The Los Angeles Clippers have a big problem. It's not the size of the problem but rather the problem of size. As well as Brian Cook and Trey Thompkins played in the first exhibition game against the Lakers Monday night, both of those guys are stretch fours, not fives. Against most of the league, they can steal you a few minutes at the center, because most of the league doesn't have a center who's going to take over a game. But as we saw last night, against a player like Andrew Bynum, those guys can do little more than foul and hope. Camp invite Marcus Hubbard is listed as a center, but he's also listed as 6'9", 230 pounds. That's not much use against Dwight Howard.
The team knows they have this issue, and have a couple of avenues for addressing it. First of all, with a roster of 14 that includes both Hubbard and fellow long shot Courtney Fortson (a point guard on a team that has about five of them on guaranteed contracts), they have a couple roster spots to work with. They also have a $3.8M trade exception from the Chris Paul trade, and a $2.5M cap exception to use.
The problem with that cap exception is that the remaining free agents with any size are either going to want more than that (really, it's just Sam Dalembert on that list) or aren't worth nearly that much. Beyond Dalembert, it's pretty scary out there in free agent center land - Hamed Haddadi, DJ MBenga, Etan Thomas, Alexis Ajinca, Fracisco Elson, Hilton Armstrong, Solomon Jones, that sort of thing. MBenga would be fine as a body that has six fouls to use, and I actually find Haddadi kind of intriguing (the guy has some skills, but he's the epitome of lumbering) - but there aren't any great choices in the free agency ranks.
Two of the best free agents may not play at all this season. Antonio McDyess was waived by the Spurs this week and announced his retirement. He's a proven post defender who also happens to be a great face up shooter, which is a great fit for the Clippers. One wonders if a phone call from Dice's old teammate Chauncey Billups might coax him back to the court. Then there's Joel Przybilla, an underrated center who has great size and has been a good rebounder and defender his entire career. Przybilla has not retired yet, but is said to be leaning that way, and will wait until after Christmas to decide.
A couple other free agent names that might be of interest are Reggie Evans and Joey Dorsey. Neither has the size of a traditional center, but unlike the backup bigs currently on the LAC roster, they do have the muscle to bang down low. Neither would be a great solution facing the likes of Howard or Bynum, but at least they could push him some, and they could add some strength and toughness off the bench.
The Clippers also have the trade exception and other trade chips like Mo Williams, Randy Foye and Eric Bledsoe. Without knowing who is available, it's difficult to gauge which of those guys might be the right bait, but I suspect the Clippers want to keep all of them. Without dealing one of the guards, the Clippers would be limited to sending out a second round pick and absorbing a salary less than or equal to $3.8M. These types of deals are available. Last week as I was going through rosters, I noted that Oklahoma City had two first round picks, B.J. Mullens and Cole Aldrich, who've barely played for them and wondered if one of them might be available. Sure enough, Mullens was dealt to Charlotte for a second round pick a short time later. Likewise Golden State's Lou Amundson was on my list, and he was traded to the Pacers for Brandon Rush Monday.
Other bigs who fit the salary exception (i.e. they make less than or equal to $3.8M) include Ryan Hollins (CLE), Kosta Koufos (DEN), Timofey Mozgov (DEN), Ben Wallace (DET), Joel Anthony (MIA), Anthony Tolliver (MIN), Johan Petro (NJN), Robin Lopez (PHX), Jason Thompson (SAC) and Tiago Splitter (SAN). Many of these are former first round picks still on their rookie deals (which is why they are relatively affordable) and the team would have to be giving up on them to make them available. The trade exception would of course be most attractive to teams over the luxury tax threshold, but neither the Lakers nor the Celtics nor the Magic have anything the Clippers would want in the price range. Might Miami be disillusioned with Anthony and looking to save some money? Is San Antonio ready to give up on Splitter? Both seem highly unlikely.
From the trade exception bargain bin, I only see two realistic possibilities. Similar to the Mullens/Aldrich situation in Oklahoma, Denver doesn't need Koufos and Mozgov, not with Nene re-signed and Chris Andersen still around. There's no doubt in my mind that Koufos could be had for nothing - but you get what you pay for, if you catch my drift. The name Ben Wallace jumps out at me as well. He's the only center on the Pistons' roster, but he's 37 and makes no sense on a re-building team. With a single season left on his contract at $2.2M, he would be a better fit with his old pal Billups in LA if he plans to play this season.
The fact that the Clippers HAVEN'T made a move yet makes me think that they are waiting for something specific. They've been so decisive this off-season - on Caron Butler, on Billups, on Paul - that it's out of character for them to be waiting while the last few bigs get picked up. (By the way, how weird is it to be assuming the best about the Clippers' front office instead of assuming the worst? "Well, they haven't done anything yet, but I'm sure they have a plan" is just not what Clipper fans are used to thinking.) Maybe they're waiting for rosters to shake out to see who else might become available. After all, McDyess was a roster cut, and David Andersen of the Hornets became available recently as well.
There's always the fallback of Ike Diogu. While Chris Kaman was hurt last season, Diogu got most of the extra minutes at the five, and held his own. He's only about 6'8", but he's built solid and has long arms that allow him to play bigger. It's not an ideal solution, but by at the same time we know that he's much more capable of defending centers than Brian Cook.
Of course, the Clippers aren't the only team desperate for bigs. Charlotte took a flyer on Mullens because they are looking at the distinct possibility of Melvin Ely as their starting center. Heck, both Ely and Chris Wilcox, the Clippers' twin lottery busts from 2002, signed as free agents this summer, so you know there aren't enough quality big men out there. It doesn't help matters that Darrell Arthur is now out for the season and Chuck Hayes just had his contract voided over a heart condition - even teams that thought they were set up front like the Grizzlies and the Kings are back in the market.
As strange as it is to say, the Clippers are suddenly a "destination" team. You know that team that picks up a discarded quality veteran on the cheap at the trade deadline to make a playoff run? Well, the Clippers are that team now. In that sense, there's some logic to holding on to the cap exception, in case an opportunity presents itself down the stretch. But how much will the lack of size hurt them between now and then?
Hopefully my hunch is right and the Clippers have a plan here. There's little question that Ike Diogu could help this team as it stands now. But let's hope that they have big plans.