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We Haven't Forgotten About Al Thornton

Note that there appears to be some confusion on this post.  In a sans serif font, there's literally no difference between Al (upper case A, lower case L) and AI (upper case A, upper case i).  This post is entirely about Al Thornton - I'm not talking about Iverson.  To hopefully alleviate the confusion, I'm changing references to Al to AT.

We've been all Summer League and Iverson all the time around here the last week or so.  But a FanPost about Al Thornton caught my eye this morning.  I'm glad that you're standing up for AT Citizen ClipperPride.  Someone definitely needs to.

It's an interesting commentary on the state of the Clippers that a third year player, who was first team all rookie in his first season, chosen to play with the Sophomores in the Rookie Challenge his second season, and second in the NBA (behind Kevin Durant) in scoring among second year players, is widely considered the weak link among the starters around here.

Then again, when you look at it - Eric Gordon and Blake Griffin are the obvious cornerstones of the franchise even though Griffin has yet to play an NBA game.  The center position would seem to be fairly well supplied with Chris Kaman and Marcus Camby and even DeAndre Jordan.  Sure, Kaman has been injury prone and inconsistent, but Camby is Mr. Consistency when he's on the floor.  That leaves either Baron Davis at the point or AT at the small forward as the position that needs the most help - and although you can make a very strong statistical case that Baron was worse last season, with four more seasons and $53M committed to him, it's a little too painful to consider that he'll be that bad again - so most of us assume (hope?) that the point guard is taken care of - and the three becomes the problem area, almost by default.

But there's more to it than that.  Let me start by saying that I personally have not given up on Al Thornton by a long shot.  Nor, as I'm longing for a 'glue guy' at the three, am I necessarily disparaging him.  He is not a 'glue guy' - certainly not at this point in his career.  He is a different archetype - he is an 'instant offense' guy.  Different situations call for different guys - and when I look at the Clippers' roster right now, I see a fit for a 'glue guy' starting at small forward.

We've already established some of the good news - specifically, among second year players, Al Thornton was second in scoring average at 16.8 points per game.  That's more than Jeff Green, more than Thaddeus Young, etc.  Now for the bad news.  Among the 13 second year players averaging 10 points per game or more, Al Thornton was LAST in PER, LAST in True Shooting Percentage, and 11th in effective shooting percentage.  (A quick aside - the two players with a worse eFG% are Rodney Stuckey and Ramon Sessions - kind of makes you think again about the Clippers potential pursuit of Sessions.)  So efficiency is not his strength.

I spent a lot of time and pixels last season arguing that Eric Gordon was the best shooting guard among a fine crop of rookies, and my arguments invariably hinged on efficiency numbers.  Well, live by the TSP, die by the TSP - AT has proven he can get his shot, but he needs to MAKE his shot more frequently. 

He also needs to work on almost every other aspect of his game.  He needs to pass more effectively, rebound better, and improve on defense.  There's no reason he can't do all of those things.  He has all the tools to do them, and at times he's looked very good (his defense on LeBron James late in the season comes to mind). 

Here's my main point on the 'glue guy' argument.  If Al Thornton's archetype is 'instant offense' guy, look at the players he'll likely be sharing the floor with in a starting lineup.  Chris Kaman commands a double team in the low post and shot 53% last season.  Eric Gordon is the seventh most efficient perimeter scorer in the LEAGUE.  Blake Griffin is Blake Griffin.  And Baron Davis is a former all star and was seventh in the league in assists last year, not to mention that as the point guard he will obviously have the ball in his hands a lot.  In other words, in that starting lineup, AT is literally the last person I want to have the ball.  The 'glue guy' is the player who is effective without the ball.  At this point in his career, AT is not very effective playing off the ball.  He's not spacing the floor, he's not getting offensive rebounds, he's not setting great screens.

On the other hand, he could be a prototypical scorer off the bench.  A Vinny Johnson type to carry the scoring load while the starters are getting some rest.  You put Al Thornton on the court with the second unit, and he's the man.  During AT's rookie campaign, I raved about his ability to get his shot - a trait that is very difficult to develop; most players either can do it or they can't.  Leading the second team AT would be able to put that ability to good use.

Now, we've been down this road before with Corey Maggette and Quinton Ross, and most of us were less than thrilled with that experiment.  On the surface, it looks quite similar - one of the team's top scorers, who happens to be a relatively poor defender with a less than Mensa hoops IQ, is benched in favor of a severely limited player who by most traditional measures is clearly not as good.  Why might it work this time?  For one thing, AT is in his third season and has only been the starter for one season, whereas Maggette was in his seventh and had been starting for over four seasons - psychologically, it was a very difficult transition for Maggette.  For another, the team's results have been abysmal, an NBA worst 42 wins, in those two seasons, so it's certainly reasonable to want to mix things up.  It obviously depends on who the alternative is at the three - if it's Quentin Richardson, as Andy Roeser suggested on air on Tuesday night, then I'm less than convinced.  Same with Mardy Collins

The free agent market is beginning to get more than a little thin.  Most of my high value targets from the beginning of summer have already signed somewhere.  Trevor Ariza is in Houston, Josh Childress is staying in Greece, Anthony Parker is in Cleveland (a great signing for the Cavs, if you ask me) - even the aforementioned Ross has found a home in his hometown of Dallas.  Jamario Moon, Matt Barnes and Desmond Mason remain available, and any one of them could make a worthwhile contribution to the 09-10 Clippers.

So once again, I've allowed myself to daydream about Al Thornton's replacement in the starting lineup; but it doesn't mean I've given up on him.  He's certainly not too old to improve at the age of 25, entering his third NBA season. There are so many examples of players who continued to make major strides long into their careers, it's almost silly to list them (how about Elton Brand?).  I've already spent a lot of time refuting the Hollingerian logic that older rookies have no upside.  But perhaps more apropos to our current situation is the idea of players who entered the NBA as scorers, but turned themselves into all around players.  Doug Christie was in the slam dunk contest as a 22 year old rookie with the Lakers (Christie was a four year college player like Thornton).  He was in his NINTH season, 30 years old, when he joined the Kings as their defensive stopper.  Former Clipper Ron Harper was a high-flying volume scorer early in his career.  He won five rings as a 'glue guy' with Phil Jackson on the Bulls and Lakers.  Lindsay Hunter was drafted as a scorer - he averaged almost 27 points per game as a fifth year senior at Jackson St.  But his offensive game never translated to the NBA, where he is a terrible 39% career shooter.  Nonetheless, he's played 16 seasons and won a ring with the Pistons as a key defensive specialist (this, on a team known for defense).  So there's no reason Al Thornton can't become gluier if he really wants to.

You also need to bear in mind that AT's been on teams that were beset by injuries and overall dysfunction - he's often been put into situations where he had to force shots because no one else on the floor could score.  And although his season was cut short by a shoulder injury (which is rehabbing nicely according to MDsr), it's worth noting that March 2009 was arguably the best month of his career - he shot 52% and rebounded better in the last full month of basketball he played.  In fact, in the dozen games he played after being berated by Donald Sterling following a loss to the Spurs, he shot an eye-popping 55% - so maybe Mr. Sterling needs to yell at him more often.  Obviously it's a small sample size, but encouraging nonetheless.

What's truly fascinating about this subject is that we're talking about a 19 win team - how is it possible that a 25 year old player entering his third year, who was all-rookie in his first year, is the biggest problem we have to talk about?