The Clippers' offseason roster tinkering was relatively epic, especially if you factor in its quiet centerpieces, signing Chris Paul and bring in Doc Rivers to coach. There were enough ancillary chess moves that it's hard to hold them all together in one's somewhat soporific September NBA head, slowly coming out of a brief hibernation. That's what media days and training camp and preseason are for, in part, to get warmed up and see the roster as a whole, gaining a sense of available bodies and beginning the chemical process of forming the squad.
It was a flurry of activity, a lot of stuff all at once and then it died down. A big part of the dance, for the humble citizenry at least, was bidding adieu to Eric Bledsoe as he whirled his way towards the Valley of the Sun. We loved so many things about Bledsoe and his game and his ridiculous upside, to use ironic punditry coinage, that it was an extended, sad farewell, even though we had known for over a year that he was the shiniest and most valuable of trade chips. We loved his athleticism and his defense, his astonishing strength and speed. We loved that the Clippers held onto him in the CP3 deal, and how he turned out to be more practical and durable than our concurrent departing object of affection, Eric Gordon. As Bledsoe roared back onto the court after his knee injury, Gordon's sad struggles just to play accentuated the newfound savvy Clipper ability to buy low and sell high. Losing Bledsoe was more of the same, a gradual balancing of a roster that was badly tilted when CP3 and Chauncey Billups joined Mo Williams, Randy Foye and the returning Bledsoe.
So Clipper roster formation was humming along at its new warp and we had barely started wondering about replacing Bledsoe when --boom! Darren Collison signed at a modest partial-MLE deal to play backup point guard.
In a rather pedestrian catchphrase of the sadly not immortal, despite the decalogue of kids and the Mormonism, Mike Smith--are you kidding me? Seriously? Could there possibly be a better fit, or a more satisfying addition to fill that spot, which was empty for an extremely short amount of time (some one might want to look back and track just how long it was open, but it seems to have been pretty brief)? Yes, it's true, and it's awesome. Let me count the ways:
1. It solved the Chauncey Billups problem. Grabbing Billups after he was amnestied, and then converting him into a believer in Clipper ascendancy was a nice move for the Clippers, even luxuriant, even if it was shoehorned into fitting with the Chris Paul trade. Iif we're talking about customized rosters, having Paul and Billups starting together in the backcourt was always just a smidge forced, and then some. CB's injury was sad and unfortunate, but he didn't have a whole lot left to prove, really. He brought professionalism and a championship demeanor to the Clipper sideline, if not the court, one that was badly in need of gravity with Del Negro in charge. But there was a dash of hubris as Billups changed from street clothes back into uniform, and it ended badly. With his cred both damaged and diminished, Billups looked pretty not-bad as CP's backup for a second, right after the Bledsoe trade, when he had clearly been supplanted on the shooting guard depth chart. It was hard to see how the Clippers could do better than having Billups as a backup, playing 15 minutes per game, with no pretensions to being a starter -- unless they could find a guy who wasn't old and broken down and lightyears past his prime, who was actually good. And they did, and just like that the Billups era was done.
2. Darren Collison is a point guard. It wouldn't seem like this would be notable, since the empty position that Collison was signed to fill is, you know, point guard. But there are all sorts of guys in the NBA who are tweeners or who play slightly out of position for one reason or another, and the Clippers have had more than their share of these guys over the past few years. Billups as a starting SG is a good example, but let's note a few more. Mo Williams was a shooting point guard, a different animal, pressed into offguard service with Billups' injury--and that was after he and Randy Foye made up an undersized backcourt when Eric Gordon was injured the year before. Bledsoe played shooting guard in college alongside John Wall, much like Jrue Holliday played SG at UCLA next to Collison, and it didn't exactly accelerate his playmaking and ball management skills. Russell Westbrook also played shooting guard at UCLA next to Collison, and he's an All-Star, but he still has his share of rough point guard edges. Westbrook and Bledsoe are remarkably similar, with superb athleticism that covers up a fair number of shortcomings. The Thunder did well to give Westbrook a clear path as a starter and primary option (along with KD) from the very beginning, which doesn't always work out so smoothly -- Bledsoe's course is a good example of potential obstacles, including coaching. Rajon Rondo is an interesting example in the super-athlete category of Westbrook and Bledsoe, as he's a skilled pass-first player who racks up assists: he's a great point guard, one of the best even. Great athletes with rough edges (Westbrook, Bledsoe, Rondo -- he can't shoot -- and Holiday) are probably better as starters, getting big numbers, wearing down opponents, playing great defense and wrecking havoc all over the court while building steadiness and consistency over time. As backups, they can be a little volatile, and they can have a hard time making other second team players better. Jamal Crawford provides an interesting example of a guy who can be forced into service as a tweener. As a backup point guard, he can score, but he's not going to be so effective setting up other guys. If Crawford is coming off the bench at shooting guard, however, he's a force of nature, and even a limited playmaking PG like Bledsoe can just hand him the ball, and Crawford will score. But a "real point guard," also known in punditry parlance as a true point guard, a Chris Paul or a Darren Collison, will do an even better job of setting up Crawford, and make him more effective. Very long way of saying it's good to have a talented player who is perfectly suited to this important position and his role on the team. It seems like this shouldn't be a hard thing to accomplish in roster-making, but it has been pretty tricky for the Clippers.
3. Darren Collison is speedy. This is another item that falls under making up for the loss of Bledsoe. Bledsoe was super fast and super strong. Speed and quickness on the court are fantastic assets. The Clipper big men are fast and athletic, and it would have shortchanged their advantage if Billups had been pacing the second team. VDN had great success with Bledsoe and Barnes using their speed as subs, amping things up in the wake of the deliberate, brutal force of Chris Paul's surgical execution. Collison is famous for his speed, the son of Olympic sprinters, etc., and he should be a great pacesetter for Barnes and Crawford and the others (Mulligan!). He's as fast as Bledsoe, but he plays under much better control. Collison has a waterbug quality, not unlike Jamal Crawford's light quickstep. The new bench mob should be really fun to watch, and extremely effective.
