Clippers: Summer’s early winner, but questions loom

July 7, 2013

We’re 6+ days into free agency, and most of the big chips have fallen. Dwight Howard to Houston, Chris Paul to stay in L.A., Al Jefferson to Charlotte, Josh Smith to Detroit, Andre Iguodala to Golden State and Paul Millsap to Atlanta. Four notable pieces still on the market include Brandon Jennings, restricted and likely to stay in Milwaukee; Monta Ellis, probably headed to Denver or Atlanta; Nikola Pekovic, restricted but likely out of Minnesota; and Andrew Bynum, who knows.

Below, I take a look at my ‘winner’ of free agency through 6 days.

The Los Angeles Clippers

L.A. was known for its deep bench last year, boasting the likes of Jamal Crawford, Willie Green, Lamar Odom, Ryan Hollins, Matt Barnes, Eric Bledsoe, Ronny Turiaf and Grant Hill. At 40.1 points per game, L.A.’s bench trailed only Dallas and Denver in scoring, and Crawford finished the runner-up in the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year voting.

But a postseason bench is not 12 guys deep. Hill played in 1 game in the team’s 6-game opening-round loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, and Ryan Hollins and Willie Green averaged less than 7.5 minutes per and did not appear in every game. DeAndre Jordan’s inability to make free throws saw him to the bench in crunch-time minutes, and Lamar Odom, and his 11.0 PER, was ineffective all season.

Six days into free agency, the Clippers have turned Caron Butler and Bledsoe into J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley, re-signed Matt Barnes and acquired Darren Collison, an ex-UCLA product, for pennies on the dollar. L.A. drafted sharpshooter Reggie Bullock at No. 25 overall. Oh, and they extended arguably the top free agent in this year’s class, Chris Paul, for 5 years, and traded for a championship coach in Doc Rivers, who brings instant credibility, and an offensive system, to Staples.

Concern: Lack of frontcourt depth

My concern with this team, as they flirt with luxury tax territory, is frontcourt depth, especially after a playoff series where they were bullied by the Grizzlies’ Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph; in that series, Gasol and Randolph averaged a combined 38.1 points and 15.5 rebounds. Right now, with Turiaf and Hollins unrestricted free agents — though ones, according to Brad Turner of The Los Angeles Times, they’re interested in re-signing — the only NBA-caliber bigs on this roster are Griffin and Jordan, the latter of whom cannot play down the stretch and is owed an immovable $22.4 million through 2014-15.

Doc could always move Blake to the 5 and play Barnes or Dudley, 6’7″, at the 4. Both are strong individual defenders. And, then there’s also the rest of the summer. L.A. flirted with Carl Landry, whom eventually agreed to a 4-year, $27-million deal with Sacramento, one that L.A.’s cap flexibility, or lack thereof, would not have permitted. Rivers just needs to fill a 19.7-minutes-per-game slot opened by Odom’s likely departure, whether that’s more minutes to Blake, DeAndre, both or other faces.

Improvement: 3-point shooting

In last year’s postseason, L.A. shot a measly 30.4% from 3. L.A. loses an OK 3-point shooter in Butler and an improving one in Bledsoe, but Dudley (40.5% career) and Redick (39%) are improvements. Redick’s averaged double-figure scoring numbers each of the last 3 seasons, including 15.1 in 50 games in Orlando before his trade last season. Dudley’s also been in double figures each of the past 3 years, and has never shot below 45.9% from the field in his 6-year career.

Bullock shot 44% from 3 last year at UNC, and possesses great size, 6’7″, for a hybrid guard-forward. Barnes is 33% from deep throughout his career, but is especially efficient in the corners.

Bottom line: More weapons for CP3, Blake

The spacing provided by these shooters should open Blake post-ups and CP3-Blake pick-and-rolls, L.A.’s bread-and-butter source of offense. With Paul, Blake, Jordan, Redick, Dudley, Collison, Barnes, Crawford and Green, L.A.’s as good 1-9 as any team in the league. All 9 of those guys are capable of double-digit scoring nights any game.

