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The Changing of the Guards

As we project forward to next season, it almost goes without saying that the Clippers need help in the backcourt.  With Elton Brand, Chris Kaman and Al Thornton almost certain to be with the team, and leading scorer Corey Maggette also a possibility, it's entirely possible that the Clippers four best players will all be in the front court.  With Tim Thomas filling a role, Josh Powell signed and Nick Fazekas a pleasant late-season addition, the Clippers are deep in quality bigs.

The story is quite the opposite in the backcourt.  It's easy enough to say that the Clippers received sup-par guard play this season.  But it's actually pretty astounding just how bad it was.

Among the players who finished the season on the Clippers roster, five of them started in the backcourt at least once.  (Maggette got one start at shooting guard as well.)  Those five 'starting' guards were:

  • Quinton Ross - 39.1% shooting:  7.72 PER: 44 starts.  Among shooting guards in the NBA who took at least 300 shots, only 5 shot a lower percentage.  And the position is called shooting guard for a reason - many, if not most, will make a number of three pointers on the season.  Ross made 9 - raising his effective field goal (eFG) percentage to 40.4%.  That ties him for last place in the NBA in eFG among NBA shooting guards with at least 300 attempts.
  • Brevin Knight - 11.4 PER (career low); 40.4% shooting; 39 starts.  Among starting NBA point guards, only Sebastian Telfair, Rafer Alston and Jason Kidd shot worse.  But wait, there's more.  Brevin Knight has no three point range - he made zero threes this season, a significant liability in a point guard.  His adjusted field goal percentage (an easy to re-calculate 40.4% when you factor in zero three pointers) is the worst among starting point guards, the worst among point guards who took 300 or more shots... the worst.  Period.
  • Dan Dickau - 12.5 PER; 41.9% shooting; 33.3% 3FG; 48% eFG; 8 starts.  Respectable offensive numbers, especially when compared to the others on this list.  Unfortunately, PER has no real way of accounting for defense.  It is of course difficult to measure, but it's not difficult to say that Dickau is a problem on defense.  Put it this way: Ross' defense is theoretically supposed to compensate for his offense, but 39% shooting is a lot to overcome.  On the other end of the spectrum, a 12.5 PER is not nearly enough to make up for Dickau's time on the floor.  Still, he was probably the best point guard among the players on the roster at the end of the season.  Which is truly sad.
  • Smush Parker - 7.6 PER; 36.2% shooting; 22.2% 3FG; 40.8% eFG; 2 starts.  Brevin Knight's shooting numbers look really bad, until you see Smush's.  Sure, he raised his eFG a little by taking a LOT of threes (41% of his attempts as a Clipper were from beyond the arc).  But he made only 22% of those.  The net effect is a guy who had trouble making shots, was even worse from distance, and still jacked the ball up there.  Per 36 minutes, Smush took 11.4 shots as a Clipper.  That's 4 more than Knight.  In his defense, Smush clearly was affected by his forced vacation - in his first 12 games as a Clipper, he shot under 30%.  In his last 7, he shot better than 46%.  But he was not good.
  • Cat Mobley - 11.5 PER (career low); 43.3%; 34.9% 3FG; 47.2% eFG; 38 starts.  The indisputable star of Clipper backcourt players, it's a little like being the smartest player on the Nuggets - the competition just isn't that fierce.  So while Mobley's shooting percentages look positively stellar compared to the other guards on the Clippers' roster, they're still pretty anemic compared to the rest of the league.  Among qualified shooting guards, he's 23rd out of 30 in shooting percentage - 27th out of 30 in eFG%.

Individually, those are some unimpressive guards.  In aggregate, they're downright depressing.

