Guided by Doc Rivers, the Clippers made a lot of noise in the offseason corralling DeAndre Jordan and adding some big name players in rebuilding their roster. As the team speeds into the January turn towards mid-season and the All-Star break riding an 8-game winning streak, suddenly it's the quiet afterthoughts who are making the biggest contributions.
By resigning Jordan the Clippers managed to keep their "Core Four" starters intact. Even that was wildly dramatic and very much in doubt, as we all remember much too vividly. Beyond the starting quartet, however, the rest of the roster spots were more or less up for grabs. Aside from seemingly problematic holdovers Jamal Crawford and Austin Rivers, the former mismatched bench group was ushered out of the building, and a completely new group was brought in, raising expectations. We knew there would be an evolution and growing pains, but the first quarter of the season was especially tumultuous, both on the court and also in the commentary here at Clips Nation. As the Clippers lost some tough games and generally underperformed, it was hard to see the light and hope for what seemed like it should be an improved, competitive team. And then things changed, a surprising new order emerged, and the team seems poised to join the hunt for a title upon Blake Griffin's return. It hasn't worked out the way that any of us expected I don't think. So let's review.
Chris Paul-Blake Griffin-DeAndre Jordan-JJ Redick
The cornerstones of the franchise are solidly in place: the "Core Four" is in great shape and performing at elite levels, as expected. No one is going anywhere in the foreseeable future. JJ. Redick's deal (27M/4 years) is the first to expire, at the end of the 16-17 season. It's hard to gauge Redick's value for 17-18 and beyond, in part because his numbers are getting better every year. Redick has become an essential part of the Clipper attack. The team will have the time and resources to groom his successor at SG, but his production, effort, and savvy will be hard to replace. SOLID.
A complicated, streaky player, phenomenally creative and a joy and privilege to watch on the court--when his shot is falling. Otherwise, not so much. But his overall game has notably improved since true PG Pablo Prigioni became Chris Paul's backup, and the Rivers-Crawford backcourt was abandoned. Crawford was trade bait over the summer, but his value is probably highest for the Clippers. He's pretty much miraculous at his age, playing the game with inimitable style and grace, and he often seems like he's never going to slow down or stop; he's ageless. But he also has all sorts of limitations and weaknesses. The chance of his staying with the Clippers and resigning seems slim. Whatever his contributions might be this season--and that story is waiting to be told--, he's an old guy with an expiring contract. Crawford will be playing basketball somewhere next year, but his roster spot and bench-scoring guard role will probably be open. The replacement could be a young player with more of a 2-way game, ideally with some star potential, being groomed to take JJ Redick's spot at some point. This is it for Jamal, his best and last chance to win a title. GONE.
Is that guy, the aforementioned young player, somehow, some way, maybe Austin Rivers? Hold on a second while I pick my jaw up off the floor, and that's Club O talking. Austin's recent scorching hot streak makes you think for a second that a higher ceiling than we ever imagined might be possible, and his generally solid play and improved numbers have joined with his strong defense to make him a reliable rotation player. His 2P% has gone from 40% at NOP to almost 50% on the Clippers, and his recent 3P run salvaged a disastrous start to the season from deep. It's hard to say where he goes from here, but as he continues to play hard the chances are the trajectory is upwards. It's ironic that Austin Rivers is the long-protected Minnesota draft pick that many of us citizens dreamed about for years, later part of the Chris Paul deal. Fate is working a strange game here, bringing him to the team as a lottery washout and the coach's son. He's good, he has energy and athleticism, he's improving and probably has the most upside of any player on the roster. He also falls into a sweet spot, even as he's playing for a contract. He's not nearly good enough to replace JJ Redick or Chris Paul in the starting lineup, and playing behind them he's not going to make enough noise to attract an absurd offer from another team. He's not Eric Bledsoe. With a wealthy owner, he can make good money as a player 5 thru 8 rotation guy, and that good money will be good value for the Clippers. There's a chance somebody else overpays him, which would be just fine for him and the Rivers family. But if all goes well and the team is successful, he'll have a lot of incentive to stick around. STAYS, signs reasonable long-term deal with the Clippers.