With Collison, a former teammate of Paul’s in New Orleans, L.A. has a very capable backup point. Collison may not have Bledsoe’s ceiling, but he’s averaged double figures all 4 seasons of his career and only 25. After a disappointing season in Dallas, you can bet on consistent energy from Collison. Should Doc decide to go this route, Collison’s very effective in 2-Lopoint-guard lineups — in 2011-12, Indiana’s most efficient lineup to play at least 100 minutes together featured Collison and combo guard George Hill in the backcourt.

Now, if the Clippers can sure up their frontcourt, I’ll put them right next to San Antonio.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.

3 thoughts on free agency after 3 days

July 4, 2013

We’re almost 72 hours into NBA’s free agency period. Of the two major dominoes, one has fallen; Chris Paul is, unsurprisingly, returning to L.A. on a 5-year, $107-million extension. The other cornerstone in this class, Dwight Howard, has met with 5 teams — Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Golden State and L.A. — with a decision coming as soon as Friday.

Several second-tier names are still on the board, namely Andre Iguodala, Tyreke Evans, Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Nikola Pekovic, Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith.

Here’s 3 random thoughts as we head into Day 4. Happy Fourth, all!

1. I love what the Clippers are doing.

Priority No. 1: Bring back Chris Paul, the league’s best PG. Check. Priority No. 2: Hire a championship coach to replace the fired Vinny Del Negro. Check. Priority No. 3: Add perimeter shooting and secondary ball-handling. Check.

The latter was completed Tuesday, when the Clippers acquired J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley in a 3-team deal with Milwaukee and Phoenix. As part of the deal, L.A. sent Caron Butler’s $8-million expiring and top asset Eric Bledsoe to Phoenix, and Milwaukee snatched 2 second-round draft picks.

Bledsoe, 23, is an extremely athletic, promising young combo guard who improved immensely from 2011-12 to 2012-13. He averaged 8.5 points, 3.1 assists and 3 rebounds in 20.4 minutes, nearly doubled his 3-point efficiency (on limited attempts) to 40% and shot 45% from the field. His 17.6 player-efficiency rating trailed only Paul and Blake Griffin among regular rotation players. But with Paul inked long-term, there was little room for Bledsoe in the rotation, and he probably could have bolted as a restricted free agent next summer.

The Clippers acquired 2 potential starters for next season, too, should Rivers elect to keep Jamal Crawford as a sixth man. Redick, a career 39% shooter, immediately becomes the Clippers’ top 3-point threat; L.A. shot a league-average 36% last season and 30.4% in the postseason, good for 14th out of 16 playoff clubs. J.J. also is a capable defender who can handle the ball in second-team situations, and teams will have to respect his shooting on CP3-Blake pick-and-rolls. In 50 games for the Magic last year, Redick averaged 15.1 points.

In Dudley, Rivers gets a younger, better and cheaper Butler — a guy who can hold his own, in most cases, on defense, shoot the corner 3 and even run a second-team offense. Dudley, a career 40.5% 3-point shooter, has averaged double-figure points each of the last 3 years, all on pretty bad Phoenix teams. He’s still only 27, and has shot at least 45.9% from the field in each of his 6 NBA seasons.

Considering the market for swing guards/forwards this postseason, 4 years, $27 million — the signed-and-traded contract Redick reportedly signed — is hardly a burden. J.J.’s still 29 and has played in the postseason all 7 years of his career. The Wolves signed Kevin Martin for $28 million over 4, the Wizards signed Martell Webster for $22 million over 4, Atlanta signed Kyle Korver for $24 million over 4 and the Wolves signed Chase Budinger for $16 million over 3.

There’s not a player on that list I’d take over Redick. If the Clippers managed to re-sign Matt Barnes on the cheap and lure Carl Landry below market value — a big who, unlike DeAndre Jordan, could play in crunch time — I’d put them in the same conversation as San Antonio, a healthy Oklahoma City and Memphis.

