As I wrote about yesterday, consistency and internal growth will be the Clippers' best hope this season, as their current 14-man roster features an astounding 11 returning players and 3 draft picks--they have not signed another team's free agent this off-season. If they went the whole season without doing it, they might set some sort of record--but they won't.
Branden Dawson and Paul Pierce are both part of the current 14-man roster, but both could be gone by opening day. Dawson's contract isn't guaranteed, and he's likely to be first on the chopping block if the Clippers feel the need to add a veteran. Pierce, coming off of the worst season of his career, will turn 39 before the season starts and is reportedly mulling retirement.
Between the last open spot and those two vulnerable ones, the Clippers will likely have no more than three new veterans on the team next season. The three likely spots of need are a depth point guard (to replace Pablo Prigioni), a depth combo forward (to replace Jeff Green and give the Clippers small ball options), and, most urgently, a backup center (to replace Cole Aldrich). Before Paul Pierce makes his decision, and before the Clippers make a decision on Branden Dawson, they'll have to use their open roster spot to find a center for the league minimum.
Unfortunately, that will be harder than ever before.
You've heard this a thousand times by now, but the NBA's inflated salary cap has made signing free agents for salary exceptions harder than ever before. Wesley Johnson, who was a minimum player last year and was just average over the course of the season, got the full Mid-Level Exception. Even fringe players, like James Ennis, who played a total of just 22 games for 3 different teams last season, got a 2-year, $6 million deal.
And despite the NBA's small-ball movement, the center market has been just as inflated as the other positions, with Timofey Mozgov demanding $16 million a year. Cole Aldrich, who was stellar in a backup role for the Clippers, got 3 years and $22 million. Tarik Black, a back-up on the Lakers who only played part-time, got 2 years and $12.5 million. Roy Hibbert got $5 million dollars to be Charlotte's backup on a one-year "band-aid" deal. Scariest of all for the Clippers' situation might be that Justin Hamilton got a 2-year, $6 million deal, well above the minimum salary. At 26 years old, Hamilton played a total of 41 games for 2 different teams two seasons ago, and he wasn't good enough to stick in the league. He averaged 13 points and 5.5 rebounds in Europe last season--and he got above the league minimum.
So, what's out there for the Clippers? Second-round selection Diamond Stone isn't a viable option at backup center, but based on the market, it doesn't seem like they'll get anyone better. Ultimately, they'll have to take advantage of their status as an elite team and the minutes they have to offer at the center position to convince a veteran to take a paycut. Hopefully, as teams all lock up their targets, at least one acceptable candidate will fall through the cracks and be willing to sign with the Clippers. Here are some remaining options:
- Chris Kaman: The former Clipper didn't play much for Portland last season as the Trail Blazers prioritized finding minutes for their young big men. The season before, however, Kaman played 19 minutes a game, averaging 8.6 points and 6.5 rebounds (16.4/12.5 per 36). He's 34 years old, but he still knows how to use his body on defense and his mid-range game has developed over the course of his career.
- Kendrick Perkins: A pick-up that Doc Rivers would surely be criticized for, Perkins' only semi-productive years were with Rivers' Celtics teams. Ever since then, he's been somewhat of a joke among fans, but his size, toughness, and experience has kept him on the fringe of the league. He's now 31 years old, and last season he averaged just 2.5 points and 3.5 rebounds in
3714.6 minutes a game for the New Orleans Pelicans.
- Robert Sacre: After four forgettable years as a depth big man for the pitiful Los Angeles Lakers, Sacre finds himself already 27 years old, and a free agent of a team that will surely not re-sign him given their roster at this point. He averaged 10.3 points and 7.8 rebounds per36 over the course of his career, but was never particularly impressive.
- Greg Smith: Smith has stuck in the league for five seasons as a fringe big man, but he didn't play much last season for Minnesota before being cut just before free agency. He had one good season in 2013 with the Houston Rockets, playing 16 minutes a night in 70 games and averaging 13.7 points and 10.4 rebounds per 36 minutes. In his entire career, he's averaged 11.7 points and 9.6 rebounds per 36 minutes, although the 2013 season accounts for more than half of his career minutes played.
- Anderson Varejao: The only Golden State Warrior from last season who will get a ring, Varejao has battled injury issues, playing just 53, 26, 65, 25, 25, and 31 games in each of the last six seasons. He averaged 10 points and 10.2 rebounds per 36 minutes last season, which he split between the Cavaliers and Warriors. His production is good, but his injuries are not, and if he's going to take the minimum, I expect he'd return to the Warriors or Cavaliers.
- Chris Andersen: Birdman turns 38 tomorrow, and he didn't look like he had anything left when I saw him play against the Clippers at STAPLES Center in January. Once an athlete that scared energy and defensive production with his unique look, Andersen has averaged 11 points, 10.3 points, and 2.9 rebounds per 36 minutes for his career. This past season he played just 27 games.
- Jeff Ayres: The Clipper! If Ayres is their choice at backup center, they'll up the returner count to 12, but they likely won't. He was just a depth player for the Clippers last season after being called up from the D-League, and he didn't especially impress. His scoring and rebounding numbers have been solid in 237 NBA games over six seasons, but while he's good enough to provide depth, he probably isn't good enough to be a full-time backup.
- Andrea Bargnani: He's not really a center, and he could never rebound, though his shooting was a strength. In recent years, the shooting has gone, rendering him somewhat useless.
- Nene: Despite having some health issues, Nene would be a fantastic replacement for Cole Aldrich's pick-and-roll finishing. He will turn 34 before the season begins, but during the last 5 seasons he has averaged 16.8 points and 7.9 rebounds per 36 minutes for the Washington Wizards.
- Jordan Hill: He's almost definitely going to get more money than the minimum, but Hill is a solid option, despite never becoming what the Knicks had hoped after selecting him with the 8th pick. He averaged 8.8 points and 6.2 rebounds in 20 minutes per game for the Pacers last season.
- Henry Sims: Playing for four teams in his four seasons, Sims hasn't had a chance to settle into a defined role, but two years ago he played significant minutes in Philadephia and averaged 8 points and 4.9 rebounds in 19 minutes. For his career, his per36 numbers are 14.6 points and 9.5 rebounds.
- Amar'e Stoudemire: STAT will turn 34 in November and hasn't been able to stay healthy for a full season since 2011. Last year, he was still productive, averaging 14.2 points and 10.5 rebounds per 36 minutes, though his mobility defensively has to be a major concern.
- Jason Thompson: I've heard Thomson described as one of the most mediocre players in the league--remarkably average. For this reason alone, I'm sure that pairing him with Wesley Johnson would be magical. He'll turn 30 in late July and has consistently maintained his career per 36 averages of 12.7 points and 9.4 rebounds.