Future Value, or “Not Selling Low.” It is said that Olshey fought hard to hang onto Bledsoe in the Chris Paul deal. Makes sense — Olshey needed security in case Paul decided to leave as a free agent, but he also knew that Bledsoe is a good young point guard and those are very valuable in the NBA. Take a look at DraftExpress and you’ll see Damian Lillard of Weber State ranked as the best point guard prospect, projected to go around 13th overall. Should Olshey ultimately decide to part with his last remaining prime asset, he’ll no doubt consider the advantage of at least waiting until after the season so Bledsoe can reestablish some value he lost from the missed time.
Trade Exceptions — These aren’t really assets in the traditional sense. You don’t “get anything” for them, but Traded Player Exceptions “allow teams to acquire more salary in a trade than they send away.” (Thank you, Larry Coon’s NBA Salary Cap FAQ) The Clippers have two of these — Al-Farouq Aminu’s for $2.75 million and Eric Gordon’s for $3.8 million — which could come into play if they make a larger deal with big salaries involved.
Such a deal would seem unlikely for Olshey, who may be looking to next year to contend after a full offseason and free agency, but you never know. The market could present an opportunity to bolster the roster without giving up too much, and taking on a contract for the right veteran could be a creative way to acquire assets for the future.
Possible Trade Partners
The trade deadline came before the season for the Clippers, who have already used all their trade chips, save for Bledsoe, to get Chris Paul. We know Paul isn’t going anywhere, so unless they want to give up a key part of their core (Griffin and DeAndre Jordan), the options could be limited.
But even without much in the way of assets or particularly desirable veterans, teams like the Clippers can still help themselves at the deadline. By “body snatching,” as Hollinger recently outlined, they can take on a “bad” contract or buy low on a player that has fallen out of favor for one reason or another, but may still have upside.
Portland — Ben Golliver of Blazers Edge tweeted that the only thing holding up a deal that would send Jamal Crawford to the Clippers is Portland’s desire not to take back Ryan Gomes, who will count $4 million against the cap next season. The cost to the Clippers would presumably be Bledsoe.
Crawford is one of the handful of shooting guards being mentioned as a possible trade target, but while he possesses prototypical size and length for the position, his career defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) of 111 that suggests he is more like what they already have than what they really need — a lockdown defender. He represents the dangerous “better than what you have now, but probably not the missing piece to a championship puzzle” type of player by which general managers get burned more often than not.
If they do deal with Portland, I’d argue that Luke Babbitt, who went 16th overall in the 2010 draft but has only gotten into 15 games this season might be a better value play. However, unless the Blazers are willing to move Marcus Camby and his $11 million expiring deal or or a third team gets involved, the salaries probably don’t match up.
Boston — Like Portland, the Celtics are hovering around .500 and face some important questions about the direction of their franchise. They find themselves at the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, and in Ray Allen, they have a 36-year old with a $10 million contract set to expire at the end of the season that is shooting a career-high 48% from three.
With Kevin Garnett’s deal also expiring, would Boston be motivated to jumpstart the post-Big Three era and move Allen? And would Eric Bledsoe constitute the kind of return that Danny Ainge would require, even though he has Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley on the roster? If so, Olshey would have to give the idea some thought, but he knows that in a couple months, he could have as good a chance as anyone to sign Allen as a free agent.
Minnesota — The Clippers need lengthy defenders, and the Wolves have two who might not cost much: Former #4 overall pick Wesley Johnson and everyone’s favorite lottery ticket, Anthony Randolph. From Hollinger:
Randolph still may be worth a flier. His per-minute production remains extremely high; this season he’s shooting a career-best 50.6 percent, and in four seasons he’s never had a PER below 16.
He’s still just 22, and the potential is obvious. With his being a restricted free agent after the season, the risk is also very low if he’s obtained cheaply.
Phoenix — Only on here because of this bit from Hollinger:
Phoenix is looking to dump its bad contracts. One option for a team dealing with the Suns is to ask for (Robin) Lopez as the price of taking on a Hakim Warrick or a Josh Childress…
Houston — Daryl Morey has been collecting assets since he took the job in Houston. Because minutes are finite and patience may be running low, he could be in position to really shake things up. Buried on the depth chart, Chase Budinger and Marcus Morris are two intriguing “buy low” candidates, but Sam Amick reports that most of the roster could be available.
Could Kevin Martin, who Bill Ingram of Hoopsworld reports is “frustrated with his role,” be a target? He is owed almost $12.5 million next year, and if the Clippers were to get involved, cap rules would probably necessitate sending DeAndre Jordan (owed $11 million a year through 2015) home to Houston. A move like that would only make sense in conjunction with…
Orlando — The Blockbuster.
Even though Blake Griffin has always been and may always remain untouchable, Olshey can wake up on Thursday knowing that at any point before the deadline, Orlando G.M. Otis Smith would hang up on anyone to answer his call. Should he choose to explore what I can only assume would be the biggest trade in NBA history, he would be offering the only package that Smith could reasonably accept. It’s a million-to-one shot, but the mere viability of such a proposal is worth noting. But it won’t happen.
If the Clippers take the floor against the Suns on Thursday night with the same team they have today, it’s probably not a bad thing. All these possibilities are fun, but it often takes something of value to get something of value, and with the way they’re playing, they just don’t have much value to spare. If they can fill a hole without giving up to much, that could be a coup for Olshey, who has every right to be looking towards next year as the year they ultimately contend. But if the right deal doesn’t present itself, you could do a lot worse than what Bradford Doolittle of Basketball Prospectus suggests: go sign Kyrylo Fesenko.