Solving Problems: The L.A. Clippers Need a Closer
The Los Angeles Clippers have their first true franchise player in All-Star forward Blake Griffin and that changes everything . . .
After the team’s 32-50 2010/11 season, the team is not only thinking playoffs (once the lockout is resolved) but making some noise once they get there.
Armed with cap space and tradable assets, the Clippers may be on the verge of a breakout season.
The question is how do they get there?
The obvious need is a starting small forward after Ryan Gomes’ subpar year and with a young Al-Farouq Aminu still learning the NBA game.
That topic was tackled recently in The Clippers Small Forward Dilemma with the answer possibly coming via trade, free agency or by waiting until the 2012 NBA Draft. The Clippers own the Minnesota Timberwolves’ pick (unprotected) which could be the ticket to such bright young prospects as Harrison Barnes, Quincy Miller, Michael Gilchrist or Austin Rivers.
Perhaps someone like Andre Iguodala, Nicolas Batum, Rudy Gay, Manu Ginobili or even Chase Budinger becomes available to the Clippers. The free agent possibilities may not be as enticing but may represent reasonable fallback options including Tayshaun Prince, Shane Battier, Grant Hill, Caron Butler or Andrei Kirilenko.
Restricted free agents like Jeff Green and Thaddeus Young can be a bit more difficult to attain.
How and who will be the focus for Vice President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey and the team’s basketball staff. At some point, whether it’s before, during or after next season (in the draft), the team will address the need and lock in a small forward.
On a deeper level, what the team needs is what they’ve almost always need over their long and relatively unsuccessful history . . .
Clippers Most Pressing Need: A Closer
The 2006 playoff run to Game 7 of the Western Conference Semifinals was built on the back of Elton Brand. The forward had one of his best years and was a true force throughout the postseason. Then again, Brand was one of the league’s best power forwards for years and yet he made the playoffs just once with the Clippers.
The difference was Sam Cassell, who the team had acquired before the season via trade from the Timberwolves for Marko Jaric. The deal won’t actually be complete all these years later until LA uses Minnesota’s 2012 pick in what proved to be an incredibly one-sided trade.
Cassell was well past his prime as a Clipper and he only stayed healthy for the one season but in that brief period he was the best closer the team ever had.
For decades, Clipper fans have seen their team compete for 43-46 minutes nightly, only to lose in the final few minutes.
Sam pushed LA over the hump time and time again. It’s holding onto those 50/50 games that can make the difference between 32 wins and the 47 LA won throughout the 2005/6 regular season.
It wasn’t all Sam Cassell. There’s no denying the team had a deep roster . . . but through the years the Clippers have often carried multiple talented pieces with little to show for it. Cassell’s confidence and leadership truly made the Clippers a better team and that’s a quality this version of the Clippers may not have addressed as of yet.
Griffin, as a big man, is at a slight disadvantage. Big men generally are when it comes to setting up plays late in games. They’re reliant on their guards to get them the ball in a position to score.
Forwards and centers also rely on their perimeter players to hit open shots to prevent defenses from collapsing with double and triple teams.
Blake needs that partner and in Eric Gordon, the Clippers might already have the answer.
Can Gordon Close?
When the season started last year, Baron Davis, Chris Kaman and Randy Foye were hobbled and injured. The Clippers were mired in a miserable losing streak.
Together, Gordon and Griffin decided that they simply couldn’t let this go on. Someone had to do something and the duo took the responsibility upon their shoulders.
While Blake got most of the exposure, most notably in the November home game against the New York Knicks, Gordon began to emerge as the team’s fourth quarter go-to guy.
It was a learning process as the season went on. Sometimes Eric would dominate only to lose his handle in the final position. Other times he’d carry the team to victory.
As the year progressed, he improved until injuries got in the way (finger, wrist, shoulder, etc.).
Gordon played 37.7 minutes a game but managed just 56. He shot 45.0% from the field, 36.4% from the arc and 82.5% from the line.
His 22.3 points and 4.4 assists a game were career highs.
