Since the start of training camp, the prevailing concern surrounding the Clippers was their lack of interior depth.
Logic dictates that every contender has to have at least one competent backup big man. The main championship threats outside of the Clippers this season — the Heat, Thunder, Spurs, Pacers and Rockets — all have at least one quality bench big that can play 15-20 minutes without giving his fan base an ulcer.
The same couldn’t be said in Los Angeles. On paper, the Clippers had arguably the worst crop of backup bigs in the league. They auditioned several candidates — Ryan Hollins, Antawn Jamison, Hedo Turkoglu, Byron Mullens and even the immortal Stephen Jackson — for their “third big man” role this year, but the search was fruitless.
The biggest misconception surrounding L.A.’s hunt for a third big was that basically anyone 6’9 or taller would do. That’s just not true. L.A. needed a backup center, not power forward — though the two certainly aren’t mutually exclusive. Behind Blake Griffin, the Clippers have enough bodies in Matt Barnes, Jared Dudley, Turkoglu and (now) Danny Granger to man the 4, even if they’re somewhat undersized. Behind DeAndre Jordan, it’s Hollins and nothing else. That’s an issue.
Therefore, Los Angeles needed a guy to fill a specific role — anchoring their second-unit defense for 8-12 minutes a night when Jordan wasn’t in the game. They needed said player to be a defensive upgrade over Griffin and, preferably, provide some stretch given the noted spacing limitations of the Griffin-Jordan pairing.
To shore up their rotation, Los Angeles signed the buyout market’s prized big man, Glen “Big Baby” Davis, three weeks ago.
In theory, Davis is eons better than any of the aforementioned Clipper backups. In fact, he’s probably the third-best big man of the Chris Paul era, narrowly edging out Reggie Evans, Kenyon Martin and Lamar Odom. With that said, there’s a difference between competence and contribution.
Where does Baby fall in that distinction? Let’s take a look at how snugly he fits in Los Angeles:
Without a doubt, Davis’ best offensive skill is his sheer size. At 289 lbs. — probably an understatement given the in-person eye test and Doc Rivers constantly discussing Davis’ sub-par conditioning — Davis can effortlessly gain position for offensive rebounds, set monster screens, and run effective dribble hand-offs. Jamal Crawford and Darren Collison are the biggest beneficiaries of Davis’ addition to the bench, as both will feast on open jumpers and driving lanes whenever they use their new human road block.
The space Davis doesn’t take up, however, will be just as valuable. He’s a solid mid-range shooter, and an ideal complement to the incumbent front court. For all of Griffin’s significant mid-range improvement, he’s still far more dangerous rolling hard to the rim, and/or facing up or posting up near the block (Jordan’s shooting limitations go without mention). Davis can play off of Griffin, and vice versa.
Ideally, Davis can function as a weak-side release valve and solid pick-and-pop/spot-up threat, shooting 41.4 percent from mid-range this season. That’s in the neighborhood of notable shooting big men like Kevin Love (41.5 percent), LaMarcus Aldridge (41.9 percent) and Zach Randolph (40.5 percent), though Davis’ volume of attempts is clearly lower. He’s not automatic, but he’s already shown he can take advantage of defenses sagging off him.
On the flip side, Davis is prone to falling in love with his mid-range jumper — the least-efficient shot in basketball — and can stop attacking the rim or looking for open teammates. In a larger offensive role in Orlando over the last two seasons, his efficiency took a nose dive. His usage rate in Orlando (20.9 percent or higher in each of the last four seasons) was far too high. That figure has and will continue to drop.
Few players are better at carving space on the block and around the rim, and when Davis can create space he’s a decent finisher with a soft touch (58.8 percent shooting in the restricted area). He actually has underrated ball-handling skills, too, allowing him to take unsuspecting defenders off the dribble. However, because of his lack of length and explosion, he’s often forced into tough fadeaway shots and can easily be blocked (he’s traditionally been among the league leaders in percentage of shots blocked).
With the Clippers’ second unit, and the starters occasionally, Davis will be the fourth or fifth option on most possessions. He won’t have many (if any) plays called for him, and his offensive production will likely stem from him setting mammoth screens and popping out — or spotting up on the weak-side — and then shooting or driving when open. He’s probably overqualified for such a small role, but it seems as if he’ll definitely help offensively.
While Baby will never be mistaken for a rim protector — he’s generously listed at 6-9, but is closer to 6-7½ — his massive frame allows to him matchup with almost any player in the paint. When he’s established his ground, he’s almost impossible to move or get around. He’s an expert at pushing opponents out of position when they’re posting on the block or crashing the offensive glass, and his quick hands allow him to deflect passes and tip out dribbles, which is an under-appreciated skill.
In the above clips, Davis nudges Randolph and Pau Gasol off the block and into the mid-range area. Neither is able to establish good positioning against him, and he forces both into contested looks that fall short. That is the type of defense he regularly provides on the block.
In Orlando, Davis often dropped back toward the free-throw line area against pick and rolls in an attempt to leverage his nimble foot speed (similar to how bigger players, like Jordan and Roy Hibbert, cover pick and rolls). The tactic prevents him from getting blown by, but can often result in his man popping to open space and getting an open jumper, or diving to the rim and forcing the D to collapse.
In his brief tenure with the Clippers, though, he’s been showing and hedging hard, which is more reminiscent of his halcyon days in Boston. Since he formerly played under Doc Rivers, Davis is already familiar with his intricate strong-side defensive schemes, and he’s shown it thus far. He’s often in the right place at the precise time he needs to be, which is something no other Clipper backup can attest to (side note: despite his clear aging, Turkoglu has played solid defense this season. He deserves a shout out.).
Though Davis’ weight limits his ability to rotate and close out on shooters — suggesting he’d be better off staying in the paint and defending slow, plodding centers — Davis has traditionally had more success defending power forwards, according to 82games.com positional data. By most metrics, Davis has normally been an above-average defender. It’s a small sample size, but the Clippers are allowing 92.6 points per 100 possessions with Davis on the floor this season, which is 2.6 points per 100 possessions better than their average over that same span (94.9).
His lack of length complicates his role, though. As Jordan’s primary backup, he’ll be undersized in most matchups, which could be a problem down the road. He won’t block or alter many shots, but he’s an expert at taking charges and positioning his body to knock guys off balance in air (this, of course, can lead to a bunch of fouls — he’s averaging 8.1 fouls per 36 minutes as a Clipper).
Because Davis is not a great defensive rebounder either, it’s unclear how much he can play center alongside an undersized wing 4-man in small-ball lineups (this inherently makes Turkoglu, who’s rebounded the ball terrifically this season, more valuable as a backup 4). Though Davis’ strength and girth will compensate in most cases, he’s at a major disadvantage against longer players who can shoot over the top of him (think LaMarcus Aldridge and Dirk Nowitzki).
Still, he’s an improvement over the other options the Clippers have, and that’s all they can ask for. His numbers aren’t going to pop out at you (he has an atrocious 5.9 PER so far), and he likely won’t play more than 10 to 15 minutes per game in the postseason, but Davis has already shown positive feedback in the seven games he’s played. Basically, he can actually do productive things on a basketball court.
It took nearly three-quarters of the season, but the Clippers have finally found a quality backup big man.
Stats used in this post are from ESPN.com, NBA.com/Stats, Basketball-Reference.com, 82games.com, HoopData.com and MySynergySports.com.