Is the Clippers' Roster Set?

Summer League is over, most of the free agents are signed, and now we have to settle in for the long, long off-season.  Sure, the off-season (for the Clippers at least) has already been going on for three months.  But in those three months, we've had the NBA playoffs, the draft lottery, the draft, free agency, a new coach hiring and summer league.  Basically, it's been busier than the regular season.  But between now and the beginning of training camp in October, we could be in for a ten week dry spell. 

It's entirely possible that there won't be any signings of note during this time.  With the re-signing of Craig Smith yesterday (which also signals the likely end of the MBFGC experiment), the Clippers now have twelve players under contract (though not all of them are guaranteed ).  I keep hearing that the team plans to carry thirteen contracts (more on that later), and the play of Marqus Blakely in Las Vegas should earn him a camp invite and serious consideration for the regular season roster.  There's certainly room for at least one more external signing (and of course the team has a well-publicized meeting with Tracy McGrady this week) and truth be told, I do expect at least one more name to be added.  But there's a chance that what you see is what you get.

Here's what you see currently:

Point Guard

Baron Davis

Eric Bledsoe

 

Shooting Guard

Eric Gordon

Randy Foye

Willie Warren*

Small Forward

Ryan Gomes

Al-Farouq Aminu

Power Forward

Blake Griffin

Craig Smith

Brian Cook

Center

Chris Kaman

DeAndre Jordan*

 

* Contract not fully guaranteed

It's a pretty good starting lineup - with a weak link at the small forward.  However, it is sorely lacking in depth, unless the teenagers are ready to contribute a lot more quickly than they demonstrated in Las Vegas. 

Obviously, they have to add at least one more player.  That one could conceivably be Blakely.  The simple truth is, during Summer League he looked more ready to contribute now than any of the three drafted rookies.   As for Jordan and Warren, it's highly likely that they'll be on the team come November.  They've already invested two years in developing Jordan, and his contract is very inexpensive, so it only makes sense to see that investment through.  We'll know sooner rather than later on DJ - his contract becomes guaranteed on August 1.  Warren's deal is partially guaranteed, so it seems highly likely that they'll at least start the season with him.  As of now, they don't appear to need the roster spots.  If push comes to shove, they could always waive Warren during the season to make more room.

I keep seeing the Clippers discussed in the mix for the final Western Conference playoff spot, and I honestly don't see why.  Comparing this team to last season's team that won 29 games, you have Blake Griffin replacing Marcus Camby and less depth (no Al Thornton).  You have to extrapolate Blake Griffin to an All Star level right now to assume that the team is actually better.  Don't get me wrong - I think Griffin is in fact a difference maker.  But Camby was still very productive last season, so the improvement in the team is limited to the delta above that productivity.  Moreover, Blake's entering his rookie season.  It may take some time before he's first team All Pro, you know?

Are we expecting signficant improvement from the rest of the lineup?  Well, Kaman is coming off an All Star appearance and by far his best scoring season.  I'd love to see more of the 07-08 Kaman, with rebounding and blocked shots, especially in Camby's absence.  But in general, it's pretty tough to ask for an improvement over a career year.  Obviously we'd like to see a better season from Baron Davis, and we can certainly hope for it given that his two seasons in LA have been subpar compared to his career.  However, the much more likely scenario is that at the age of 31 his skills have started to decline and will continue to do so.  Eric Gordon is still just 21 and should be improving to be sure.  Unfortunately, he didn't show nearly the improvement from is rookie season to last year, which makes one less optimistic about a big improvement this year.

I'm not trying to be pessimistic here, just realistic.  I think the Clippers are very well positioned for the future, but that future depends on development from AFA and Bledsoe, who do not appear ready to contribute in a meaningfull way as rookies.  That leaves the team not significantly better this season than last season.

