"I've taught you well young Jedi..."
As shown Wednesday night with their victory over the defending champion Celtics, the Clippers, when healthy and motivated, have enough talent to play with anyone. True, Boston was without Kevin Garnett. True, Paul Pierce hurt his thumb. True, the Cs were in the last game of a four-game westcoast road trip against some stiff competition (Utah, Denver and, er, Phoenix?).
Even still, the Clips were without Chris Kaman and Eric Gordon missed most of the second half with a bruised shoulder thanks to a nasty pick by Kendrick Perkins.
So, how to fix the Clips?
Obviously, a coaching change, or at least a coaching philosophy change is the most glaring necessity. Baron Davis needs to be allowed to do his thing on offense. On defense is another matter. This off-season, if Mike Dunleavy doesn’t fire himself, he should swallow his pride and strike up a deal between him and Baron that challenges BD to put in the effort and leadership on the defensive end every night. If Boomdizzle complies, he’ll be given the keys to the offense without any input from daddy Dunleavy.
Sounds like a fair compromise. I mean, this team is built to run. Zach Randolph flourished under Mike D’Antoni. Camby is a great passer and manned the middle in Denver’s top-rated, up-tempo offense the last couple of years. And Baron had his best seasons playing Nelly ball.
But that's on offense. The team's first priority should be focusing on becoming a defensive juggernaut. All the tools are there. A physical, athletic point guard. A gritty, scrappy young shooting guard. And a former defensive player of the year (Camby) as well as a 7-foot rebounding machine (Kaman). Sure, Randolph is a lost cause on defense, but Camby helped hide Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony last year. Covering for one out of five should be a breeze in comparison. In fact, they could pair off Randolph and Camby as the starting front court and Kaman and Jordan as the bench mob bigs.
All that’s left to shore up is the horrific, offensively inefficient black hole small forward spot. Notice how up top I neglected to mention that Al Thornton missed the game as a reason for the Clippers to be excited? That was intentional because frankly, it was probably this very reason that Clips had a shot to win in the first place.
I was of the opinion that Al Thornton was going to mature into a real basketball player this year. You can look at his 17 points per game and say, wow, he’s gotten a lot better from last season. Or you can look at the fact that his scoring rate has slightly gone down from 18.6 to 18.1 that his PER has actually gotten worse (12.3 from 12.5 a year ago) and that his three point percentage has fallen off a cliff. You will also notice that despite 10 more minutes per game, he’s only upped his other statistical averages slightly: 0.2 steals, 0.3 assists, 0.4 blocks and only 1 rebound (5.5 total for a 6-8 small forward with mad hops).
Kevin Arnotz over at Clipperblog has a very insightful analysis on the trouble with the Clippers small forward spot.
Thornton doesn’t shoot the three well at all (26 percent). He’s a definite ball stop who rarely ever passes (ranks 57th out of all small forwards in assist rate). He’s not an efficient scorer (ranked 38 out of all eligible small forwards in PER), getting to the line only 3.6 times per game despite his incredible leaping ability. Basically, he hoists up turn around jumpers all game. Plus, he’s a miserable defender who often looks lost to boot. If it wasn't for the lack of freethrows and passion to get to the rim, he's like the more inefficient version of Corey Maggette.
Has 17 point per game ever been more of a mirage?
Here’s an idea, the Clips need to scrap the Thornton project going forward. The Clippers, who didn’t move any pieces for expiring contracts despite the fact that they probably could have, have an opportunity to pick up some assets this off-season thanks to the horrible economic climate. Teams are selling low. Dunleavy needs to bargain hunt and Sterling needs to open up his pocket books just a little bit more taking on extra salary in order to field a team that could be very, very good.
For example, a player like Gerald Wallace would be ideal. He’s athletic, can kind of shoot the three, and is a great defender when not pressed to be the focal point on offense. He’d flourish running next to BD, as long as Dunleavy would be willing to let Baron do his thing. A Wallace deal might actually work out because he was being shopped hard (until his injury) this trade deadline.
Kaman for Wallace might not interest the Cats despite their desire for an offensive big to pair with Okafor, but the salaries are identical and the fit couldn’t be more perfect for both squads. Both have some questions—Wallace’s health, Kaman’s mental capacity (and health too)—but there’s no denying that if everything works out, both teams will be much better for making the trade.
A starting five of Baron Davis, Eric Gordon, Gerald Wallace, Zach Randolph and Marcus Camby? That could be a fierce defensive unit. The bench wouldn't be elite, but it wouldn't be that bad consisting of Al Thornton, DeAndre Jordan, Steve Novak, Mike Taylor and perhaps Ricky Davis and Brian Skinner. That team would be tough to beat and could even, if squinting in a certain light, be a championship contender...okay, well at least a second round playoff team.
Another guy who could work, and I know this sounds kind of weird since the Clips aren't quite championship material, but James Posey would be a really nice fit. Sure, by the end of his contract he'll be horrible, hell, the Hornets are already regretting his signing, but he has all the right tools to make the Clips a sick defensive team.
And with nearly $20 million left on his deal, the Hornets will be looking even harder this off-season to find cap relief (see attempted Chandler trade)
The Clips should have the necessary contracts to make that deal happen in three of the following: Mardy Collins, decent but by no means the answer; Ricky Davis, who will most likely exercise his player option because of how horribly he's played this year and the lack of a market for him next year due to the down economy and his rep as a problem child; Brian Skinner, ditto with the player option, but more because he sucks than anything personally bad about him; and/or Al Thornton.
Despite the anti-Thornton sentiment already posted, keeping Al would be better than getting rid of him. He’s got a fairly reasonable contract and is still young enough (I guess) to discover honest-to-goodness basketball skills to pair with his incredible athleticism.
In fact, if the Clips do get Posey for Skinner, Ricky and Collins, the Clips would have an incredibly deep roster with a credible backup at every position.
That’s a lot of money for a known penny-pinching, non-active owner to invest in a horrible economy on a 15-43 squad destined for a top five pick in next year’s draft lottery. But, defense wins championships, and the Clips could be one of the best defensive teams with health and the right small forward.
Of course, Ron Artest is going to be a free agent as well...and he's shooting that long ball a lot better this season.