At 6’3″, 215 pounds, Gordon is an undersized shooting guard and while he has some point guard skills, that’s not his natural position.
Eric hopes to develop that side of his game to give his career greater longevity given his height. Gordon was proud of his assist numbers but admittedly needs to reduce turnovers (2.7).
After Kobe Bryant in the Western Conference, was there a better two-guard than Gordon?
If he can continue on that path and stay healthy, Gordon may be the closer the Clippers need to be a playoff team.
That would certainly shift the pressure on management to focus more on complementary pieces to reduce the pressure on Gordon and Griffin – outside shooters, defenders, additional ball handler and the elusive small forward.
Still Gordon is a work in progress. There’s no question he’ll continue to grow as one of the better two-guards in the league.
For the Clippers to really get over the top, bringing in a seasoned closer to share that duty with Gordon could help make LA a powerhouse.
Superstar Point Guards
Two big-name point guards have their contracts coming up after this coming season.
Chris Paul of the New Orleans Hornets and Deron Williams of the New Jersey Nets both have identical opt-outs next summer that could lead to an early departure.
While it’s possible both may extend long-term with their existing squads, it’s also reasonable to say there’s a good chance at least one decides to change teams.
If either squad fears they’ll lose their All-Star without compensation, assuming the season isn’t a lockout casualty, a midseason trade may not be out of the question.
The new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) has yet to be written and the new rules may complicate matters but the Clippers may have a sizable amount of cap room this summer and even more the next if they budget carefully.
Chris Kaman is an expiring $12.7 million and when healthy, he’s proven in the past to be an All-Star center. Randy Foye has just $4.3 million left on his deal. Gomes makes $4 million each over the next two years. Mo Williams is at $8.5 million each with a player option on the second year.
The Clippers also have young talent (Eric Bledsoe and Al-Farouq Aminu), filler pieces (Brian Cook and Willie Warren) and most importantly the Minnesota pick.
Paul or Williams may have to push for a trade and the Clippers probably don’t give up much without some variation on an extend and trade (if allowed in the new CBA).
Both may be long shots but Paul is one of the best true point guards in the league. He can be a nightmare to guard but is also very unselfish with the ball.
Williams is the better outside shooter and has a bigger body to defend with. Either would be a tremendous get to play alongside Griffin, Gordon and in all likelihood a re-signed DeAndre Jordan.
The Clippers may not want to give up much more than Kaman, the Minnesota pick and other small considerations.
At this point there’s a lockout, neither player is angling for a trade and the market hasn’t been set.
Looking ahead (and if everything breaks just right), if Los Angeles can land one of the top-tier point guards in the league, the question is no longer playoffs but how far can they get?
If the Clippers can land a high-level small forward, team balance will naturally improve. Some potential threes have proven to be solid in game-deciding minutes, most notably Rudy Gay.
The Memphis Grizzlies weren’t shopping him and probably won’t consider any move until they re-sign Marc Gasol and clarify their budget.
Andre Iguodala is one of the best play-making forwards in the league (6.8 assists last year) but has been up and down as the guy taking the final shot.
One option that might make sense for the Clippers, if they can entice the San Antonio Spurs, is Manu Ginobili.
Given how young the team’s core is, Ginobili at 34 years old would be a short-term solution. Manu is expected to finish out his two-year contract and then move on from the NBA.
In a sense, he’d be the next Sam Cassell for the Clippers.
Manu has been one of the league’s top closers for years. He’d help the Clippers edge out teams in the final moments and help catapult them into the playoffs.
Perhaps Chris Kaman would appeal to the Spurs but at Ginobili’s age, he wouldn’t be worth the Minnesota pick.
Whatever decision the Clippers make, the team needs to make the next step with Griffin and Gordon.
It’s a rare window for a team that has struggled to find consistent regular season success.
Gordon may be the closer they need and if that’s the case, Olshey needs to add on a small forward and fill in the gaps to give Eric and Blake the best chance to win.
It’s a difficult maze to traverse given how dependent the Clippers are on prospective trade partners and free agents.
Still with cap room, movable assets and the Minnesota pick, LA may be on the verge of an exciting run.