The Clippers Small Forward Dilemma
The Los Angeles Clippers have five clear starters on their roster. Unfortunately two of those players are at center (DeAndre Jordan and Chris Kaman), leaving a massive question mark at small forward.
Jordan is technically a restricted free agent but the team has every intention to bring him back and, assuming the money is right, DJ is open to a return.
At some point the lockout will end and the Clippers will be able to address their roster issues.
Of course, if the season is lost the picture changes considerably. Shooting guard Eric Gordon would become a restricted free agent. Randy Foye, Brian Cook and Kaman would all be unrestricted free agents.
Fast-forward to 2012 and the Clippers would just have Blake Griffin, Mo Williams (who can opt out), Ryan Gomes, Al-Farouq Aminu, Eric Bledsoe and a non-guaranteed Willie Warren under contract. The potential for massive cap room exists but the Clippers would much rather field a team this year and build around one of the league’s most exciting young cores.
Assuming the 2011/12 season is salvaged, how does L.A. solve the small forward problem?
Ryan Gomes/Al-Farouq Aminu
The path of least resistance would be Gomes and Aminu who are already under contract.
Gomes, through 62 starts for the Clippers last season had a career year (in the negative). He averaged just 7.2 points a game and 3.3 boards while shooting 41.0% from the field, all lows for his the six years he’s been in the league.
His counterpart, Aminu, showed flashes but otherwise had an unremarkable rookie year. Farouq played in 17.9 minutes a game (81) while averaging 5.6 points on 39.4% shooting. Early on he had an impressive three stroke but that gradually faded and he finished at 31.5% from behind the arc. Vice President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey has voiced confidence in Aminu, expecting him to continue to develop quickly over the next couple of years.
If the Clippers bring back Jordan and stand pat with their current roster, including second-round picks Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie, they’d already have the minimum of 13 with only 1-2 roster spots open for additional help.
Last year L.A. won 32 games, despite an awful 1-13 start. Once things stabilized, the Clippers were essentially a .500 team. With Gomes/Aminu and no other significant changes, this is at least a 41-win team. Would they be able get up to the 46 it took both the New Orleans Hornets and Memphis Grizzlies to make the playoffs (or comparable with a shorter regular season)?
If the Clippers stay perfectly healthy then perhaps their existing team would suffice but even Olshey had to admit his team is still a piece away from making significant noise in the postseason. Without change, the Clippers may get there but it’s mighty iffy. The team hopes to avoid heading into the season with such a tight margin for error.
Cap Room & Free Agency
It’s difficult to predict cap room given the non-existent Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) but if the cap remains at $58 million, the Clippers would have about $12 million in space. Jordan only takes about $1.1 million as a “cap hold” until his deal is worked out. As long as the team uses their space before DeAndre is re-upped, the Clippers could have a sizable amount to offer in pursuit of a small forward.
Some of the players available include Tayshaun Prince, Caron Butler, Shane Battier, Grant Hill, Andrei Kirilenko, Jeff Green (restricted) and Thaddeus Young (restricted). The list is longer but with Wilson Chandler reportedly opting to play in China for a year, there aren’t many that truly stand out.
Even the seven mentioned are flawed. Prince and Butler are already 31 years old. Butler is coming off a knee injury and the Clippers would be bidding against the deep pockets of Mark Cuban and the Dallas Mavericks. Hill would have been a great fit in his prime but he’ll be 39 before the season starts. Battier is still one of the better perimeter defenders in the league but he’s turning 33. Kirilenko is 30 but his production has gradually tailed off in recent years.
The Clippers could look to outspend the Boston Celtics or Philadelphia 76ers for Green or Young, but it can be difficult to get good value for the dollar when dealing with restricted free agents. If Green or Young were truly available at the right price, they’d be nice pieces to add to the Clipper core but neither at this point seems a likely acquisition.
L.A. could look for a more economic substitute like Kelenna Azubuike, who the team once signed to an offer sheet. Azubuike missed all of last year with a knee injury and may have lost some of the athleticism that made him so intriguing.
It’s no wonder the Clippers have been looking for a trade partner to land a three, given the somewhat mediocre class of free agents at the position.
Cap Room & Trades
The Clippers don’t have to use their cap room to sign a free agent. An alternative would be to absorb a player in trade. Assuming the new rules still allow for it, L.A. would be able to take in $12 million in salary. They can also look to fashion an uneven trade in which a player like Kaman (at $12.7 million) can go out with up to approximately $25 million coming back.
Gomes, Cook and Warren are expendable pieces. The team would like to keep Foye but if the incoming talent is worthwhile, he’s a player they may have to part with.
Obviously Griffin is untouchable. The team also holds Gordon in the highest regard. The goal is to add a third piece to that core.
Williams is vital as a veteran starting point guard and is expected back next season. There’s not much point in filling the void at small forward by creating one at the point. The team also values Eric Bledsoe (off the bench) and would prefer to keep Aminu, although if there’s a sacrifice somewhere . . . Farouq seems the most logical choice.
The Clippers also have the Minnesota 2012 unprotected pick which could prove to be a top-five selection in the next draft. L.A. has a strong assortment of assets and the ability to make an uneven trade financially. It’s just a matter of finding the right players on the right (and willing) team.
Andre Iguodala (Philadelphia 76ers) has been discussed as an option. Although he’s not the most consistent outside shooter, he’s a strong defender and play-maker.
Nicolas Batum (Portland Trail Blazers) also defends well. He’s a steady spot-up shooter and a more economic choice . . . although to date the Blazers have been too attached to Batum to let him go.
Josh Smith may be available but he’s more of a power forward, lacking a jumper to give Griffin room to work. The Clippers aren’t interested (and they have no designs on Michael Beasley either).
One way around the restricted free agent dilemma is to fashion a sign-and-trade. Perhaps Jeff Green at the right price might work via trade although the new CBA may outlaw the sign-and-trade altogether.
The Denver Nuggets seem committed to keeping Danilo Gallinari long term.
If the Memphis Grizzlies decide they need to reduce payroll, the Clippers would have interest in Rudy Gay.
In most cases, L.A. would want to bring in a player young enough to grow with the rest of their team. One exception would Manu Ginobili of the San Antonio Spurs. Even at 34, Ginobili would give the Clippers one of the best closers in the league. Manu expects to finish out his two-year contract ($27 million) before retiring. If available, he could prove to be the piece that helps the team learn how to win.
When it comes to moving that Minnesota pick, the Clippers would want a true star in return . . . like Chris Paul. L.A. wouldn’t be offering it for a player like Iguodala.
This may seem like the Gomes/Aminu option rehashed but before the Clippers spend on a player they aren’t sold on, give up too much in trade or get back too little, it’s important to remember that Minny pick. A lineup with Griffin, Gordon, Jordan and Harrison Barnes? Quincy Miller? Michael Gilchrist? Austin Rivers?
The Clippers would be better off holding than making the wrong deal.
The goal is to get to the playoffs (and advance) as quickly as possible. Los Angeles would love to lock in their core lineup for the next half-decade. To do so, they need help from another team or a specific free agent. Before giving up too much, the Clippers have to consider the caliber of player available in the 2012 draft.
Eventually the lockout will pass and L.A. will solve their problem small forward.
It just may take some time to come through . . .