Having said that, last season's team was playing .500 basketball until they gave up and mailed in the second half.  So there should be enough talent to play around .500, and there will hopefully not be any specific reason to give up (like Griffin's injury provided last year).  Unfortunately, if anything the playoff picture in the West looks more crowded than ever.  Last year the assumption was that Houston was out, while no one had Oklahoma City or Memphis on the radar.  Now OKC looks like a lock, Houston hopes to have Yao healthy along with Kevin Martin, Memphis is just as talented as they were and Phoenix and Utah are both trying to hang tough after losing All Star bigs to free agency.  It took 50 wins to make the playoffs in the West last season.  It'll take something similar this season, it seems to me.

Back to the roster: I haven't hidden my disappointment in the fact that Josh Childress is in Phoenix at what appears to me to be a bargain price.  Having said that, it is very easy to make the argument that long term contracts for non-elite talent would have been the worst possible outcome for the Clippers this season.  2010-2011 is the 'show progress and develop the young players' season.  Other than DeAndre, there are no significant free agents next summer (and it's open to debate as to whether he is significant).  2011-2012 is the 'moment of truth' season, when this core will need to make the playoffs and show real promise.  Eric Gordon will be a restricted free agent in two summers, and Chris Kaman will be unrestricted.  That is the time to decide whether the current core will be retained and built around, or whether it's time to start over yet again.  Obviously Gordon is more key than Kaman at that point.  But the point remains that once LeBron James said "Miami", the upcoming season became a checkpoint on the way to 11-12.  Sad, but true.

So drafting 19 year olds and NOT signing five year deals was the exactly correct decision.  Foye's deal expires in time to re-sign Gordon.  Gomes' three year deal is an expiring contract at that point, almost as valuable.  The contract length is what makes the newly minted ClipperWolves good signings.  They may or may not be super productive, but with relatively short deals, they were worth the risk.

To remain consistent with that approach, if the Clippers do indeed sign McGrady or some other player this summer, it should be for at most two seasons.  If they sign anyone long term, then it will be a real head scratcher.

By my math (and penciling in Craig Smith at his prior $2.3M, which is a total guess at this point, but shouldn't be too far off one way or the other), I have the Clippers with about $9M in cap space still.  Now, why would you consider going into the season with $9M and an available roster spot?  Of course there's the knee-jerk obvious, Clipper-hatin' (though not necessarily false) answer: to save money.  But there are less cynical possibilities as well.  The flexibiliy of being below the cap allows teams to add players during the regular season, not just during July.  Players on teams that are looking to shed salary, and even the occasional decent free agent (like when Nenad Krstic returned from Europe mid season) may become available at any time, and the Clippers will likely be opportunistic in that regard.  Unfortunately, it's not as if the Clippers are the only team entering the season with some flexibility.  There were so many teams with space at the beginning of the summer that many of them still have a decent chunk of change.  Moreover, many of those trade exceptions that have been flying around the league are still out there, since sign and trades were all the rage this summer.

Will the Clippers sign McGrady?  We'll see.  It's a decent fit in some ways.  TMac wants a chance to prove that he can still play; the Clippers could use some short term help, and have a shortage of playmakers on the wing.  He probably wouldn't be a good fit in the starting lineup, but he could absolutely be a featured sixth man for LAC. 

Beyond McGrady, there's not much of interest out there at this point.  You might as well carry Marqus Blakely as your 13th man (young, athletic, active, high basketball IQ) as the guys who are still available as free agents.

That roster above definitely has some holes.  If Kaman or Jordan gets hurt, you're left with Blake Griffin or Brian Cook playing some five.  There are enough players that in theory can play multiple spots that you're probably OK depth-wise at the other spots.  The real problem is going to be the quality, not the quantity.  For instance, if (when) Baron gets hurt, you've got Foye backed up by Bledsoe at the point. 

One name to keep an eye on is Jason Kapono.  The Clippers could certainly use more shooting, and according to Marc Stein, the Sixers are looking to move Kapono from their crowded wing position.  Kapono is in the final year of his contract, and has a very close relationship with Neil Olshey, who coached him at Artesia High.  He may want to go to a contender, but if he is interested in being back home in SoCal, the Clippers might be a good fit.

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