So far in our Clipper a Day series, we've covered three guys who could be free agents at the end of the season - Elton Brand, Quinton Ross and Shaun Livingston. Let's keep going with these contract year issues by focusing on Sam Cassell today.
Sam was the 5th oldest player in the league last season. Uncle Cliffie Robinson is retired, Gary Payton and P.J. Brown remained unsigned; the ageless Dikembe Mutombo is currently the only active player older than Sam-I-Am. And Sam is a point guard, not a seven foot center. Those crazy old guys attempting comebacks like Penny Hardaway and Allan Houston? Younger than Sam Cassell.
Amazingly people also seem to forget what a proven winner Sam Cassell has been throughout his career. The Clippers are his seventh team, and players who move around that much are often assumed to be malcontents or in some other way deficient. But consider this: in addition to those two rings, Sam Cassell's teams have qualified for the playoffs in 10 of his 15 years in the league and 9 of 13 full seasons he's played with a team. The four seasons he missed the playoffs his teams were 41-41, 41-41, 44-38 and 40-42 and in the hunt until the end. More importantly, he immediately led four separate franchises to significantly improved results directly after his arrival. In New Jersey, he joined a 26 win team at the trade deadline. The next season, Sam's only full season with the Nets, they won 43 games and made the playoffs. In Milwaukee, he joined a team that had not won a playoff series in a decade, and in his second full season led them to within a game of the NBA finals. In Minnesota he joined a team that had never, in its history, been out of the first round of the playoffs, and led them to the conference finals. And in his first season with the Clippers, he repeated the feat, leading the team to it's first ever playoff series win in its west coast history. (Find another player who has led two different teams to their first EVER playoff series wins in his first season. I dare you.) Ever notice how teams get better after Stephon Marbury leaves? Cassell is the anti-Marbury.
Unfortunately for Sam, both on court recognition and monetary rewards have lagged behind his peers. He's made only one all star team, the same year he was selected to his only All NBA team (he made the second team in 03-04). The richest contract he signed in his 15 year career was for 6/$21M - he also signed an extension for 3/$18M. Meanwhile, the same summer he signed for $21M, Travis Knight signed a $22M contract with the Lakers and Bryant Reeves signed a $65M contract with the Grizz. In his career, he has been traded for hall of famer Charles Barkley, future hall of famer Jason Kidd, all star Marbury, first overall pick Joe Smith and second overall pick Shawn Bradley. Why is he always the other guy in these trades? Why is Marbury, who makes teams worse, paid the maximum while Cassell barely makes more than the mid level exception? Why indeed. (The Marbury comparison is just too compelling. They've even played for some of the same teams, and Cassell has always had better results.)
Still, the real question is, what can the Clippers expect from Sam Cassell this season? He will turn 38 in less than a month on Nov. 18th. He had numerous injuries last season that limited his court time and his effectiveness. And although his game is not based on quickness and athleticism, 38 is 38, and injuries take longer to heal at his age, if in fact they ever heal at all.
He says he feels great, and in his first pre-season action he went out and scored 16 first quarter points as if to prove the point. He has never shied away from taking big shots, so don't expect that to change. In fact, that is perhaps the biggest thing he brought to the Clippers in his first season, the thing the Clippers have always lacked - a clutch scorer who can win close basketball games down the stretch. In an 82 game NBA season, those three or four close games that can go either way may make the difference between making the playoffs and getting the dreaded 14th lottery pick. If he is physically able (which he was not last season), he'll be on the floor in the fourth quarter of close games, trying to close out wins, and probably succeeding. As I said last week, underestimate Sam Cassell at your own risk.
What happens next for Sam Cassell? Well, it's pretty certain this will be his final season as a Clipper, if not his final season in the league. If the Clippers get good news in the spring and Shaun Livingston makes a strong recovery, then they won't need Sam Cassell going forward. If the Clippers get bad news and Livingston is a write off, then they'll need him even less, since it will be time to start over at the point. Sam says he has one more season in him, and I tend to believe him as long as his body holds up. But I don't expect it to be in LA.
In fact, it's not unlikely that Sam Cassell will finish this season with another team. A proven veteran point guard, particularly one in the final year of his contract, will be incredibly interesting to playoff hopefuls. Teams like Cleveland and Boston, who are likely going to be relying on a combination of journeymen, converted shooting guards and unproven young players to run the point, will be lining up to get Sam Cassell for a deep playoff run. If the Clippers find themselves in a big hole with no hope for the playoffs themselves, Sam will be gone for the best offer of picks or prospects before the trade deadline.
And don't be surprised if he leads his new team to new levels of success. It's what he does.