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Clippers Free Agency 2016: Recent Signings Bring More Questions Than Answers

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The individual values of the deals have been great, but how's it all going to come together?

Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

At 5:57 PM, I told an inquiring twitter follower that Brandon Bass didn't make much sense for the Clippers.

At 6:06 PM, Shams Charania of The Vertical reported that the Clippers had signed him.

Aside from some coincidental timing, this illustrates the obvious questionable nature of this deal--it's my nature to look at things optimistically, but when I said a signing would be a bad idea ten minutes before it occurred, I've got to face the crowd and explain my thinking.

Andrew Han of ESPN's ClipperBlog might have summed it up best, and succinctly:

Brandon Bass is fine.  The part of me that doesn't like this signing doesn't have a whole lot to do with Bass himself, but rather with his fit.  The Clippers have a hustling, mid-range shooting 4/5.  His name is Marreese Speights, and they just signed him a couple of days ago.  The Clippers also used their first-round choice on Brice Johnson, a PF, and return Paul Pierce, who is a PF at this point in his career.

The Clippers need help on the wings.  It's been the case for years, and it's the case now.  I'm not going to put together baseless criticisms because the front office didn't do the impossible--but when you're heading into the season 3-deep at every position except for the one with your weakest starter and weakest backup, it's more than questionable.

For a couple of days, I though that they'd addressed it.  Signing Raymond Felton as an upgraded 5th guard made C.J. Wilcox expendable, and moving Wilcox freed up a roster spot for a veteran wing to bolster the rotation.  All was well.

But then, they turned around and used that roster spot on Brandon Bass--the fourth PF on the roster (5th if you count Dawson as a PF, which is probably more accurate) and 7th big man (8th including Dawson).

The Clippers are still fine at point guard--Paul, Rivers, and Felton let you go three deep comfortably and Crawford is capable of playing out of position in emergencies.  They're fine at SG--Redick, Crawford, and Rivers are all strong options.  Down low, they'll now have 5 rotation-worthy bigs.  The problem is that you really can't afford to add a 5th rotational big man when you already have three "depth"-level guys down there.  Paul Pierce, Branden Dawson, and Diamond Stone are all clogging up the depth chart down low, leaving no space available for another wing.

Of the Clippers' three first-round picks in the Doc Rivers era, Brice Johnson might be the most defensible.  While he's another "older" prospect, he seems to be far more well-received than Bullock and Wilcox ever were, and while summer league is just summer league, his play was pretty encouraging.  But he's still 22 years old, and the intention was to draft him to fill a hole on the roster.  In a vacuum, Bass is great insurance to lessen the pressure on Johnson--a reliable veteran with a high floor and low ceiling who will be available for solid minutes when needed, but won't be good enough to completely block Brice out of the rotation.  In theory, Brice can still earn minutes over Bass, and Bass will be able to help him pick up on Doc Rivers' defensive schemes.

But the Clippers don't exist in a vacuum.  They have limited resources, one of which was roster spots.  Using their pick on a backup big was fine.  Using the second-rounders on a stash guy and a project was fine.  But to use the three picks on a guard and two bigs, and then go out in free agency and sign a guard and two bigs, while your biggest need is on the wing?  I'll be honest--I'm left scratching my head.

The value of the individual signings has been great.  Johnson at pick 25 was solid.  I wouldn't have gone Michineau/Stone in the second round, but I'm not going to lose sleep over that until we have a few years to see how everything plays out.  But when you put it all together mid-July, I'm not seeing a big-picture vision that impresses me.

Brandon Bass is a solid role player who's a good value at the minimum.  His signing didn't excite me like it should have, because it creates more questions than answers:

Is Brice Johnson going to play this year?  If he's not, it can't be because of something that happened between the draft and now, so if you knew he wasn't going to play, are you sure you should have picked him?

Aren't Bass and Speights redundant?  Bass is the better defender of the two, but if the Clippers were going to add a guy to play alongside Speights, shouldn't it have been more of an athletic rim protector?  The entire big-man rotation is puzzling at this point.

