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A Good Problem to Have - Who Starts for the Clippers? Part 1

Other than the backcourt of Baron Davis and Eric Gordon, there are no givens in the starting lineup for the Clippers on opening day this season.  Coach Mike Dunleavy Sr. went into camp viewing it as a competition, which can certainly be a good thing.  Starting jobs should not be hereditary - players need to get pushed in practice, and if there is a real chance that they're going to lose that spot in the lineup, they're not going to get complacent.

CMDsr took the safe (and prudent and reasonable) approach of establishing his training camp starting lineup by default - the starters at the end of last season (recognizing that in fact one guy in the mix, Zach Randolph, was already gone) would remain the starters until further notice.  Meaning that Al Thornton, Marcus Camby and Chris Kaman would join Gordon and Davis in the first unit. 

But from the moment Blake Griffin was drafted and the team traded for Rasual Butler, it's been obvious that those players deserve serious consideration as starters.  Griffin, after all, is the first overall pick in the draft and has more than lived up to the honor thus far.  Meanwhile, Butler was a full time starter in New Orleans last season for a playoff team.  So even while declaring Thornton, Camby and Kaman the starters, everyone knew that MDsr had two decisions to make:

  1. Do you start Thornton or Butler at small forward?
  2. Of Griffin, Camby and Kaman, which one comes off the bench?

Have we learned anything definitive about the situation since camp opened?  Well, it's hard to say.  In the pre-season games, when they've been healthy, the ostensible 'starters' have indeed started more often than not.  But some minor injuries have forced the coach's hand in a few instances.  Baron, Kaman and Gordon have been 100%, and have started six of the seven pre-season games each, like God almighty resting on the seventh.  But injuries to Marcus Camby have limited him to two games (actually one of the games he missed he was healthy, but MDsr gave him the night off), and Thornton has missed the last two with a stinger.  Over the seven games, Thornton has started three and Butler has started four - and just to muddy the waters further, in one game they started together.

Bear in mind that MDsr has more of a penchant to play the matchup game than most NBA coaches.  He relished his versatile 2006 playoff team (and into 2007), and frequently tweaked the starting lineup even when his players were healthy.  Kaman would come off the bench against the Suns and Warriors.  Livingston would get the start against some teams, Cassell against others.  (We'll leave the Ross/Maggette issue for a little later.)   And when he was discussing the current situation with reporters a couple weeks ago, he raised the possibility of having situational starters, citing his versatilve 98-99 Blazers team as another example when he has done that in the past.  But let's hope he keeps the situational stuff to a minimum, and specific matchups aside the question remains - who are the starters against the bulk of the opponents?

Thornton or Butler?

The answer is Butler.  I'm not saying anything I haven't said before.  Al Thornton's best asset on the basketball court is his ability to get a shot.  He has a terrific first step, crazy athleticism, good quickness, good size, a variety of shots and decent range.  But he is primarily a slasher, doesn't do a great job of spacing the floor, and most relevant of all, he needs the ball in his hands to be effective.  In a starting unit featuring Baron Davis and Eric Gordon on the perimeter, you absolutely prefer the ball in their hands.  More importantly, the Clippers, no matter who starts up front, will certainly want to work inside out with strong post play from either Kaman or Griffin.  Floor spacing is crucial to success in the post.  The net effect is that in the starting unit, Al would likely be the fourth or even fifth option on offense.  When you're a scorer, but you're the fourth option, it's just not a good fit.

Butler is a better long range shooter, a better catch-and-shoot shooter, better at spacing the floor, and better at moving the ball.  He is able to get his points without stopping the ball on offense.  He's also a better defender than Thornton, particularly on help defense.  Butler is far from perfect.  Thornton is bigger, and against big threes (think LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony or Ron Artest) Butler would be at a major physical disadvantage.  (Remember, Butler started at guard for the Hornets.)  Along those same lines, Butler is a poor rebounder - even worse than Thornton, and Al's not good for a forward.  And Butler certainly doesn't have the scoring repertoire that Thornton does.

But of course we're not talking about an all or nothing situation here.  Both of these guys are going to play big minutes for the Clippers this season.  It's worth noting that Thornton led the Clippers in minutes per game last season - by a pretty wide margin.  He won't lead them in minutes this year, but he'll play plenty, whether he starts or comes off the bench.

In many ways, Thornton is the prototypical "scorer off the bench".  Think Vinnie Johnson on Detroit's Bad Boy teams in the 80s.  They called him the "Microwave" because he heated up in a hurry, and his job was to come in the game and shoot.  Playing with a more offensively challenged second unit (for instance Telfair, Butler, Smith and Camby or something similar) suddenly Al is your go to scorer on the perimeter.  Bassy pushes the tempo, if the break's not there you look for Smith in the post, if that's not working, what do you do?  Give the ball to Al and let him go to work.  Suddenly Al Thornton makes sense. 

And it's pretty clear that MDsr is predisposed to this type of paradigm.  The situation in 2006 with Corey Maggette and Quinton Ross was a horribly failed experiment in "start with defense, bring scoring off the bench."  If he chose to start Ross over Maggette then, it's pretty obvious what he's going to do now.  Because Ross, for all his defensive chops, was a horribly limited offensive player who essentially doomed the Clippers to trying to score against an extra defender when he was on the floor.  And Maggette, for all his ball stopping, was an extremely efficient scorer.  If Butler/Thornton is Ross/Maggette in broad strokes (offense versus defense, scoring off the bench), the specifics all point to a much easier decision in 2009.  To wit, Butler is a vastly superior player to Ross, and Thornton has the same usage rate as Maggette, without the efficiency.  Ergo, if Ross started over Maggette, it follows that Butler will start over Thornton.

There's another reason that the Butler/Thornton situation is more clear cut than Ross/Maggette, at least to me.  In 2006, when Ross replaced Maggette in the starting lineup (while Corey was injured), Ross was a 24 year old in his second season in the league, and Maggette was a six year veteran, who'd been a full time starter for over four seasons, and was coming off a season where he averaged 22 points per game.  I'm saying, there are egos involved, and regardless of whose fault it was, clearly Maggette's bruised psyche was at least partially responsible for the Clippers underperforming in 06-07.  If indeed Al Thornton loses his starting job to a new guy (and let's face it, to Al it will almost certainly be a loss), I hope that it is handled well.  Butler has more NBA experience, was a full time starter last season just like Thornton - I'm saying, it's easier to make the case this time around.  Imagine Maggette's response back in 2006.   "Let me get this straight.  I've been injured, and now I'm healthy, and you're telling me I lost my starting job to that guy?  He can't even shoot."  Al Thornton is by all accounts a great guy, a hard worker, and a great teammate.  He's likely already feeling a bit like a forgotten man with all of the hype surrounding Blake Superior, and Griffin, Gordon and Jordan being actively discussed as the building blocks of the future.  Let's hope, if indeed this conversation happens, that it is handled well.

By the way, I don't have any inside information on this.  There is no official decision as of yet, as far as I know.  It's just what I think is going to happen.  It may or may not happen on opening night.  Against Artest and the Lakers, that's actually one of those situational games where you may want Thornton as the stronger three man.  But over the course of the season, I expect Butler to start more games than Thornton.  By the way, it wouldn't surprise me at all if Thornton ended up averaging more minutes.  But I think Butler will be the ostensible starter.

Tomorrow - Griffin, Camby, Kaman - who comes off the bench?