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What Did We Learn from the Clippers' Summer League?

First of all, ignore the record.  The Clippers won their first two games (with Eric Gordon playing) and lost their final three (without EJ - surprise, surprise).  We knew going in that the Clippers were not fielding a particularly strong roster beyond their top four players.  What we didn't know at the time was that the top four would include free agent Nik Caner-Medley and NOT returner Mike Taylor.

Nonetheless, Summer League is a chance to see what the rookies can do against semi-NBA competition, and to see how much the returning players have improved.  Basketball is a team game - but Summer League is all about seeing individual players perform.

The Good News

Blake Griffin averaged 19.2 points per game and 10.8 rebounds per game on his way to MVP honors in Vegas.  He shot 18 for 24 in the two games that Gordon played and 21 for 52 after that.  So I guess that means, as good as he is, he still needs a couple of other players around him.  After the Clippers shut down EJ, there was literally no one else on the Clippers capable of getting a shot.  Some other guys played well like Caner-Medley and DeAndre Jordan in particular, but they are both complementary players.  In the final three games, opponents were able to double and triple team Griffin with impunity and it became much harder to score.   That is not to say that he wasn't good against the double teams - he actually played them very well for a rookie, and had games with 5, 5 and 4 assists during the week.  (He would have had more assists if he'd had more shooters around him.)  On the whole, as Citizen DariusN pointed out in his excellent FanPost earlier today, Griffin was as advertised on scoring and rebounding, and better than expected on making plays for his teammates.  He also has the poise and work ethic that make him as close to a 'can't miss' guy as you get.  Based on what we saw this week, it's hard to imagine that he won't be starting from day one.

Eric Gordon is very, very good, but of course we already knew that.  He scored 43 points in his two games, and almost half of them came from the free throw line.  His jump shot didn't happen to be falling, but we've seen that enough that we're not particularly worried.  Instead, he was clearly working on using his strength to score and draw fouls around the basket.  In that sense, EJ and the Clippers used his two games in Vegas to great effect - Gordon didn't have a lot to prove there, but he used the opportunity to develop another aspect of his game.  His combination of range, driving ability and strength to finish is lethal - he was already a solid scorer by the end of last season, and it looks like he's going to be even harder to stop this season.

DeAndre Jordan joins his fellow class of 2007 teammates as a bright spot for the Clippers.  He had one bad game (2 points, 6 rebounds against the Grizzlies), but still managed over 12 points and 8 rebounds in 27.6 minutes per game - that's better than 16 and 10 per 36 minutes.  He also had games with 3, 3, and 2 blocked shots.  Most encouraging of all, he showed great progress since last season.  His low post moves were actually, well, low post moves, as opposed to whatever they were previously.  His improvement did not go unnoticed - ESPN's David Thorpe called him the most improved player in Vegas.  Bearing in mind that Summer League is much more of a perimeter player's game, if you were choosing an All-Tournament team, either DJ or JaVale McGee would have to be the center.  He was one of the best bigs in town. 

Going into summer league, I didn't think any of the invitees had a real chance to make the team.  Leaving Las Vegas, you simply can't rule out Nik Caner-Medley as a regular season Clipper.  It's certainly not an exaggeration to say that he was the fourth best player for the team - in fact, it's not really close.  His performance was solid across the scorebook - 11.2 points and 8 rebounds in 28.6 minutes, which, as long as we're looking at some per 36 numbers, works out to better than 14 and 10.  He shot well (50% from the field, 3 of 5 from the arc, 17 of 18 from the line which was a nice break from the horror show of Griffin and Jordan and Taylor), he hustled, he rebounded extremely well.  Could he be the 'glue guy' small forward the team has been looking for?  Well, this was a great audition.  I also need to correct the record on NCM - I questioned his lateral quickness in at least one comment.  Well, checking the DraftExpress measurement database, it turns out he has one of the best lane agility scores of all time (10.57 seconds, seventh best on record among forwards, second best on record for anyone his size).  If he can defend the perimeter (as he did against Nick Young of the Wizards), he can help the team.  Having said that, MDsr may yet want a veteran in that roster spot - but he could do worse than NCM.

The Bad News

The rest of the invitees are hardly bad news I guess.  None of them were given much chance of making the team, and other than NCM, none of them will based on this experience.  Sean Banks and Dionte Christmas, whom I though would be the best of the invitees coming in, were both pretty terrible.  Kyle McAlarney actually played better than expected and shot well from the perimeter, but given the Clippers' relative lack of size in the backcourt, I see no way they're going to give a roster spot to a 6 foot rookie. 

That leaves Mike Taylor as pretty much the entire bad news story.  He was, in a word, terrible.  He made fewer than a quarter of his shots, and on a team where all he had to do was get a pass near the rim to get an assist, he only managed 1.33 assists per turnover (24 versus 18) - a very poor number for a point guard.  So he didn't shoot well, he didn't distribute well, he didn't protect the ball well.. let's see, what else is there?  Oh yeah, Darren Collison, Marcus Williams and Goran Dragic all had big nights against him, so he didn't defend well either.  And once Eric Gordon sat down, the Clippers were desperate for some help in the backcourt, and Taylor just didn't get it done.  The simple fact of the matter is, his game right now is only suited to a 'change of pace' backup - preferably third string.  A guy you can bring in to mix things up if the game isn't going your way, or if the team is lethargic.  You can't rely on him as a starter - not yet - not even in Summer League.  He's too inconsistent, too out of control, too poor a decision-maker.  He has talent - that much is clear.  But he appears no better at harnessing his talent this year - in fact, he may have regressed.  (Compare his SL 2009 stats to those from 2008.)  If Summer League was an opportunity for him to work at running the team, at being under control, at slowing his game down and only using his speed as necessary rather than all the time - well, it was an opportunity missed.