Where are the shooters?  One of the Clippers' biggest problems last year was not having a single above-average shooter on the roster outside of Chris Paul and J.J. Redick.  This summer, they've re-signed a non-shooter in Luc Mbah a Moute, three guys with average numbers in Rivers, Crawford, and Johnson, and added a poor shooter in Raymond Felton.  They didn't add a deep threat at the forward positions to give them small-ball options to space around DeAndre Jordan.  For all Doc's talk about adding shooters, the best they came up with was Marreese Speights.

How heavily will Doc lean on 3-guard lineups?  It seems inevitable with the current roster construction that the Felton-Rivers-Crawford trio will see a lot of time together.  Johnson and Mbah a Moute aren't combining for 48 minutes a night, Doc isn't going into the season with only 2 guys he plans to play at SF, and Felton isn't going from 28 minutes a night in Dallas to racking up DNPs.  The three-guard lineup is an interesting tactic that can work in the right situation with the right guys.  Building an entire second unit around it without much of a backup plan is risky.

Now, the Clippers have backed themselves into a corner.  They have 14 guaranteed contracts, and at least 13 of them appear to be contending for minutes this season (all except for Stone).  Yet only 2 of those guaranteed players can claim small forward, the Clippers' weakest spot, as their natural position.  In their 15th spot, the Clippers still have Branden Dawson, the non-guaranteed second player.  I maintain that he's likely to be cut, but are the Clippers really going to head into the season with 15 guaranteed contracts?

Isn't that setting themselves up to do something like trade their recently-acquired 2020 Cleveland second rounder along with Marreese Speights' salary to clear a spot for a buyout guy?  I can't help but entertain a future scenario where Speights misses some defensive rotations, and ends up in the doghouse while the less talented but more defensively consistent Bass eats up minutes, and then Doc dumps Speights in February.  It's a script we've seen before.

But if the Clippers opt to not fill that 15th spot with a veteran wing in the coming days, they may back themselves into a corner that they can't get out of.  The nature of the buyout season is "we'll see what holes end up developing, and hopefully we can plug that hole".  It's for when a guy like Spencer Hawes flares out and you need an emergency big man.  The plan can't be to have a leaky boat for 50 games and then hope that a golden opportunity presents itself in late February.

I'd rather back myself into the "doghouse dump" corner than risk never getting a third decent small forward, but isn't it rather concerning that we're having this discussion on July 17th?  Shouldn't we wait until there's an injury, or a player disappoints, before scrambling to fill a hole in a dangerous but necessary move?

Unfortunately, the Clippers have already backed themselves into a corner.  The only question left is if they want to press their back flat against the East wall or the South wall.  And the only way to step forward out of the corner is a core-4 altering trade (which is less likely without a lot of open roster spots) or some movement on the Paul Pierce front.  If Pierce retires (or agrees to a trade into Boston's cap space) then the Clippers have some breathing room to add the forward help they need and keep a spot open for Dawson and flexibility.

There really isn't another option.  Of the Clippers' 14 guaranteed deals, 9 were recently inked, meaning that the players cannot legally be traded for varying periods of time (the rookies in 30 days, but the others December 15th or later).  The 5 movable pieces are the core 4 and Pierce.

Felton is great value for the minimum.  Speights is great value for the minimum.  Bass is great value for the minimum.  But once the big pieces settled into place, it was clear that the Clippers still had a strong need for another option on the wing or at combo forward.  Not addressing that need while filling up the roster is more than questionable.  Doc must either be confident that Pierce is retiring or incredibly overconfident in the three-guard lineups to come.

If this is how the situation looks heading into October, it will be a very disappointing result for an off-season that had a promising start.  A ton of solid value signings who didn't meet the team's biggest need and don't look like great fits--great recruiting, bad planning.

If you're reading this, Paul, save us.  Retire, join Doc's staff, and convince him to add another wing with your roster spot.