2. Did the Wizards overpay for Martell Webster?

Shortly after news broke Washington used their mid-level exception to ink Webster for 4 years, $22 million, with the final year only partially guaranteed, Twitter morphed into a ‘THEY OVERPAID’ frenzy.

Webster, picked No. 6 overall out of high school in 2005, is still only 26, and averaged 11.4 points on 44% shooting last season, a ‘contract year.’ Some, including me, thought the selection of Otto Porter at No. 3 would make him expendable, but you would think he goes into next year as Washington’s starting SF.

The rag on Webster is durability. He’s only played 2 full 82-game slates in his 8-year career, with the most recent coming in 2009-10 as a Blazer. In 2008-09, Webster played all of 5 minutes. The 2 back surgeries that caused Webster to miss 55 games in his 2 seasons in Minnesota have, at least per my research, not since flared up.

Again, look at the market. Korver signed for $2 million more over 4 years, without nearly the slash game and athleticism that Webster offers. Kevin Martin signed for $6 million more over 4, but is a horrific defender. As evidenced by taking on the contracts of Nene and Emeka Okafor last summer, the Wizards are in win-now mode. And a healthy Webster gives them a more-than-capable starting SF/sixth man.

For a much more comprehensive examination of the Webster move, read this Truth About It post.

3. What’s up with New Orleans’ guard situation?

As I’m writing this post, USA TODAY‘s Sam Amick is reporting Sacramento Kings’ restricted free agent Tyreke Evans has given the Pelicans a verbal commitment on a 4-year, $44 million offer sheet. By all indications, Evans wants to play in New Orleans — much like current Pelicans’ guard Eric Gordon wanted to play in Phoenix — but Sacramento will still have 3 days to match once the offer sheet is signed.

For a few hours Tuesday, it looked like Evans would be headed to New Orleans. Sacramento had offered Iguodala a 4-year, $56 million deal, only to call their own bluff by night’s end. You would guess that Sacramento, and its approximately $17 million in cap space, would now re-sign Evans.

The addition of Evans would leave a lot of questions in New Orleans. The Pelicans just traded 2 lottery picks (barring a playoff appearance) for Jrue Holiday, an All Star last season, and are paying Gordon $14.3, $14.9 and $15.5 million over the next 3 years, respectively. Greivis Vasquez, last year’s Most Improved Player runner-up, and Austin Rivers, last year’s No. 10 overall pick, are also under contract for 2013-14.

The Pelicans would love to find a taker for Gordon’s albatross of a contract, but that’s unlikely for a guy who’s missed nearly twice as many games (97) as he’s played in (51) the past 2 years. Rivers, 20, has potential, but an ugly rookie season and 5.95 PER kills his value. Vasquez’s name, also circulated in trade rumors, is perhaps the only appealing to GMs.

If Evans winds up in New Orleans, somehow at least one of these guys has to go.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.


February 15, 2013

This almost goes without saying at this point, but it’s still remarkable to think about: after the Dwight Howard trade, did anyone honestly imagine the Clippers, not the Lakers, would be, hands down, Southern California’s best basketball team? I mean, heading into this season, Vinny Del Negro had no job security, Chauncey Billups was battling back from his torn Achilles, suffered in February 2012, and L.A. had to integrate 7 new free agent contributors. Headed into Thursday’s game against the Lakers, the Clippers are 38-17, leading the Pacific Division by 6 games, finally getting healthy and all but locked into the No. 3 seed.

L.A.’s +6.4 points differential is 3rd in the NBA, even ahead of Miami’s +6.3 mark. Balance is key: the Clippers possess the league’s 10th-ranked scoring offense, 100 points per game, and the 4th-best defense, 93.6 per game. Their roster boasts 2 All Star starters, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, and a fringe snub in likely Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford.

At 40.3 points per game, Del Negro has the league’s 3rd-highest scoring bench, and on any given night has the potential to go 12 deep — 13 Clippers’ players have appeared in at least 6 games. Oh, and now they’re all finally getting healthy — only Eric Bledsoe and DeAndre Jordan have played in all 55 games this season. (Willie Green started 49 games this season, but now that Billups has returned from injury, he’s been relegated to not playing at all.)


