As I mentioned last Thursday in Part 1 of this effort, other than the backcourt of Baron Davis and Eric Gordon, there are no givens in the starting lineup for the Clippers this season. The de facto starters going into training camp were Davis and Gordon, with Al Thornton, Marcus Camby and Chris Kaman up front. But two new-comers to the team, first overall pick Blake Griffin and former Hornet starter Rasual Butler, deserve serious consideration in the first unit.
Thursday we focused on the issue of Thornton versus Butler at the starting small forward, with Butler winning my endorsement (for what that's worth). Today let's tackle the big issue (the bigs issue).
From the moment the Clippers won the lottery in May, knowing who the number one pick would be and what position he played, it was obvious that the Clippers had a glut of bigs, players best suited to play power forward and/or center. When the team was able to trade away Zach Randolph, it alleviated some of that pressure - instead of having four starting-caliber players at two positions, now they had three. But it turns out, three is still greater than two, so there's still a question here.
Let's take a step back and look at whether it's actually a problem - is it, as the title of the post suggests, a good problem to have, or is it really no problem at all? Clips Nation has some experience with the issue in general, as it existed in the same form (three starters for the two big spots on the floor) from the time of the November trade for Zach Randolph last season.
On the surface, it's simple enough to say, hey, it's no problem. After all, why wouldn't you want as many quality players as possible, at every position? If you're bringing a starter-quality player off the bench, clearly that's an indication of strength, at least at that position. But the reality in most cases is a little different.
For one thing, the NBA salary cap encourages teams to get value out of their players across the board in order to be successful. In that sense, perhaps it's not the the label 'starter' or 'starting quality' but rather 'paid like a starter' that matters most here. Camby is making about $9M (depending on incentives), Kaman is above $10M, and Randolph's contract dwarfed either of theirs. So while it's great to have a high quality big coming off the bench, it's untenable to have that much salary tied up in the same positions when salary is finite.
There are also chemistry issues. Most NBA players have egos, some bigger than others. If you take three players, all of who have spent their entire careers starting, and tell one of them that he's now coming off the bench, there's a risk of hurt feelings. You can try to manage that risk, and it's certainly possible to make it work, but there's a real chance of damaging team chemistry in that situation. Just ask Rip Hamilton or Allen Iverson if you don't believe me.
On the other hand, it's certainly nice to have that quality depth around if injuries crop up. And in fact, if enough injuries occur as they did for last season's Clippers, then the problem ceases to exist altogether. Of course, it's not much of a solution - the problem of having two many players at the same spot is simply replaced by the problem of having significant players injured. And injuries are decidedly NOT a good problem to have. So while I understand the quality depth argument, and it's obvious that any team benefits from depth to help cope with injuries, the simple fact is that if enough injuries happen, it doesn't matter how good your depth is.
So overall, yes, I think having a glut of established players and one or two positions, particularly if they are highly paid and potentially attached to the idea of starting, is indeed a problem, if a relatively good problem in the overall scheme of things.
And this is where the Clippers find themselves. Chris Kaman is beginning his seventh season in the NBA, and he has started 334 out of 385 games in his NBA career, close to 87%. Marcus Camby is in his 14th season, and he has started 604 out of 757 games as an NBA player, 80%. So it's safe to say that both of those guys think of themselves as starters. That is not to say that one of them might not happily come off the bench. Camby in particular seems like the kind of guy who is a real team player, and might be perfectly happy to come off the bench, particularly at the age of 36.
Blake Griffin is obviously just a rookie, but he also happens to be the first overall draft pick, and as 'ready' a 20 year old as you're likely to see. He demonstrated that he is fully capable of starting during the pre-season. So this is the Clippers find themselves in: of Kaman, Camby and Griffin, which one comes off the bench? For the sake of argument, let's look at the pros and cons of each possibility.
Start Kaman and Camby, bring Griffin off the bench
Last month after Media Day, I wrote this:
No one said that a starting job was waiting for, but no one has to say that. We know it's going to happen, and hopefully sooner rather than later.
I've actually re-thought that a little since then. To wit, it's quite intriguing to consider the possiblity of bringing Blake Griffin off the bench. Talk about a boost of energy when he enters the game. To be clear, I believe that Griffin should and will get more minutes per game than either Kaman or Camby this season - his versatility makes life much easier for MDsr, so I expect him to be on the floor a lot. But what if he gets more minutes, but doesn't happen to start?
