Last night’s showcase of Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon at the Thomas & Mack Center should have been the halcyon moment in the Clippers’ rebirth as a franchise. With the Clippers’ brass beaming on the sideline, the team’s featured 20-year-old offensive stars ran a clinic, establishing themselves as one of the league’s most potent big-small duos.
After the game, the G-Force’s mutual admiration society spoke glowingly. “It’s easy to work with [Gordon],” Griffin said. “All I have to do is set a pick and just wait. He’s so strong, he either gets to the hole, gets fouled, or passes it to me.”
Gordon was similarly ecstatic after the game, smiling widely as he talked about how the Griffin-Gordon pick-and-roll should be featured weapon of the Clippers’ offensive attack this season.
“That should be the bread and butter this coming year,” Gordon said. “We’re both young guys and we should have a great chemistry.”
Yet the morning after the Clippers’ auspicious performance, which included a solid showing from 21-year-old DeAndre Jordan, the Allen Iverson rumors are gaining traction here in Las Vegas.
By any measure, the Clippers have had an incredible offseason. They lucked their way into the Griffin pick, then somehow got Memphis to accept Zach Randolph, overnight transforming the team’s halfcourt look, spreadsheet, culture, and future.
Jordan appears ready to step in as a rotation contributor. Gordon, once shy to the point of standoffish, brims with confidence in public. He speaks aspirationally, of what he wants to build in Los Angeles. The team still has a bevy of question marks. Al Thornton could be a productive bench scorer, but doesn’t offer the Clippers a longterm solution at the 3. If the Clippers want to run the ball, they’re going to need more defensive stops and rebounding from their wings. They’ll also need a motivated Baron Davis to marshal his competitive instincts. Still, these are all manageable challenges for a team a couple of years away from being a serious factor in spring. For the first time in three years, the needle is moving in the right direction, which is what matters.
With a couple possible exceptions, Allen Iverson might be the most examined NBA personality of the past 15 years. I’m not really interested in surveying his public persona. It’s dull work. What should be appraised is how Iverson’s strengths and weaknesses as a player conform to the Clippers’ needs — even on a one-year deal.
Let’s start with the Clippers. Their foremost need is a starter at the small forward spot who can rebound, defend, and provide an offensive fulcrum for the Clippers’ inside/out attack — but that’s not something they can acquire between now and October, so let’s look at the more pliable stuff they can accomplish over the next ten weeks:
- Backup point guard
- Wing who can defend multiple positions and help the team’s abysmal rebounding rate.
It’s safe to say that in no non-NERF basketball universe does Iverson address the latter need, so let’s focus on the first.
In Iverson’s defense, he puts up far better pure point numbers than you might think. Even at a career-low 23.1, his assist rate was still quite good in 2008-09. And given the amount of time he spends with the ball in his hand, his turnover rate is also respectable at 12.9. The Clippers could conceivably plug him in as their backup point guard, run him out there with the second unit for 25 minutes a night, and have a potent starter when Baron Davis is afflicted with whatever it is that afflicts Baron Davis.
In that scenario, a couple of questions:
- Who is Iverson defending? Most often, nobody. Iverson is small, older, and perpetually disinterested on the defensive end of the court. Where he excels — better than any player in my lifetime I can remember — is looking like he’s applying himself on defense. On screen-roll plays, Iverson functions as a crash test dummy, slamming full speed into the screen man with no intention of recovering. Ever. When he’s playing the ball, he’s a selfish gambler, routinely overplaying (again, it’s the patina of tenacity, not actual defense that counts for Iverson) for the steal. Once Iverson overcommits, it’s 5-on-4 halfcourt basketball. Want to know how a traditionally stalwart Pistons team drops from 102.9 in to 108.0 in defensive efficiency over one season? That’s how.
- How does Iverson effect Gordon, Griffin, Jordan, and, to a lesser extent, Chris Kaman? This really should be up top as the primary question, for the simple reason that the Clippers aren’t going to host a home playoff series in April 2010. The only thing that matters next season is the development and maturation of this core group, and the extent to which Iverson — or anyone else — helps or hinders that process. I suppose you could stretch and say there’s value in DeAndre Jordan learning how to lay out screens for a perimeter speedster like Iverson, or use him as a Gordon proxy in various offensive schemes. But do you really buy that? And if that’s what you’re after, why not bring in Bobby Jackson for a year?
- The peripherals I try really hard to posture myself a textualist on these matters, but it’s hard to look at what transpired in Detroit last season and reason that it’s a good idea to bring Iverson to a place where the inertia of the franchise is the foremost priority. Does he sell tickets? I suppose, which probably means we have to assign him some added value if it means ownership will be more likely to spend next summer if receipts are higher this season. In that line of thinking, Iverson is an agent of the future, and you tolerate him as a necessary evil to bolster your franchise in a recession. Okay. But I’d counter that you’re screwing with your brand. By sheer good fortune, the most personable, freakish power forward in a decade just landed in your lap. You have an increasingly confident young shooting guard who happens to function similarly to Iverson in your offense. You’ve got a couple of borderline personalities who can have the potential to swing either way in mood and resolve. Does Iverson do anything to defuse that dynamic, or does he inflame it? Richard Hamilton has a track record as a champion, and a generally unselfish teammate who’s really hard to piss off. Yet even he was gnawing at his limbs last winter when Iverson came over from Denver and complicated the rotation and the distribution of shots.
The usual counterargument that Iverson would be on a one-year deal doesn’t hold any water because Iverson landed in Detroit in his contract year, yet still managed to fall so far out of favor that …well…at 34, he’s being discussed as a one-year, mid-level option for teams like Memphis, Miami, and the Clippers. In the Clippers case, they should abide by some Groucho Marx wisdom: They shouldn’t sign a veteran malcontent — even one as talented as Iverson — who would want to sign with them.
It’s time to grow up as a franchise — for the sake of the kids.
Turn the page, sign a Bobby Jackson to fill the backup PG slot, and move on.