I’m still having a hard time staking claim to this team. This isn’t an expression of disapproval. Quite the contrary, I really like what the Clips have done this offseason to recover from Brand’s departure. But sizing up the team’s prospects – or even imagining what they’re going to look like on a given night -- is difficult. It’s sort of like poring over a blueprint for a new house: You can study the plans, try to visualize the space, but there’s no way you can begin to sense the feel, texture, or essence of the place. Not until it’s done and you move in.
The unknown precipitates a whole lot of questions. Another one the Clips face:
Is Al Thornton ready to be a primary offensive option?
If Baron Davis is the departure point of the Clips’ 08-09 offense, then Al Thornton will have to be the terminus. Clipper fans celebrated Thorton’s surge last year as a bona fide scorer. Some nights he was more efficient than others, but Al learned how to engineer production in the halfcourt. He got to the line and learned to take advantage of mismatches [particularly against slower big men who found themselves assigned to Al at the 4].
The question going into this season is whether Al can build on his progress as he transitions over to his natural position at small forward. Whereas last season he was able to freelance in isolation as the mystery guest in the Clippers’ offense, this season, faster, more instinctive small forwards will more diligently follow him off-the-ball. This season, Al might not be able to create the kind of separation between himself and his defender he managed last season.
Al’s a pretty big small forward, and Dunleavy will be tempted to post Al up, even though there are two bigger guys in the Clipper offense. It’s not a bad instinct, but it would be a much better strategy if Thornton can learn to pass out of a double-team – something he never really had to do last season.
Naturally, the Clips will probably try to work some opportunities in iso. Imagine a high screen from Camby; Thornton draws Camby’s man on the defensive switch – then goes to work. Again, we’ll see how effective Al can be dishing the ball to Camby off the roll for one of Marcus’ patented 15-footers [particularly since Camby will have Thornton’s man on him].
The nicest surprise in Thornton’s game toward the end of last season was his ability to drill shots from beyond the arc. Will Al be able to get the kind of open shots he got last season from the perimeter? That depends, in large part, on Chris Kaman and Baron Davis and their ability to draw double-teams away from Thornton. I suspect Dunleavy will position Kaman in the halfcourt on the right block, with Thorton on the strong side arc. That two-man game will be pivotal to the Clips’ – and Thornton’s – offensive success. Again, Thornton will have to be able to execute entry passes into the post and move without the ball. But that interplay between Al and the big guys will be a big factor in measuring Al’s value in the offense, beyond his isolation. It’s the difference in striving to be a complete, multi-faceted perimeter forward, or a prolific scorer with a limited skill set.