It makes it SO much more interesting for ClipsNation!
Like Del Griffith, the Clippers spent the last quarter of the season without a point. Surprisingly, they also played their most consistently non-pathetic basketball during that time, but that's another story. For now, suffice it to say that at no time during the season did the Clippers have Corey Maggette starting, a sense of purpose, and a healthy NBA point guard. They had two of the three the final 20 games, and they played marginally better. If they had had all three for any significant amount of time (seemingly not a lot to ask, by the way) it would have been a very different season.
But the subject of today's post is the point guard situation. And a tricky situation it is, too. After Livingston's injury and the Jason Hart signing, I ran a poll on ClipsNation asking who you thought would start the most games at the point for the Clippers in the 2007-2008 season. With five point guards on the payroll at the end of the season (Sam Cassell, Livingston, Daniel Ewing, Hart and Will Conroy) and two of them signed for next season (Cassell and Livingston) it is very telling that the leading vote getter (by a pretty wide margin) was 'Other'. But the question remains - who is this 'other' you're talking about?
You should also check out Kevin's take on the situation from back in early March on ClipperBlog. FYI, DJ Augustine is returning to Texas for at least one more season.
Let's look at the candidates. We'll start with those players that are more or less in the Clipper fold.
- Cassell - He's signed for next season, and he has all of his own ligaments; the only Clipper point guard who can make both of those claims. The bad news is that he'll be 38 in November and his body broke down like he was 37 over the course of this season. It's almost MORE disconcerting that he did not have a single major injury. Just a series of dings that limited him to 58 games, and just over 24 minutes per game. (In 29 games after the All Star Break, he had 13 DNP's and 4 other games where he played fewer than 10 minutes. It is also telling to note that in the 6 games where he scored in double figures, the Clippers were 5-1.) The problem is, those minor injuries (ankles, pulled muscles, back spasms) occur frequently in 38 year old bodies, and take a long time to heal. The one bit of good news I can find about Cassell is this: if you look at his final season in Minnesota, it looks almost identical to his 2006-2007 season. He missed 23 games then (24 now), played 25.8 minutes per then (24.3 now), and scored 13.5 then (12.3 now). Everyone believed then, a few days shy of his 36th birthday, that there was no way he'd be able to play big minutes for the Clippers. But the guy loves playing basketball, and loves proving people wrong. He'll be back in Houston working out with John Lucas Sr. this summer, and I'm sure he plans to bounce back from his injury-plagued season with a strong and healthy year, just as he did two seasons ago. It remains to be seen if he can replicate that comeback at the age of 38.
- Livingston - Who knows? The news (on the surgery, on the recovery so far) is as good as it can be. But it's way too early to know what will happen. If you take out your calendar, and use the most optimistic estimate I've heard for his recovery (8 months), that's basically the beginning of next season. Weird. 12 months has him playing after the All Star Break. 14 months means he misses the entire season. And of course he may never play again, or he may not be the same player. Way too many questions. Unfortunately, his 6'7" shadow also looms over any decision the Clippers make at the point.
- Hart - Without question a godsend for the Clippers this season, he remains at best an NBA backup. Although he had stretches where he shot the ball adequately, he finished the season shooting 43.8% as a Clipper (he is who he is; his career average of 43.9%). And it's not like anyone is asking him to make tough shots - as a Clipper, his job was to make open jump shots. Everyone's favorite offensive liability, Quinton Ross, shot 46.7% this season. What does that make Hart? On the plus side, he plays solid defense, and appeared to pick up the offense quickly. But he's not breaking anybody down off the dribble and he's not making enough jump shots. There are dozens of these guys kicking around the league - career backup point guards who bounce from team to team. Usually, they can either shoot or play defense - if they could do both, they wouldn't be backups. It's not surprising that MDsr would opt for a defender here, and I have no doubt that he likes Hart and will have him back next season. But he's a stop gap at best - a second or even third stringer. (Let me re-emphasize how important he was for the Clippers; finding a player who was a reasonable facsimile of a second string NBA point guard in March gave them a chance down the stretch. But this team is going nowhere with Jason Hart starting at the one.)
- Ewing - For the last several drafts, the Clippers have picked a guard in the second round. Three years ago it was Lionel Chalmers. Last year it was Guillermo Diaz. In between, it was Daniel Ewing. Ewing is NOT a point guard; he's a shooting guard, but at 6'3" (generous), he's too small to play the 2 in the NBA. In a time-honored NBA ritual, the Clippers tried to develop this tweener into a point guard. It didn't work, mainly because he can't dribble. With 9 players carrying guaranteed contracts for 2007-2008 and the no-brainer option on Quinton Ross, the Clippers will give up on this failed experiment; Ewing will not be back.
- Diaz - While we're on the subject, Diaz is the latest 2-to-1 Clipper draft pick. The Clippers decided not to sign him last season, recommending that he play in Europe to gain more experience (a recommendation they should have given to Yaroslav Korolev as well, but that's another story). After leading his team to a 15-1 start in the Czech League, Diaz quit and returned home on January 7, unable to adjust to life in Eastern Europe. He played some point guard in Europe, and supposedly did a good job. But the Clippers plan for him to gain experience may have backfired, as he has not played organized basketball since January. He'll probably be on the Clippers summer league squad in Las Vegas, so we'll know more then.
