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A Clipper a Day - Quinton Ross

Since I am doing my 'Clipper a Day' series in no particular order, I can be opportunistic about what I write.  In today's OC Register, Art Thompson III covers Ross' off-season work to expand his shooting range (a subject I've discussed in the past), so I thought today would be a good day to post about Q.

Q is the Clippers best defender against Agent Zero and the like
Quinton Ross
                                           © Henry Chen, all rights reserved
Quinton Ross is entering his fourth season with the Clippers.  He went undrafted in the 2003 draft after starring in college at SMU.  He was a training camp invitee in 2003, where he impressed the coaching staff.  He almost made the team that year, but instead was MDsr's last cut.  He spent the season playing in Belgium, after which he got invited back to the Clippers camp in 2004, this time making the team.  He was not expected to play much, or even be on the active roster that season, but a lack of depth at shooting guard was compounded by injuries to Kerry Kittles (out 71 games), Marko Jaric (out 32), Corey Maggette (out 16) and Bobby Simmons (out 7), and forced Q into the rotation.  He appeared in 78 games and started 19 in that, his rookie season, averaging a little over 5 points per game.  He has certainly been a pleasant surprise - a terrific find of an NBA caliber player who was bypassed in the draft.

Speaking of the draft and Quinton Ross, our recent discussions of John Hollinger are semi-relevant here.  As part of his analysis of college players in each of the last 5 drafts prior to this year, Hollinger ends up rating Q as the 19th best collegian from the 2003 draft, for what it's worth.

During his rookie NBA season, Ross began building his reputation as a terrific on-ball defender.  In his second season, during the Clippers watershed 2005-2006 campaign, that reputation grew.  Ross played in 67 games and started 45 in 05-06.  (He was limited to 67 games and also somewhat limited in minutes by recurring back spasms that season.)  He started every playoff game for the team, drawing defensive assignments against Carmelo Anthony and Steve Nash.  Fair weather Clipper fan Bill Simmons described him as Bruce Bowen 2.0, and he was a particular darling of MDsr who once called Q's defensive rotations in the Denver series 'nearly perfect.'  Certainly there's a 'homer' element to superlative descriptions of Q's defense - as we've discussed at length, evaluating good defense is difficult and subjective - so I was particularly impressed when Warriors color analyst Dick Barnett described Q as the best defender in the NBA at staying in front of his man.  Make no mistake - Quinton Ross is a very good defender.  

Of course all of this put Q smack dab in the center of a controversy for the team.  Ross became the starter when Corey Maggette was injured in the 17th game of the 05-06 season.  When Maggette returned to full health, the team was playing well and MDsr decided to bring Maggette off the bench.  The Clippers domination of Denver followed by their near upset of Phoenix in the playoffs got the coach and others fixated on the lineup.  The high hopes of 06-07 were in part dashed by the horrible chemistry created with Maggette coming off the bench.

There is no definitive answer for the age-old offense versus defense trade-off in the NBA.  No one is going to argue that Corey Maggette is a better defender than Quinton Ross, nor is anyone going to argue that Ross is a better scorer than Maggette, but you can't have it both ways.  (Here's where I'll insert the obligatory "although Ross did average over 20 points per game at SMU as a senior.")  Of course the debate should involve Cat Mobley as well - Cat offered to come off the bench last season and has made the offer this season again.  But as much as MDsr loves Quinton Ross, he loves his Blanket even more.  Cat has been second on the team in minutes (behind only Brand and far ahead of Maggette) since he became a Clipper.

Entering the 06-07 season, coming off significant playoff success, the Ross experiment made a certain amount of sense.  Elton Brand had just averaged close to 25 points per game.  Kaman, Cassell and Mobley were (on paper) legitimate scoring threats.  Sticking Ross, a glue guy and strong defender, on the floor in the starting lineup wasn't a stretch.  There seemed to be plenty of offense with the other four.  Why not start your best perimeter defender?  The fact that he doesn't need (or want) the ball on offense was almost a good thing with 4 other capable scorers out there.  Unfortunately, for whatever reason, it didn't work.  The team underachieved all season, and only began playing focused basketball after Maggette was re-inserted into the starting lineup after the All Star break.  Unfortunately, the Clippers played the end of the season with Jason Hart at the point due to injuries to Livingston and Cassell, and although the team played much better, they fell just short of the playoffs.