Paul, an unrestricted free agent this summer, is likely to return, and, unlike his L.A. counterpart Howard, has ducked the distracting speculation of his impending status. In spite of Kyrie Irving’s ascendance, Paul still has to be considered the league’s best 1-guard; his play warrants MVP consideration, though LeBron James is a runaway favorite to win the award. Paul’s 26.53 PER is 3rd-best in the NBA, trailing only LeBron and Kevin Durant. Paul’s averaging 16.5 points and 9.5 assists in a career-low 33 minutes per game, and his fundamentals — career-high in free throw percentage and career-low in turnovers — are still (scarily, I might add) improving. (Paul recently missed a 9-game stretch due to a bruised right kneecap; the Clippers finished 3-6 in those games, with only 2 of the opponents likely playoff teams.)

Blake Griffin’s development from a highlight dunker to a franchise offensive talent is also worth noting. Griffin, 23 and in only his 3rd full season, has the NBA’s 10th-best PER, tops among all Western Conference bigs not named Tim Duncan. He’s playing the fewest minutes of his career, 32.5, but still averaging 18.5 points and 8.7 boards on 54% shooting. His free throw percentage, 66%, is still less than desirable, but nearly a 14-point improvement over 2011-12. His mid-range jumper continues to improve, posing a challenge for opposing defenses: guard him closely to see him blow by you and dunk in your face, or let him settle for a face-up jumper, which he’s also likely to drop in your grill.


At the other frontcourt spot, Jordan continues to disappoint despite a solid start to the season. The 24-year-old center is still a strong interior presence defensively, with sheer athleticism and an ability to finish around the rim. Jordan’s shooting 60% from the field, though he’s not at all an offensive threat outside of 5 feet, and his sub-43% FT shooting means he’s a liability on the floor in close games. Free agent acquisitions Ryan Hollins and Ronny Turiaf are capable reserves who can rebound and defend, but Lamar Odom, and his team-low 38.7 FG percentage, has seen his struggles from Dallas last year continue in a new uniform.

At the 3, Caron Butler is a bit of a wash at about 10 points per game, but reserve Matt Barnes has been surprisingly effective off the bench, averaging 10.4 points per himself, the highest mark of his 10-year NBA career. Between the two (and veteran Grant Hill), Del Negro has a core group of veterans who can hit outside shots and defend (look no further than Hill’s shutdown 4th quarter defense of Carmelo Anthony from Sunday), which is more important than more isolation scorers, especially on a team that already has Griffin, Paul and Crawford.


In the backcourt, the Clippers carry 4 more guys — Crawford, Green, Billups and Bledsoe — with scoring chops and playoff experience. (Amazingly, all 13 players to log minutes for L.A. this year have played postseason basketball.) Crawford is normally paired with Paul in the big moments, as his 17 points per game trails only Griffin. The ball often sticks in Crawford’s hands, but his 43% FG percentage is more than 2 points above his career average, and his one-on-one isolation skills are easily the best on this team.

Billups is one of the most important pieces to this puzzle. His veteran leadership (just watch guys flock to him during timeouts and huddles) and 3-point shooting will be important factors in the playoffs. Bledsoe, the team’s 2-guard of the future, is a fireball of energy off the bench; to put his athleticism into context, he’s 6’1″ and averages 0.9 blocks per game in 21.2 minutes. His 19.0 PER is 3rd best on the team, behind Paul and Griffin, and he’s averaging career-highs in every major statistical category besides assists. Shooting-wise, his FG percentage is up 6 points over last year, his FT percentage 16 and 3-point percentage 23.


Financially, the Clippers are about where should be expected, with $45.3 million on the books for 2013-14 before Chris Paul’s (projected) max deal this summer. L.A.’s stuck with Butler’s $8 million per through next season and probably regretting Jordan’s roughly $11 million per through 2014-15. Crawford’s signed for cheap next year ($5.25 million), as is Bledsoe ($2.6 million) and Hill ($2.1 million). The Clippers will more than likely sign a few ring-chasing veterans for minimum deals again this offseason. (Whether Billups retires is a story worth keeping an eye on.)