4. The starter/backup thing. I assumed that Darren Collison was going to be a better college player than a pro. It might have been because he played at UCLA for four years, and guys like Westbrook and Holiday seemed more NBAish. DC eased into a comfortable fit at New Orleans, playing behind CP3, a nice situation -- and then Paul got hurt. Suddenly Collison was starting and playing big minutes and tearing things up. Part of it was that he was a mature, polished player, with all of that college experience. His aforementioned speed, a legit NBA weapon, also helped, along with sheer new guy novelty. And it played out from there, as Collison might not have been a top 10 NBA PG, but he was marked as a viable starter. He was traded and stepped into the role, first in Indiana and then in Dallas. The results weren't so good, certainly not by the standards of two teams that compete pretty consistently at a very high level.
But what's funny, in the aftermath of Collison's failure to thrive as a starter on two NBA playoff teams, is that his signing is exactly the type of thing the Clippers of old would have done, getting him on a good low-cost deal to be their starter -- and we would have been excited about it. You know, after Chris Paul left and signed with Dwight Howard in Houston, forming a ready-made NBA dynasty--wait, that didn't happen? Paul is still on the Clippers AND they signed Collison? The Clippers have a viable, if not quite playoff team-sufficient, NBA starter as their backup? The strange trip for longtime Clipper fans continues to get stranger, and we're not used to this type of precision and surplus. In my last set of scribblings I noted the period where the Clippers had no ability to make 3 pt shots, a strong contrast to the new roster's potency. But even if you combine that intriguing note with the primary topic of QCBMs, you still don't have a saga that compares to the sad parade of Clipper point guards. In the days before Sam Cassell miraculously appeared at the helm, Collison's signing would have been an instance of staggering good fortune. As with QCBMs, Clipper guards were always long on potential and short on performance, and the good ones weren't that good -- put Dooling, Jaric, and Livingston in that category. In actual fact and court time there was a steady diet of true scrubs like Doug Overton and Rick Brunson, along with multiple appearances of Derrick Martin. And in spite of myself I can't help but add the Andre Miller abortion -- imagine Collison leading that team, backed up by a rising Jaric, and smile at the pleasant fantasy, allowing yourself to forget the horrid, lingering bitterness for just a moment. It's called karma-building, my fellow citizens: we lived through those dark days in order to reach this new world.
5. Dealmaking and the Chris Paul Factor. We know that nothing happens on the Clippers that doesn't make sense to Chris Paul, especially not now. The fact that Collison was Paul's backup four years ago, and that he has come back for another go-round, would seem to be a major stamp of approval from CP3. When we were wondering about how Bledsoe would be replaced and what might happen with Billups, Paul and the Clippers clearly had another idea. The fact that the Clippers look at all sorts of choices and options and develop strategies and implement determined plans still takes a lot of getting used to (Elgin, we'll always love you). It's even more impressive that they were able to strike so quickly on multiple fronts. The deals for Paul and Rivers and the Bledsoe trade were all managed expertly, and the signing of Matt Barnes was handled quite nicely, a good reward and a good deal for both parties. It was also done with the idea that there would be enough of the MLE left to sign Collison. The equation was a delicate one, requiring careful calibration. In fact, it seems like it would have hardly been possible if there wasn't a strong desire for it to work. These guys all want to play together, and the guy who decides how the jerseys are handed out is Chris Paul, more or less. Probably more. He liked having Collison as a young backup in New Orleans. He likes it even more now.
6. UCLA/Locals factor. Every Bruin basketball fan has to love Darren Collison. There's literally not a single thing to dislike. He had a great career, and same fan has to be happy that he has done so well in the NBA, easily surpassing limited expectations. He's a likable, solid, exciting player, really fun to watch, clearly a good guy with his head screwed on straight, a player who lets his game speak for his personality, rather than the other way around. I'll eventually get around to what it means and suggests for the Clippers to have three Bruins on this particular roster (its own post), but getting Collison back home, and playing an important role on such a good team has an element of pure, local LA joy. In the aftermath of the deal it was mentioned that DC's signing tied all of the other moves together somehow. In truth it was a minor adjustment relative to a longterm deal for Paul on top of Griffin's contract, and bringing in Rivers. But every single detail, every moment of preparation and each discrete particle of personality and performance contributes to the chemistry project of building an elite NBA basketball team. The Clippers are both lucky and good now, working from strength to strength to strength. They're stalwart and unassuming, focused on their united mission, well aware that nothing in the past matters, that the time is now. Those values are obviously manifest in Chris Paul, along with Doc Rivers and Blake Griffin and Saint Ralph (a true immortal) and a number of others. But I honestly don't know that I can think of a more focused, unassuming, and dedicated player than Darren Collison, some one who has always done his best to play the right way. There were many nights when we saw that special humility and dynamism on display at Pauley Pavilion. Now, in a perfectly fitted role, we get to see him play at Staples and in a Clipper uniform, hopefully for some time to come and with great success. There are all sorts of good guys on this new Clipper team, all sorts of great stories and superior skill sets and fun personalities; it's a cool and exciting, stacked squad, an unprecedented eventuality. And Darren Collison is a quiet standout, a guy who, for me, adds a special something, that last bit of sweetener. Favorite new Clipper, or new favorite Clipper? I can't decide, not yet, but I love the guy and his game and you can tell I'm thinking about it.