There are a couple of favorite on-going discussions in Clips Nation. One of them is, how should MDSr distribute minutes across this loaded and versatile team (and of course the question of who should be in the starting lineup is a corollary). The second is, what is the long term strategy for the team, taking into consideration the salary cap, the development of young players like Kaman and Livingston, free agency, etc. We've gotten partial answers to a few questions in the last month (Kaman has been extended, Maggette is willing to come off the bench) but to real hoops-heads, these questions can be discussed ad infinitum.
But almost completely lost in these discussions so far is one Quinton Ross.
When discussing minutes, Q is a little like the `givens' in high school geometry proofs. Given that MDSr loves him, and given that you don't need a fifth scorer on the floor to start, Ross will be the starter and play about the same number of minutes he played in 05-06. Now let's get to the meat of the discussion, Maggette, Cassell, Livingston.... In fact, many have assumed (including yours truly) that Ross's minutes would decrease with a healthy Maggette and a full season of Tim Thomas. Beyond the basic "he's the best on-ball defender" and "he doesn't need the ball in his hands on offense" Q's playing time is almost always discussed in terms of the minutes he's taking away from other guys, and never in terms of the minutes he earns, the minutes the Clippers need him to play.
Well, guess what? Quinton Ross is averaging over 30 minutes per game on the young season, more than Maggette, Thomas, Livingston or Kaman. And it's easy to see why. He's played big minutes against the Hornets and the Sixers, where he was matched up against CP3 and AI every minute they were on the floor. But given the number hyper-quick guards in the league (in addition to the Hornets and Sixers, the Spurs, Mavs and Suns come immediately to mind) I don't see this trend abating. Cat and/or Shaun play as well or better against stronger, less quick scorers like Kobe, Melo, and TMac, but Ross is clearly the best option against the waterbugs.
As for the supposed liability on the offensive end - well, it just hasn't happened. Q is averaging 9.3 points per game, over 11 per when he gets more than 20 minutes. He is shooting 54% from the field (best on the team) and 82% from the line (second best). Late in the third quarter Saturday the Clippers actually ran a play for him (he scored). Then he hit huge shots in regulation and in overtime, with the score tied and less than 2 minutes to go. He's way past the point of make the defense pay for cheating off. He's becoming a bona fide threat.
In the `future of the team' discussion, Ross hasn't even factored in. It seems as if everyone just assumes he's going to be there, and they move on to other questions. How much can we pay Kaman and still have enough under the luxury tax threshold to extend Livingston? Should we trade Maggette to free up some space? How much is it going to take to keep Livingston? Is his play going to justify a big money extension?
Well, don't look now, but Ross will be a free agent in the summer of 2008, just like Livingston. And there's absolutely no question that he has earned a raise - the question is how much. In fact, the Clippers have a team option on his contract for next season at a paltry $800K. The right thing to do would be to tear up that option and start paying him next season, but at a minimum they have to offer him a nice extension. I'm guessing there will be some loyalty there - after all, MDSr rescued him from Belgium when no one else knew much about him, but he's not going to play for the league minimum anymore.
The closest precedent in the league is Bruce Bowen. Back in 2002, the Spurs re-signed Bowen for 3/$11.2M. Bowen was 33 at the time; Ross is 25. If he continues to play this well, is there any doubt that teams would line up to offer him the mid-level exception, if not more? In other words, the Clippers are looking at giving him a $5M per year raise AT LEAST to keep him on the ship.
It remains a good problem to have - too much talent on your roster. But playing time and the luxury tax are the great equalizers in today's NBA. The terrific play of Quinton Ross is making both the distribution of minutes and the long term planning of salaries significantly more difficult than anticipated (and we knew it was going to be tough). In fact, the Clippers are likely going to be faced with a very specific question of paying Ross, the undrafted overachiever they rescued from Belgium, or paying Livingston, the straight-out-of-Peoria-Central fourth pick, unlimited potential, underachiever. It is very likely that they won't be able to pay both of them market-value and remain under the luxury tax threshold.