Entering 07-08, the situation is just as cloudy, but arguably less favorable for Ross.  With Elton Brand sidelined, the Clippers will have significantly more trouble scoring (and it wasn't that easy last year).  Can they afford to start a player that is widely regarded as an offensive liability?  There are some factors working in Q's favor however.  For one, he's one of only two proven shooting guards on the roster (along with Mobley), although Maggette will certainly get minutes at that position this season.  For another, with Shaun Livingston injured, the Clippers' crew of perimeter defenders is that much thinner.  Brevin Knight will draw the quick point guards when he's on the floor, but Ross is the only other player on the Clippers roster remotely capable of staying in front of Tony Parker or Steve Nash or Allen Iverson.  

If Ross were able to develop his offensive game more, it would be a big plus.  At the beginning of last season, it looked like he was turning a corner on offense.  He scored in double figures 8 times out of 14 games in the month of November and was shooting well over 50%.  Unfortunately, he only scored in double figures 9 more times the rest of the season, and ended up at 46.7% shooting - easily the best shooting percentage of his career, but a significant drop off after his hot start.  More significantly, his scoring average dropped back down to 5.2 points per game for the season - barely different than his career 5 point average and not nearly enough at any rate.

If he were actually able to develop a reliable three point shot it would totally change the equation.  After all, Bruce Bowen has started and played a significant role for the champion Spurs with fewer offensive skills than Q, save for his ability to make three pointers.  Before you dismiss the idea as unrealistic, let me throw a couple things at you.  

  • Quinton Ross made 170 of 513 three pointers (33%) as a collegian.  Sure the line is shorter, but shooters in college are usually shooters in the pros.  Besides, the corner three (Bowen's bread and butter) is basically the same distance as the college three.  

  • Michael Cooper of the Lakers Showtime era made a total of 16 threes his first 5 seasons in the NBA.  He then turned himself into one of the best three point shooters in the league, making 89 of 231 in 86-87, second to Larry Bird in threes made.
So it can be done, and in fact many of the best wing defensive stoppers have done exactly that to be able to remain on the court.

Unfortunately, the experiment is not going well thus far.  In four pre-season games, Ross has yet to have a decent game on offense and has had two real clunkers (2 for 9 against Portland and 1 for 6 against Phoenix).  He is 6 for 21 overall, and 0 for 3 on three pointers.  Still, I like the idea a lot.  One of the more interesting trends I noticed last year was that teams who took more threes tended to win, whether they made a high percentage or not.  I've made it clear that I think the Clippers should spread the floor and shoot the ball more - ideally they'd sign the shooters to allow them to do it, but I'd like to see them shoot more threes even with the personnel they have, and that includes Quinton Ross.

This is going to be a very interesting year for Quinton Ross.  For the past 2 seasons, his floor time has come almost exclusively at the expense of Corey Maggette, but Maggette will clearly be needed to play big minutes as the number one option on offense until Brand returns.  How will MDsr distribute minutes at the shooting guard, between the two players widely perceived as his pets, Blanket and Q, while also keeping Corey on the floor?  Can Q prove himself to be a capable scorer at the NBA level?  It will be very difficult to find him minutes if the defense is allowed to ignore him.  And all of this is occurring in a contract year.  Ross will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season.  For four seasons, he has been one of the best bargains in the NBA: a rotation player and some time starter playing for the NBA minimum.   In fact, I defy you to find another NBA player who fits that description over four seasons.  Obviously he won't re-sign for $800K.  But between there and the mid-level exception (the magic number that any team in the league looking for a proven wing defender could conceivably offer him) is a big gap.  We know he can play defense and the Clippers will want to keep him going forward for that alone.  If he can become a legitimate threat on offense, he can increase his value to the team, and to himself.