Well, you can't say it wasn't a fun experiment, and a nice dream. Lance is nothing if not intriguing, and his final chapter on the Clippers has not been written yet, but the leash couldn't be much shorter. Hopes were high that Lance would be a great fit somehow. He'll get some more opportunities, but they'll be limited, and now he's not necessary. He's not a bad weapon to hold in reserve, actually, and it could be interesting to see if he will be able to adapt his play when some minutes manage to come his way. But he's going to have to wait it out. Getting a big contribution from him certainly did seem necessary before the season began, even if his year in Charlotte was a bust, and getting by without him seemed like it would be precarious at best, a bit like counting on inside straight. Somehow the Clippers have managed to make Lance an afterthought, forgettable--and I don't know who would have predicted that. It's not over until it's over, but Stephenson is an expensive player, with an expiring deal (team option). GONE, opening up a nice chunk of cap room.
I feel bad for these (rich, talented) guys, but Smith is the other member of the Knucklehead Twins. He had a better chance to gel and succeed than Lance, and the guys playing behind him were more unlikely to take away his generous allotment of minutes and opportunities. Smith's career track record is more troubled than Lance's, and his situation on the Clippers is even more hopeless. But again, never say never. And just like Stephenson, he's a really good rainy day reserve, and you never know how a player will respond to a long sit on a team contending for a championship. Another nice dream that didn't work, and right now he's an open roster spot waiting to happen. GONE.
Second to last player signed on the Clipper roster. Prior to that, it seemed like one reason not to trade Jamal Crawford was that he could play 3rd string PG behind CP and Austin Rivers. Prigioni made seven sporadic appearances in the Clippers first 27 games and did not impress, and he had some good chances with Chris Paul missing games. But then Austin Rivers sprained an ankle, and Prigioni got to play with his former Knick teammate Cole Aldrich, recently promoted into the rotation, and the Clippers haven't been the same since. Prigioni has been playing very good basketball in conjunction with Aldrich, and both Jamal Crawford and Austin Rivers have improved their play with him at the point, rather than sharing that duty together. It's a strange equation that makes perfect sense once you see it, but the Clippers had to work a lot of variables in order to find this solution. It's a sweet little group for this season, and the moral of the story is that Austin Rivers isn't quite sufficient, that the Clippers need more of a pure PG backing up Chris Paul as they move forward. Prigioni's craftiness and pluck looks to be crucial to Clipper fortunes this year, essential to bench performance and chemistry. But he's an old guy, and this is probably it. That's not a bad thing--he's going to give it everything he's got. He should be replaceable, and it's too bad our relationship is short and sweet. GONE.
Two weeks ago I thought that Pierce was done and I was hoping he would step back and rest and get out of the way and let the team change the rotation and improve, and maybe give it one more go at the end of the season. But then Blake Griffin got hurt and Pierce snapped back to life overnight, answering the bell. It was shocking, a pleasant surprise. Shows what I know, but I did guess that Doc was going to give Pierce every opportunity and have faith in him. Part of the trick, besides raising the urgency level with Griffin down (and ringing the bell more loudly, it seems), was removing Josh Smith from the equation and replacing him with Cole Aldrich. Pierce has been excellent in his new role, and finding a way for him to contribute is a big step for the Clippers, with dividends to come down the road. Pierce's future is intriguing--there are two more years on his deal, but it's hard to believe he will last that long. It's probably money that will play into a buyout at some point, and maybe the money can be stretched as far as the (increasing) cap goes. If the Clips fall short and finish the season with a bitter taste in their mouths once again, Pierce could return--or not, depending on his personal performance and if he believes he can continue to contribute. If they do better than that, he'll probably step away. Pierce is quietly taking his time figuring out his contribution to a rising contender, playing meaningful minutes and games in the shadow of the Kobe farewell tour. It's interesting to consider the future and fortunes of a couple of other guys, Nowitzki (expected to fall short) and Duncan (expected to be playing in May). Hard to say what's going to happen. MAYBE ONE MORE YEAR?