One big advantage is that it's easy to handle with the personalities. Kaman and Camby get to start, Griffin, by all accounts a humble guy, gets to pay his dues and come off the bench his rookie season, even while playing major minutes. Heck, maybe there's even a 6th Man award in this idea. And I do like the idea of inserting him into the lineup 4 or 5 minutes in and watching the whole game change due to his presence. It would be pretty cool.
Everyone always references Manu Ginobilii when discussing superstar sixth men these days, but the simple fact is that Manu is a special case, and always will be. No other NBA player has remained a sixth man after an All Star selection while still in his prime. The 'old school' method was that the rookie would come into the league and come off the bench, and would keep doing so even long after it was clear that he should be starting. Does anyone seriously think that Cornbread Maxwell was better than McHale in 83-84? No, but McHale was still paying dues, and he came off the bench, and he won the sixth man award because of it. But eventually he became of big star, and guess what? He also became a starter. Likewise Detlef Schrempf came off the bench for years, and won a couple sixth man trophies for his efforts, but as his productivity increased, he became a starter. That's how it used to work. And we're talking about four year college players who didn't become full time NBA starters until they were 28 (McHale) and 30 (Schrempf). Griffin's 20.
So option one is to bring Griffin off the bench, and it has merit. Kaman and Camby played well together, however briefly, last season. And Griffin becomes the game-changer off the bench. Griffin also plays big minutes - he just doesn't get the first few.
Start Kaman and Griffin, bring Camby off the bench
Most of the summer, I've assumed that eventually this would be the decision. Camby is the oldest of the three, the most injury-prone, and the one not signed long term. He could be gone as early as the February trade deadline (or of course even earlier than that, I suppose. Wouldn't the team prefer to invest into a front court of the future or Kaman and Griffin the the starting lineup? Besides, Camby would benefit from the rest, both in terms of straight rest given his age, but also potentially in terms of avoiding injuries by keeping the wear and tear low.
This alignment has other perceived advantages as well. For one thing, Camby is a tweener. Starting Kaman and Griffin gives the Clippers a real center and a real powerforward, as opposed to a guy making the best of a position not necessarily suited for him. Also, Kaman is the best low post threat of the three of them, and it's hard to imagine MDst not having him on the floor to start the game so that he can play inside out from the opening tip.
Start Camby and Griffin, bring Kaman off the bench
I actually convinced myself that Kaman would come off the bench when we were going through this same debate last year with Kaman, Camby and Randolph. The logic for Kaman off the bench goes something like this: Coaches tend to like defense to start the game and offense off the bench if they have to choose just one, and MDsr is no exception (see Ross, Q). So assuming Griffin is just a given at power forward, Camby the shot blocker, Camby the former DPOY, is a logical choice to start over Kaman, who is a better scorer but arguably a worse defender. It also may be a factor that Camby's 36 year old body might be better suited to starting. When you're in your twenties, it's relatively easy to get warmed up, shoot some, stretch... and then sit down for a half hour before you actually get into the game. Camby's 36 year old body might not react well to that regimen. So there might be a practical reason for starting Camby over Kaman.
The problem with this approach is that it pre-supposes that Camby is a better defender than Kaman. In fact, he's not necessarily a better defender - he's a different defender. Kaman is solid, arguably better on the ball, and without question better against the biggest opponents (who can push the skinny Camby around). The other question is whether Griffin can provide enough post scoring. It's hard to imagine that MDsr is going to hamstring himself at the very start of the season if Griffin is not really able to get his own shot quite yet. So at this point I think this is the least likely scenario. In other words, I think Kaman's the likely to be a starter for his post scoring.
So what's going to happen?
As we discussed on Thursday, and as MDsr repeated to me on Friday, the starting lineup may in fact be a situational decision throughout the season. The bigs who start against the Suns may not be the bigs who start against the Lakers. And by the way, speaking of the Lakers, we could well see Kaman and Craig Smith on opening night, given that both Camby and Griffin are a little banged up right now,so injuries are already a factor. But the question isn't so much "Who will start Tuesday?" as it is "Who will start the bulk of the games, against the bulk of the opponents, injuries notwithstanding?"
We're going to have to wait and see on that one. But the more I think about it, the more I think it might be Griffin coming off the bench. Just a hunch.