- Conroy - In extremely limited minutes this season, Conroy showed defensive intensity and the ability to distribute on offense (he had 6 assists in 17 minutes against Indiana on March 3). However, to say that he looked limited as a scorer would be generous - he has yet to score a single point in the NBA, missing three shots from the field and 4 free throws (two of them in the fourth quarter of the final game against the Hornets). The bottom line is, Will Conroy is like about 30 other guys out there - players in the NBDL or Europe who might be able to help an NBA team some day, but if you're counting on them right now, you're in pretty big trouble.
So where else might we find a starting point guard?
- Billups - My initial reaction is to dismiss Mr. Big Shot as unrealistic, as Kevin did in March. The Pistons can offer him $10M and remain under the luxury tax threshold, and the Clippers are over the cap so can't offer him that. However, in many ways Billups is EXACTLY the player the Clippers need - an experienced point guard with range who is willing and able to take big shots (hence the sobriquet). Could the Clippers entice Billups (and the Pistons) with a sign and trade, in the $12M per range? Any trade package would start with Cassell, which might be of interest simply because he's in the final year of his deal. But I'm hard-pressed to come up with an offer that Joe Dumars would even look at, even if the Clippers also take back Nazr Mohammed. Cassell and Mobley for Billups and Mohammed? Other than saving some money, why would Dumars do it? Forget Billups.
- Bucks guards - Mo Williams, Earl Boykins and Charlie Bell might all be free agents this summer (Williams is unrestricted, Bell restricted and Boykins has a player option). After averaging 17 points and 6 assists as the starter this season, the Bucks will probably re-sign Williams for more than the mid-level, which is all the Clippers have to offer. And I love Earl, but he's a major problem as a starter, especially the way MDsr likes to switch screens on the perimeter. Bell is pretty intriguing - although he's another tweener, he played the point pretty effectively for the Bucks when TJ Ford was hurt two seasons ago. And he can shoot the ball, which the Clippers need. It's hard to imagine that the Bucks are going to try to keep all three of these guys. Bell could probably be had pretty cheaply - say around the $3M per level.
- Others - Chucky Atkins? Smush Parker? Jeff McInnis? Really? There are lots and lots and lots of free agent point guards out there. The question is, are any of them better than Jason Hart? Maybe Brevin Knight is of interest (although the Bobcats have an option on him and he has some salary protection). Maybe Mike Wilks. Maybe Steve Blake. It's pretty ugly, really. Travis Diener has never really gotten a chance in Orlando with Jameer Nelson and Carlos Arroyo ahead of him on the depth chart. In many ways, I'd much rather take a flyer on an unknown quantity like Diener (who tore up the summer league last summer) than muddle through with Hart. But the pickins is slim.
This is a deep, deep draft, although not at the point guard position. (In fact, if the Clippers did move up, they would definitely NOT take a point.) This may actually work in the Clippers' favor to some extent. They won't get a guaranteed star by any means, but with the 14th pick they will have a shot at some of the best point guards coming out. All indications are that Mike Conley will be off the board in the top 10. But Acie Law could well be available. If Law is not there, Javaris Crittendon from Georgia Tech is considered the next best. But at 19 years old, 6'5" and 180, the similarities to Livingston are a little disconcerting.
Picking in the middle of the second round, the Clippers can certainly take a flyer on a point guard (again). Gabe Pruitt of USC, Dominic James of Marquette, Taurean Green of Florida, Aaron Brooks of Oregon and Mustafa Shakur of Arizona are among the names that could well be available.
The odds that the Clippers can find a player that will be able to play significant minutes as a rookie NBA point guard are not good. Acie Law, a 22 year old college senior, fits the bill the best. If he's available at 14, I'd be shocked if the Clippers passed on him. However, this is an area where Livingston's situation looms large. Do you spend a lottery pick in a deep draft on a point guard when you're still planning (hoping?) that Livingston is the point guard of the future? The answer is yes, you do. The worst thing that happens is that they both turn into legit NBA point guards, and that ain't a bad thing. If Law is gone and you're down to Crittendon, it's a tough call. At 19, he's probably not ready, but if you're drafting for need, you need him NOW. If a guy like Chase Buddinger is available there, he would be hard to pass up.
Other known point guards that would probably be available include Mike James and Marko Jaric of the rebuilding Timberwolves. And Earl Watson is pretty much always on the trading block. But, the Clippers have a big problem in trying to pull off any trade this summer - they don't really have anything that anybody wants (with the possible exception of Quinton Ross, whom the Clippers would like to keep.)
So where does all of this leave the Clippers? In a word, screwed. Tossing out any miracle Livingston recovery scenarios, the best case is that you draft Acie Law, bring Diaz in from the cold, and put a couple of other youngsters on the court in Vegas this summer and see what happens. But with 10 contracts, plus the first rounder, plus MBFGC and Diaz to consider, guaranteed contracts are not something the Clippers are going to be tossing around lightly. If you offer Hart a guaranteed contract as your insurance policy, you're already getting dangerously close to the roster limit. Ick. And a guy like Diener is not going to accept an invitation to try to make the squad - he's looking for guaranteed money. As it happens, given the Clippers other glaring need for a shooter, Diener might actually be a two-bird guy, but that's another post.
Continuing the best case, you hope that Cassell can bounce back and have a strong season and that Law is ready for the show (maybe Ralph can even come up with a new postulate relating to him, and it would be called Lawler's Law Law). You sign Hart as the fall back, and Diaz as a combo guard, and cross your fingers.
In all likelihood, Hart (aka Rick Brunson Jr) ends up starting more games at the point than any one else, and it's a long, long season.