But back to this year. Del Negro’s team is likely to square off with either San Antonio or Oklahoma City in Round 2. The Clippers are 2-0 against the Spurs, the same team that swept L.A. out of the playoffs last year, this season, but 0-2 against OKC. Whether the Clippers can get through both of these teams and then Miami is what ultimately lies in their championship path.

Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.


Dribbles: Garnett trade rumors & Kyrie v. Bosh.

February 4, 2013

A quick look at a few NBA headlines on this Feb. 4.

Clippers reportedly covet Kevin Garnett

In the midst of a 8-game road trip and 2-game losing skid minus star Chris Paul, nursing a knee bruise, L.A. is sliding; in fact, the Clippers, who earlier this season held the NBA’s best record, have slipped to No. 3 in the Western Conference and are only 3.5 games up on the No. 6-seeded Denver Nuggets. So what’s the team with the league’s No. 2-ranked scoring bench to do? Well, stock up on more talent.

Reports surfaced yesterday, with the Clippers actually playing in Boston, that L.A. is interested in Kevin Garnett, potentially offering up a package of Caron Butler, due $8 million this year and next, and young energy-two Eric Bledsoe. A deal shipping Garnett away would give the Celtics some cap relief — Garnett’s due $23.5 million over the next 2 years — and a young stud in Bledsoe to pair with Rondo for years to come. Bledsoe is averaging a career-high 9.3 points a night in 21 minutes, shooting an incredible 45% from the field with freakish athleticism and ability to get to the rim for a 6’1″ guard. Bledsoe, with an 18.77 PER, is 46th in the NBA, only 4 spots behind Garnett.


But the deal also doesn’t make sense. Garnett has a no-trade clause, and I’m not sure he’d be eager to leave Boston to likely come off the bench behind Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, though the Clippers could use some reserve frontcourt help. Boston already has a mishmash of displaced guards, namely Jason Terry, Courtney Lee and Avery Bradley, who’ve struggled, at least before Rondo’s injury, to find their role in the offense. Garnett, an All Star starter, is still a decent value at $11-12 million a year, and though the deal could help the Celtics avert the luxury tax, Danny Ainge would take on Butler’s $8 million next year.

Boston apparently has received the memo, as recent reports Monday morning say such an exchange is unlikely before the Feb. 21 deadline. (The move’s prospects are also dampened by the fact that Jared Sullinger, an effective rookie PF who was giving the Celtics 20 quality minutes each night, is out for the season after undergoing back surgery Friday.)

Spoelstra likely to start Bosh over Irving in All Star Game

Erik Spoelstra and the Miami Heat coaching staff are set to coach the Eastern Conference All Stars Feb. 17 in Houston, and recent reports say Spo is favoring starting Chris Bosh over Kyrie Irving as Rajon Rondo’s injury replacement. Such a move would give the Heat 3 of the team’s 5 starters — Dwayne Wade and LeBron James being the obvious other 2 — and probably bump LeBron to point guard.

The Heat staff have earned this luxury by amassing the East’s best record at the season’s midway point, of course, but the numbers do not back his reported decision. Irving’s been the best point guard in the East, if not the NBA (though Chris Paul would likely debate), this season, with a 12th-ranked PER (Bosh is 24) and 24 points per game (Bosh averages 17.3 as the third option) to show for it.

ESPN’s Brian Windhorst tweeted there are “several reasons” Spo likely won’t start Irving over Bosh, prompting Conrad Kaczmarek of the great Cavaliers’ blog Fear the Sword to speculate one of those “reasons” could be rumors of a LeBron return to Cleveland should he opt out in 2014. Whatever the case may be, Irving deserves the start on talent alone, and if Spo needs any reminder, I’d show him this clip of Irving’s 13 in the 4th to close out the Oklahoma City Thunder two nights ago.

Yeah, you should start Mr. 4th Quarter, Spo.


Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.

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