Our surprise guest. Just when you thought that Aldrich was going to put on the cozy extra long warm up suit from Ekpe Udoh and Ryan Hollins and never take it off all year, as DeAndre Jordan continues his ironman consecutive games streak, Aldrich looked pretty sweet in garbage time against Houston, Josh Smith went to the dog house, and Blake Griffin got hurt. Add a healthy dose of Pablo Prigioni et voila, new and improved Clippers. Aldrich was patient, barely surfacing in the first 27 games of the season. But it turns out that he was a crucial roster addition and upgrade. Doc Rivers wanted to play small ball with Josh Smith, and he let that experiment go for as long as he could. He gave Aldrich a good look just before Griffin's injury, and it was a nice bit of lucky timing. Aldrich is no savior, but he's what a good bench needs: a lunchpail guy, with good length and effort. We haven't really discussed his QCBM (Quirky Clipper Big Man) rating yet, but the mouthpiece on his ear/toothless thing, along with the funky hook/throw shot that seems to fall fairly often, is promising. Kaman/Aldrich compare and contrast essay due next week. He even has a slick sidekick, Prigioni, so bonus points there. Aldrich is a keeper, and he can drift out of the rotation if the Clips find a better alternative. STAYS, signs a very reasonable 2-3 year deal with the Clippers.
Ready for his close up. The WeJo campaign is shaping up nicely. It's not exactly what I expected--my guess was that WeJo would start at SF, with Pierce coming off the bench, Stephenson the backup SG crowding out Crawford. Well that didn't happen. The WeJo-Pierce combo never came close to working. Others thought Lance would start, and WeJo would float around, and the Clippers were pretty aimless as they tried to find an answer. WeJo played well enough amidst the confusion, but his effort wasn't strong enough to lock down the starting spot. Instead he has proved to be an excellent bench player. More importantly he has shown that he can be a very good player on a very good team, not just a semi-okay player on bad teams. The physical skills are there, and the confidence, focus and effort are building steadily. It's probably a toss up between WeJo and Austin Rivers for upside potential--confidence, playing within themselves, playing with good players (CP, Griffin, DJ) should keep both of them climbing. Not starting has been a benefit for WeJo, letting him play a little more freely, but he is playing in crucial minutes at the end of halves and games, ahead of Pierce, and doing well. His contribution looks to be solid and important, and he could easily grow into the role of a starter. He made a good choice moving to the Clippers, and the Clips made a good move signing him. STAYS, signs a reasonable longterm deal with the Clippers.
Luc Richard Mbah a Moute
The secret weapon. The glue guy. The street rat. The Prince. And I realized today that, up close and shooting free throws, he even looks like Quentin Ross, which is strange. I had picked out LRMaM as an FA target after Dallas grabbed Al Farouk Aminu last year, before Olshey paid AFA in Portland. MaM seemed like a poor man's Aminu, not as good a rebounder, but with some size, enough to guard Kevin Durant or Kawhi Leonard, and a solid defense-first mindset. But Luc quickly signed with Sacramento and he was gone. I was shocked when his deal was voided and he was suddenly on the Clippers, sort of, who had already signed Chuck Hayes and even brought in another guy I don't remember. But Luc made the team, and he and Aldrich and Prigioni sat on the bench together while Doc watched the Knucklehead Twins bang into each other like Curly and Larry. Lance started, Pierce started, WeJo started. Finally it was Luc's turn. He didn't kick the door down, but he did the job, stayed with his man (Andrew Wiggins, in that first start), and the team started winning. We all know what has happened. It's a little weird, and it's strange with Blake Griffin out, but it's working. LRMaM is adding something, and it's hard to say exactly what it is. Defense, of course, but more importantly he has a determined mindset that fits well with Paul and Griffin, the whole Core Four. He doesn't need to play a lot of minutes, and the Clippers have a lot of other weapons. But things are working with Luc. He could be around for awhile. STAYS, signs a very reasonable long-term deal with the Clippers.
I didn't get to C.J. Wilcox and Branden Dawson because we don't know enough (and nobody is still reading this far.) In the end, it was an impressive haul for Doc Rivers--or at least it seems that way right now, but we'll see how things go. ARivers, Aldrich, WeJo and LRMaM all stay, along with Pierce perhaps. Crawford and Prigioni expire, Stephenson and Smith move on. It's a good, affordable secondary group, with some good open slots. But you never know, and anything could happen. Things have been surprising already, just getting here--it's not what any of us would have guessed, I don't think. And there will be more surprises to come.