The Clippers' off-season hasn't been sexy, but it's been quietly eventful and effective.
They made a draft-day trade, selected three players, signed 9 new contracts, stashed a prospect overseas, made a trade, and waived two players. That's a lot of action around the edges on a team that not only kept the core together, but also returned a big chunk of the supporting cast. The entire fit of the pieces is still questionable, but the values of the individual signings have been good and the Clippers now boast 5 reliable guards (4 returners) and 5 reliable bigs (4 veterans, one promising rookie). Beyond that, they have an experienced locker room leader in Paul Pierce and a project big in Diamond Stone. Not bad, right?
It's pretty damn good. At point guard, shooting guard, power forward, and center, the Clippers are about as strong as they could have possibly hoped to be, with talent, experience, and depth.
At small forward, not so much.
The Clippers return Luc Mbah a Moute and Wesley Johnson, a wing pairing who were successful enough to earn the Clippers' exceptions this summer. That said, neither of them is really a starting-caliber player, and as a pair they lack a certain explosiveness--something the Clippers made up for by having Lance Stephenson, and then Jeff Green, as another option at the position last season. The Clippers also utilized a healthy dosage of three-guard lineups.
That said, Mbah a Moute, Johnson, and three-guard do not leave the team covered at small forward for an 82-game season. That might be fine as a nightly rotation, but you're one ankle roll away from turning the situational three-guard lineup into a group playing over 20 minutes a night. Talent-wise, I had accepted that Mbah a Moute and Johnson would be the type of serviceable and reliable returners who would likely be the best the Clippers could do at the position. Depth-wise, I'm incredibly nervous of the team not carrying a third small forward into the season.
With the Clippers' recent waiving of Branden Dawson, they now have one open roster spot. Doc Rivers is always an active buyer and recruiter in the buyout market, so it's possible that he'll leave it open. He also needs another wing, so it's possible that he fills it.
Both decisions have a dilemma--if you don't have an open spot, and a player you really like becomes available in the buyout market, you have to salary-dump or cut one of the new signings (likely Speights or Bass from a depth perspective) to free up a roster spot. If you don't carry a small forward, you're going to be short on depth for at least 50 games, and possibly longer if the wing they need doesn't end up being available.
I'm hoping that the Clippers sign a 15th player now, and deal with the buyout market later. Given recent Clipper history, someone in the Felton/Bass/Speights/player 15 quartet of minimum salaries will have some sort of issue in the first half of the season and be expendable to free room if a prime buyout target is there. And if none of them are expendable come mid-February, the Clippers are in good enough shape depth-wise to not need the buyout market.
Here are some wing options if the Clippers do decide to add a 15th player:
Alan Anderson: He's been linked to the Clippers, so we talked about him before. He's had some injury issues (not uncommon on this list) but when he was healthy, he was a reliable wing defender and solid shooter (35%) from deep. He'll turn 34 before the season.
Chase Budinger: At only 28, he's a lot younger than Anderson, but his injury issues have been more severe. He was a super athletic player, but I'm not sure how limited he's been by his injuries. Two years ago, he posted solid numbers for the Timberwolves, but last season he was poor, being cut by the Pacers mid-season. He's a 35.2% career shooter from deep, although he was just 27.9% last season (on a small sample size)
Dorell Wright: I don't know what it is with Wright. He has a proven track record as an NBA shooter, which keeps fans across the league coming back to his name, but he didn't even make a roster last season. The 30-year-old is a career 36.5% shooter from beyond the arc, but he didn't play in the NBA last season and didn't hit 40% from the field in the 3 years before that.
Gerald Green: Probably my least favorite name on the list. Green is a real black hole offensively who takes absurd, ill-advised shots and has off-the-charts athleticism. Sometimes he makes those shots, sometimes he doesn't: in his five NBA seasons with 1,000 minutes played, he's shot 40%, 36.8%, 35.4%, 32.3%, and 31.4% from deep. If you knew he'd hit 40%, you'd take him in a heartbeat. But his floor is probably even uglier than his ceiling is attractive--if he replicates his performance as a member of the Miami Heat last season, I doubt Doc would keep him on the team all season.
Alonzo Gee: I liked Gee as a small forward target last summer, but his performance for the Pelicans last season has me cooling off. His defense was disappointing and the low-30's rate from deep that I was hoping he'd bolster into a league-average percentage instead dropped to 28%--and he barely shot anyway (1.3 per 36). Could you do worse for a third-stringer? Yeah. But while I'd love to see it, I don't think Gee is capable of really contending for minutes unless someone gets hurt.
P.J. Hairston: He was taken 2 picks ahead of C.J. Wilcox in the 2014 NBA Draft, but he's been even more of a disappointment. While he's a good defender who should have some promise offensively, his inconsistency on and off the court was troubling enough for Charlotte to decline his third-year option (worth $1.25M) and then trade him mid-season. Not exactly a ringing endorsement. A 23-year old who was a first-round talent 2 years ago might be appealing in some situations but I'm not comfortable with it here.
Caron Butler: Here's what we know--Caron opted in to his Kings contract for the league minimum despite barely playing last season. That means a) he doesn't want to retire, b) he's perfectly happy making the minimum, and c) he doesn't mind not playing. Tuff Juice would be great depth and locker-room leadership, and while he didn't get playing time for the Kings last year, he was still an effective shooter prior to that (37.9% from deep in 2014-15, 39.4% in 2013-14, and 38.8% in 2012-13 as a Clipper). That said, the Clippers were burned by a 38-year-old's sharp decline last season, and rolling the dice with a 36-year-old combo forward this summer might be too much of the same.
Of all the above names, Caron Butler is the one that I kind of love but keep trying to talk myself out of (he was a 2008 Eastern Conference All-Star. Guuuuuuys!). Anderson and Budinger have upside, but come with serious injury concerns. Wright, Green, Gee, and Hairston aren't safe bets to consistently be NBA-caliber players. Butler, of course, isn't a sure thing either at age 36, especially when we haven't seen him in 2 years.
I'd definitely group Butler, Anderson, Budinger, and Wright as the safer picks, with Green, Gee, and Hairston as more questionable. Who do you want?