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The Far End of the Bench - Why the Clippers Could be Good this Season

There's a feeling of potential about this Clippers team.  In fact, when I see four out of five HoopsWorld writers predicting second in the Pacific (i.e. ahead of the Suns, who won 46 games last season) and the fifth predicting a .500 season (i.e. a 22 game improvement over last season), I actually start worrying about expectations getting too high for the team.  Let's face it - the Clippers have never responded well to high expectations, particularly in 02-03 or in 06-07.  But that's a subject for another post.

With the signing of Steve Novak on Friday, the roster is more or less set.  There are 13 players with guaranteed contracts, and although MDsr has generally had a preference for starting the season with 14, he has in the past gone with 13.  At any rate, it's doubtful that any signing would be of major significance.  At this point they may just invite some players to camp and keep one of them around to start the season - Nik-Caner Medley, anyone?

The top of the lineup is formidable on paper, but it has arguably been true of many editions of the Clippers that their starting lineup was impressive - in fact, one could certainly have taken the position (and some did) that last season's team had plenty of talent to begin the game.  Eric Gordon is clearly a talent upgrade at the shooting guard, but Cat Mobley was no slouch, and was probably a more complete player than EJ is at this point in his career.  And obviously Blake Griffin has as much physical ability as anyone to enter the league in years, and is a natural power forward as compared to Marcus Camby - but it's difficult to argue that this pair of 20 year olds replacing savvy vets in the starting lineup can justify a belief that the team could go from 19 wins to 40 plus.  Obviously the future is bright with such great young talent, but is it realistic to have high expectations this season?

It occurred to me today that it's really the other end of the lineup - the 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th and 14th guys - where the big improvements are for this team.  Going back through the last four Clipper rosters, there's really no comparison.

The 14th guy - Obviously this is an empty roster spot right now, so I can't very well make the case that this player is better than the last guy on other recent teams.  Given MDsr's history, one would assume that he'll fill this spot with a veteran big - an Aaron Williams or a Brian Skinner.  For the last two seasons, you'd have to say that this spot on the roster was Paul Davis.  In 06-07, it seems that MDsr began the season with only 13 (something I did not recall until I was researching this post, so maybe he'll consider 13 this season).  Before that in 05-06 (the year they made the playoffs), the 14th man was Boniface N'Dong. Guess what?  Both Davis and N'Dong are available.  Seems like we won't have to do much to do as well or better, if you catch my drift.  Nik-Caner Medley looked impressive in Summer League - he's at least as interesting as Boniface N'Dong.

The 13th guy - For simplicity's sake, let's call the13th man the third string point guard.  Last season it was Jason Hart, the season before it was Dan Dickau, and before that it was Daniel Ewing, stretching back to the playoff team.  Lo and behold, once again, all available as unsigned free agents.  Quelle surprise.  If the Clippers do decide to sign someone, they might go with another point guard.  But for now, the third string point guard is Mardy Collins, so we'll call him 13th on the roster - Collins is not a great player, but his versatility makes him useful, and I think we can all agree that he's better than Hart, Dickau or Ewing; he's certainly taller.

The 12th guy - In an attempt to continue comparing apples to apples, let's call this player the third string wing player.  Last season it became Ricky Davis, though he wasn't nearly so low on the depth chart when the season started.  Before that it was Ruben Patterson, and before that it was Yaroslav Korolev for two seasons.  It's Ricky Davis again this season, so let's call it a wash.  The team has not gotten a positive contribution from this roster spot for years, and I doubt they'll get anything this season.  If Ricky is suddenly healthy and able to contribute, it's all gravy.

The 11th guy - Because MDsr does tend to carry a lot of bigs, there are usually two of them buried at the end of the bench.  This spot is for the second one.  Last season it was Brian Skinner, before that it was Aaron Williams for two seasons, and on the playoff team let's loosely say that this was Walter McCarty.  This season it's DeAndre Jordan.  Can we all agree that DeAndre Jordan is an infinitely more interesting 11th man than Brian Skinner, Aaron Williams or Walter McCarty?  For one thing, all those other guys were in their 30s, while DJ just turned 21.  Then there's the simple fact that Jordan has a world of talent.  Jordan may or may not contribute a lot this season; he's still raw, there's little doubt of that.  But I think it's safe to say that fans would much rather see a talented 21 year old project than a 30-something has-been/never-was. 

The 10th guy - I'm going to have to call this a wild card position, simply because over the last few years there's no consistency to the position of this roster spot.  Last season it was arguably point guard Mike Taylor, and the season before that it was also a point guard, Brevin Knight.  In 06-07, the 10th man was probably Paul Davis, which is making me start to realize why that 06-07 team was such a disappointment (Davis was a rookie at the time, so I suppose we had high hopes for him, but in retrospect we should have realized just how paper thin they were).  On the playoff team this was James Singleton, a decent player, which is part of the reason that that was a good team.  This season this slot belongs to Steve Novak - a very useful specialist who, it must be noted, was more like the 8th man on last year's team.

In fact, let's recognize that on the current roster, four of the Clippers' bottom five were on the team last season and were as high or higher in the rotation at the time.  Jordan, Novak and Collins are all young players and hopefully improving - but they're in the same place or lower on the depth chart because players like Blake Griffin and Craig Smith and Sebastian Telfair and Rasual Butler have been added.  In Jordan's case, we'd like to think he'll be a lot better than he was, and his Summer League performance may foreshadow a breakout season.  Collins is a versatile player capable of playing three positions, and having a big guy who can run the point is a welcome change after watching Brevin Knight and Dan Dickau and even Andre Barrett.  Novak is a specialist who is among the best in the NBA at what he does - even if you don't need him often, it will be nice to have him in those situations when you need him.  In other words, at this point, Ricky Davis is the only player that looks like dead weight - a decided improvement over the ballast heavy rosters of the recent past.

Here's one way to look at the lack of quality at the end of the LA bench in recent years.  In the last four seasons, by my count 10 players have occupied the Clippers' final four roster spots, 11 through 14 - N'Dong, Paul Davis, Hart, Dickau, Ewing, Patterson, Korolev, Skinner, Williams and McCarty.  Those ten players left the Clippers, and nine of them were never heard from again - they have yet to play for another NBA team.  Only Hart made it onto another roster - for 36 minutes with the Nuggets last season, and it looks like his NBA career is now over as well.  10 players, and 36 minutes of post-Clippers NBA minutes between them.  Let's face it - those guys were terrible.

Obviously it helps to draft well.  Yaroslav Korolev was taking up a roster spot for two seasons as a massive first round bust in 2005.  Thornton (first round 2007), Gordon (2008) and Griffin (2009), by way of contrast, are all likely to be starters on opening night 2009.  The Clippers also gave two seasons of opportunity to Daniel Ewing and three to Paul Davis, second round picks who haven't proven to be worth a roster spot on any other team.  In that sense, although we were a bit perplexed that the front office waived a player as full of potential as Mike Taylor, as least they didn't waste time on him. 

So looking at the roster from the bottom up, it's pretty easy to see why this season could be a lot better for the team.  Obviously the last three seasons have all featured more than their share of injuries.  When you look at the players that were consequently forced onto the floor (Jason Hart started 22 games, Brevin Knight started 39 games, Brian Skinner started 21 games, etc.) it's not surprising that the final resutls were so dismal.  Poor depth and multiple injuries is a lethal mixture.  This season, at least three of the bottom five spots are significantly upgraded.  Let's hope that the injuries are kept to a minimum - but if the Clippers do suffer a normal amount of adversity, the players being asked to step in should be much better able to do so than in recent seasons.