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In (Tepid) Defense of Brian Cook on the Clippers

At Media Day on Monday, Neil Olshey went out of his way to drop some knowledge about Brian Cook.  He also prefaced his comment with something along the lines of "I read the blogs" - this while looking somewhat disdainfully at me - so it was almost as if someone around here had called Cook a waste of roster space or something.

At any rate, Neil pointed out that Brian Cook has one of the highest shooting percentages among big men in the NBA in the last few years.  He also said that he is always looking to add shooting, mentioning Ryan Gomes as an upgrade as well, and I have to wholeheartedly agree with that impulse overall.  To be honest, I couldn't replicate what Neil said exactly - I'm going to have to follow up with him on that - but when I looked into it, the numbers were indeed interesting.

Among active players 6'9" or taller who shoot threes, Cook is currently seventh in career three point percentage.  And you'll recognize the names around him on the list.  Here are the top ten:




Channing Frye



Matt Bonner



Steve Novak



Peja Stojakovic



Troy Murphy



Rashard Lewis



Brian Cook



Danilo Gallinari



Hedo Turkoglu



Dirk Nowitzki



So if you're in the market for a stretch four, he certainly fits the profile. 

It's an interesting list, right?  There's Steve Novak, whom Cook is essentially replacing on the roster this season.  And there's Knicks prized youngster Danilo Gallinari, whom we think of as a dead eye long distance shooter, a spot below Cookie.  And there are also a couple of all stars on there.  Now, no one is going to suggest that Brian Cook has anywhere near the overall game of Dirk or Hedo or even Rashard... but did I expect Lewis' three point percentage to be a lot better than Cook's?  Yeah, I did.

It's also interesting from a Clipper-centric perspective to look at the full list.  In addition to Novak and Cook, you'll find names like Tim Thomas and Vladimir Radmanovic and Travis Outlaw.  I hadn't really thought about it before, but the Clippers have been "desperately seeking stretch four" since they traded Chris Wilcox for VladRad in Feb '06 (or maybe since signing Walter McCarty).  Cook has a higher career three point shooting percentage than either Thomas or Radmanovic, for what that's worth.

For me personally, there are probably a couple of reasons I tend to diminish Brain Cook's ability.  For one, his best years occurred while he was with the Lakers; that's rarely going to endear a player to me (it certainly didn't work with Smush Parker).  Moreover, for a shooter, he sure does have an ugly stroke.  As a separate example, let's talk about Steve Novak and Matt Bonner for a second.  Whereas Bonner has a higher career three point percentage than Novak, you will never convince me that he is a better long range shooter.  Novak's form is flawless - Bonner looks like he should be wearing a straw hat and shooting at a peach basket.  For the same reason, I'm probably less enamored of Brian Cook as a shooter than I should be.  He's got a sort of a fling and not nearly enough arc on the ball - but the stats would indicate that it goes in the basket about four times in ten.

There's a more concrete reason to dismiss Brian Cook - because that's what coaches in Orlando and Houston have done with him the last two seasons.  After being traded from the Lakers to the Magic for Trevor Ariza in November 2007, Cook was a 12 minutes per game player for the Magic the remainder of that season.  But the following season he played only 146 minutes total in Orlando before being included as cap filler in the three player trade that sent Rafer Alston to the Magic and Kyle Lowry to the Rockets.  In Houston he never got more than garbage minutes, and not many of those:  he appeared in 24 games, for fewer than 3 minutes on average, over the course of a year spread over two seasons.  After acquiring him at the trade deadline in 2009, the Rockets waived him a year later to clear a roster spot after the Kevin Martin trade.  (To be brutally honest, he was waived so the Rockets could sign Garrett Temple to a second 10 day contract, but it's less cruel to say he was waived to make room for Kevin Martin, you know what I mean?)

So the simple fact is that Stan Van Gundy and Rick Adelman, two very successful NBA coaches, couldn't find room in their rotations for Brian Cook.  This despite the fact that SVG likes nothing more than to put shooters on the floor, while the Rockets could hardly have been described as 'deep' last season.  So those are red flags, there's no question about it.

It is however a little unfair to point to Cook's stats the last two seasons as proof that he no longer belongs in the NBA.  He played 44 minutes in Houston last year - that's less than one full game.  I wouldn't want anyone telling me a player was great based on a PER from such a small sample size, so let's not use it to prove someone doesn't belong either.  After all, Paul Davis had a PER over 30 with the Wizards last season.

The bottom line is, all we know about the last two seasons is that Cookie couldn't crack Van Gundy's rotation in Orlando or Adelman's in Houston.  That's not a good sign, to be sure.  But you could also argue that he just needs a chance.

Going back to that list of stretch fours above, there's one name that I find particularly intriguing.  Channing Frye, during his fourth season in the league in Portland, was being used less and less.  He hadn't dropped nearly as far down as Cook in Houston, but his minutes per game were tracking the wrong way - from 26 to 17 to 11 over the course of three seasons.  Then he signed with the Suns and jumped to the top of our list in a single season. 

If you compare Brian Cook's career to pre-Suns Channing Frye, you'll notice some similarities.  Cook's career PER is actually a tenth higher.  He's a weaker rebounder (though not by much), but he does several things better than Frye.    Obviously, the Frye signing worked out great for the Suns, and there's always a chance Cook will work out similarly well in LA.  (Of course, it's also true that things tend to work out well for the Suns and not so well for the Clippers, but that's a subject for another post.)

Don't get me wrong, I'm not counting on a Brain Cook renaissance, and I'm still less than thrilled with the signing.  I'd have been perfectly fine taking a flyer on Cook at the vet's minimum for a season - it's that player option for a second year that's a head scratcher.  There's a chance that he'll provide some needed front court shooting for the Clippers and turn out to be a valuable asset.  But he's not getting any younger - he turns 30 in December - and it seems much more likely that Van Gundy and Adelman were right, and he just doesn't belong in the NBA at this point.

We'll find out soon enough.