Spencer Hawes and Jordan Farmar. Jordan Farmar and Spencer Hawes. What to make of the first two free agent signings of the Los Angeles Clippers as the team tries to take the most difficult step in reaching a championship level, the step from really good to great.
The Clippers have five starters and the reigning Sixth Man of the Year already signed for next season. That's from a team that won 57 games and went nose-to-nose with Oklahoma City in the Western Conference semi-finals. There's a tendency to think that the Clippers might still have pretty far to go, given that they still have yet to reach a conference final -- but let's not pretend that Indiana was a better team just because they played in a weaker conference. By any measure, the Clippers were one of the four best teams in the NBA last season. That's not bad.
The Clippers should improve moving forward simply by virtue of experience together. The stars and coach of the other three top teams had been together much longer: the Heat for four seasons, the Thunder for six and the Spurs for 106. Or maybe it's just better luck and fewer injuries that will make the difference for the Clippers, who lost 88 starter games to injury last season.
But the first job in the off-season is to try to make the roster better. Expecting Blake Griffin to take yet another step forward, or hoping that DeAndre Jordan can continue to improve, or planning for the defensive schemes to gel in the second season of the Doc Rivers eras -- those things would all be great, but the best plan is to put together a better roster.
Enter Hawes and Farmar.
Last season's depth chart looked something like this during the playoffs:
Those nine players appeared in all 13 playoff games. Others made appearances, but for the sake of this discussion, let's say that was the rotation.
As of now, with the additions of Hawes and Farmar, the nine man rotation entering next season would look like this:
Is that an improvement? Probably not, but it's not bad. Note that I'm comparing the end of season team (that included players who were acquired in February during buyout season) from last year to the start-of-season team going forward. If we were doing an apples-to-apples comparison opening day 2013 to opening day 2014, Hawes would be a massive upgrade over the likes of Byron Mullens and Antawn Jamison. I'm also leaving Reggie Bullock and C.J. Wilcox out of the discussion for the time being. It would be great if one or both of them were able to contribute this season, but I'm not counting on it.
Prices on the free agency market have been quite high so far, which has handcuffed the team to some extent given their salary cap imposed limitations. Then again, those same prices are bound to limit the other contenders in their attempts to improve as well. The Thunder have already lost one starter and a key reserve from a thin rotation, and if you're lukewarm on Jordan Farmar, imagine how you'd feel if Sebastian Telfair were your big acquisition to date.
It goes without saying that we're still early in the process and a lot can happen. The big free agent dominoes have yet to fall, but when they do things will change quickly. For instance, the Thunder are said to be a contender for the services of Pau Gasol, but nothing will happen with him until he knows what teams still have money after LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade have landed. And there's always the outside chance, however remote, that the Clippers can land one of the big fish via a sign-and-trade.
If the Clippers use their mid-level exception to sign Hawes and their bi-annual exception on Farmar, as appears likely, then they'll be incredibly limited moving forward. The only means for signing any free agent outright at that point would be veteran's minimum contracts. But you can expect the Clippers to aggressively pursue one or more sign-and-trade transactions as well. When the free agent moratorium is lifted on Thursday and deals start becoming official, we may find out that Hawes is coming west via sign-and-trade (if any team in the NBA could use one or more of the semi-serviceable players crowding the Clippers depth chart at small forward, it's the Cavs, who are losing Luol Deng and C.J. Miles this summer, and who missed badly on Earl Clark last year. Jared Dudley's trade value is next to nothing -- but given that the alternate for the Cavs is the aforementioned nothing, they are the one team who might actually take him. Frankly, they'd be stupid not to take Barnes or Bullock if the Clippers offer one of them.) If the Clippers can indeed work an S&T for Hawes, then suddenly their full MLE is back in play, which would be a huge advantage.
Hawes and Farmar are by no means spectacular additions -- but they're pretty damn solid. Importantly, they both seem to be good fits on the roster. Since arriving in LA Rivers has been searching for a stretch big as a complement to starters Griffin and Jordan. Hawes made 128 three pointers last season -- the only players 6'10 or taller to make more were Kevin Love, Channing Frye and Dirk Nowitzki, and Hawes hit a higher percentage than any of them. He's also a good rebounder and an excellent passer for a seven footer.
Farmar replacing his former college teammate Collison as the Clippers backup point guard is a bit trickier. Collison was incredibly valuable for the Clippers as the starter in the 20 games that Chris Paul missed -- but Farmar might be the better fit overall, particularly if Paul can avoid a prolonged absence. Poor Doc has been desperately trying to add shooting on the Clippers roster, yet somehow the first Rivers team somehow shot worse from deep (.352) than the last Vinny Del Negro team (.358). Farmar is a significantly better range shooter than Collison, a surprisingly good athlete, and a tenacious defender. He's not big, but he's bigger than Collison, and while he won't be able to attack the rim as Collison could, he should be much better at stretching the floor.
As the first two acquisitions of the off-season, Hawes and Farmar may not be home runs -- but they're base hits. If the Clippers can manage to get Cleveland to agree to take something back for Hawes in a sign-and-trade, they'd be stretching the hit for extra bases. There's still a lot to be done, but I'm pretty pleased with what's happened so far.