The ostensible starters, Brevin Knight with 39 starts at point guard and Quinton Ross with 44 starts at shooting guard, were literally the worst shooters at their positions in the NBA this season when you exclude guys who just don't play.  The superstar of the group, Cuttino Mobley, had easily his worst season in the NBA, and it's fair to question, at the age of 32, what he's got left in the tank.  On a team absolutely desperate for scoring, he managed just 12.8 points per game - his lowest scoring average since he was a rookie.  The fact that he will make over $9M next season, the third highest paid Clipper, makes his relatively feeble production even harder to take.   Meanwhile, Dan Dickau and Smush Parker really shouldn't be better than third string in any reasonable NBA universe - and Knight has already spoken for that spot.

So it's pretty obvious what the problem is.  The real question is what can be done about it.  A thorough housecleaning is in order.  Three of the five guards on the roster - Ross, Dickau and Parker - are free agents.  So one hopes that more effective replacements can be found.  Knight is signed for one more season for $2M, and Mobley for two more at close to $19M.  So neither is particularly tradeable - Knight because no one really wants him, and Mobley because no one wants his contract.  Nonetheless, Knight is still a serviceable NBA one, and there is certainly room for him on a roster carrying three point guards.  And Mobley would seem to be more than capable as the 4th or 5th scorer on a frontcourt dominated team.  If we assume Livingston will be back, that means there are probably three open roster spots for guards for next season.

Ideally of course, the Clippers would acquire starter quality players without giving up anything to get them.  But that's not going to happen.  Realistically, they need to be targeting at least two players, one at each guard position, who can be the primary backup or maybe even the starter, and some other bodies to provide depth who hopefully have enough upside that they could be pleasant surprises.

One player will come from the draft.  But all of the likely suspects, even if the Clippers were to win the lottery and select Derrick Rose, are 19 year olds (Rose, OJ Mayo, Jerryd Bayless, Eric Gordon).  It would be a lot to ask any of them to start from day one, but hopefully any one of them can be a solid contributor, particularly by season's end.

One player could come via free agency - the Clippers have their mid-level exception to use.  Unfortunately, the pickings are pretty slim.  The good guards are mostly restricted free agents (Monta Ellis, Ben Gordon, Jose Calderon) and would definitely command more than the MLE at any rate.  Would you take a chance on JR Smith?  On CJ Miles?  Beno Udrih is unlikely to make more than the MLE after being waived by Minnesota and playing this season for the minimum - so you could make him an offer.  But he's likely going to get the same offer or a better one to stay with the Kings.  Realistically, even the full MLE is unlikely to yield more than a player to add a little depth at the position.

That leaves trades, and more specifically, sign and trades.  Given the relative embarrassment of riches in the Clippers' front court, it would seem to make sense to trade a forward (say, Corey Maggette) for an impact guard.  It still won't be easy.  There happen to be a couple of big name guards out there with opt outs and LA roots (Gilbert Arenas and Baron Davis), but the price would be steep for either one.  A re-signed Maggette could be the main piece in making the cap math work, but the Clippers would still need to put in more, and besides, it seems highly unlikely that Washington or Golden State is going to participate in such a deal without a lot more incentive than that.  They're going to want Kaman instead of Maggette.  They're going to want Thornton.  They're going to want the lottery pick.  Do you do that deal?  A more likely trade target might be TJ Ford, who is making $8M to back up Calderon in Toronto.  When the Raptors have to pony up $10M to keep Jose, it seems unlikely that they're going to want that much money wrapped up in one position.  But Ford may be too much like the unpleasant present for the Clippers - small (like Knight and Dickau), injury prone (like Livingston) and not a particularly good shooter (like, well, everybody).

Of course there are myriad other possibilities.  Less ambitious trades with teams that have guards stockpiled (like Memphis or Portland).  Long shot free agents that can be signed on the cheap (Salim Stoudamire, Gerald Green).  Guys playing in Europe.  The second round of the draft (the Clippers will have the 35th pick overall).

Even if it's unclear where they will come from, what's clear is that the Clippers need to add at least two, and hopefully three quality guards this off-season.  If they don't achieve a pretty significant upgrade in the backcourt, it will matter little how good their frontcourt is.