It's the tale often told around these parts: the draft is this week, free agency is next week, and the Clippers need a small forward and a third big. It seems like we've been saying this for years, and every year the lack of fix, or short-term band-aid, only serves to postpone the question another year.
Last season, the Clippers thought that they had finally found their answer in the form of Spencer Hawes. Which, well, didn't work out so great, and now that a trade has found Hawes off of the roster, the Clippers find themselves in search of a quality third big man again. They're likely to return starters Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, as well as reserve veteran PF Glen Davis. The former two were just All-NBA players, but they can't play 48 minutes a night, 82 games a year. Davis, on the other hand, is a solid veteran player that the Clippers can pay without dipping into their mini-mid-level exception, but he's almost the definition of a niche player at this point in his career--he brings energy, he acts silly, and sometimes he hits a mid-range jumper. But at 6'8", he doesn't fit the bill for what the Clippers really need: a reserve big man who can play both positions alongside either starter.
There happen to actually be a lot of quality big men on the market this year, but the Clippers aren't in the running for an All-Star addition. Our first category of free agents to discuss is the "no chancers": due to money, role, or both, there's literally no chance that the Cilppers will even bother talking to any of these guys, so they don't warrant individual analysis: Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Marc Gasol, Tim Duncan--you get the point.
Then, we get into quality starters, who are still guys that the Clippers can't afford. But, a little further down the list, we run into some fringe starters, and that's where Doc Rivers will start his search. Players in this range: Kosta Koufos, Chris Kaman, Alexis Ajinca, Kevin Seraphin, Larry Sanders (but let's steer clear given Lance Stephenson's presence on the roster), Aron Baynes, Cole Aldrich, Pero Antic, Emeka Okafor, Samuel Dalembert, Brandon Bass, Amar'e Stoudemire, Carlos Boozer, Jordan Hill, Ed Davis, Amir Johnson, Luis Scola, Andrea Bargnani, Tyler Hansbrough, Thomas Robinson, and Jason Smith are most of the names here.
All of these players are flawed. There's holes in their games, questions about fit, consistency, and character everywhere you look. Most of them will be overpaid--either offered a larger free agent contract, or given an above mMLE contract to return to their current one.
A few names that stand out are Jordan Hill, Ed Davis, Thomas Robinson, and Jason Smith. Aside from being four of the youngest guys on the list, they're also four of the few with the versatility to play both power forward and center, making them able to play in lineups with both Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan (Hawes' problem was that he wasn't good enough defensively to play with Griffin and couldn't shoot well enough to space the floor with Jordan).
Hill and Davis are the two in this group who seem almost surely unattainable. Davis has been rumored to be pursuing a salary near 8 figures, and while he won't get it, it's an indication that he'll go to a bad team that's offering the 26-year old a better role and more money. Hill, on the other hand, has a $9,000,000 team option that the Lakers are sure to decline, and as long as they do, it's unclear where he'll end up. He's split minutes at PF and C over his career, and averaged 16 points and 10 rebounds per 36 last season, yet has somehow evaded playing time due to the tank brigade. It's hard to know if he'll be an underrated talent in the free agent market, or if multiple teams are salivating, waiting for the option to be declined.
Robinson and Smith may very well be more attainable. While Robinson is somewhat undersized, he's played a good portion of his minutes at center. He's generally held in low regard, but he had a superb defensive rating of 99 last season, and averaged 14 points and 14 rebounds per 36, a step up from averages of 12 and 12 for his career. He's never quite shouldered the minutes load that the Clippers would ask him to, especially with a lot of those minutes at C, so the fit is unclear, as is his availability at only $3.37 million.
Jason Smith has an unfortunate history with Blake Griffin. In a game a coupe of years ago against New Orleans, Smith laid the wood in a blind-slide slam against Blake on a fast break, then pumped up his home crowd, who, lacking class, cheered his poor sportsmanship while Griffin was being tended to. Which is why it kind of sucks that the legit 7-footer who plays both PF and C and is a great shooter from the mid-range in impressive quantities is available this summer. He signed with the Knicks using the mMLE last summer, and his stats aren't a whole lot better this year than they were last year (although he only played 40, 51, and 31 games the prior three years and played 82 last season). Smith's per-minute rebounding is far behind the others in this group, and the minuscule sample in which his three-point shot has fallen at an acceptable percentage isn't quite convincing. He's played on some pretty bad teams, but he's played 20+ minutes a night at a decent production level. His defense, though, could put the Clippers in the same situation as Spencer Hawes' did.
As you can tell, it's pick your poison with only a mMLE budget. What'll you have, a guy who can't play both positions, a guy with no offensive skillset, a guy who's old, a guy who's injury prone, a guy who can't rebound, a guy who can't guard? There's positives to everyone, and the Clippers can find their guy, but anyone they sign is going to have serious flaws, and the fit will be less clear-cut than they'd like.