Chris Paul has been out of the Clippers lineup for a week. He’s scheduled to miss 5-7 more as he recovers from surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left thumb. Obviously, this is a brutal blow to a Clippers team that relies on Paul heavily on both ends of the floor, but most importantly to run the offense and create shots for himself and others. Two of the Clippers’ most effective offensive players—J.J. Redick and DeAndre Jordan—struggle to create offense for themselves, and rely heavily upon Chris Paul to find them for open looks.
Fortunately for the Clippers, they have a solid veteran backup point guard in Raymond Felton. Felton had a strong year in Dallas last season in a big role before accepting a dip in minutes this season that has coincided with improved efficiency (41/28 splits to 44/35). Even with Raymond’s help, the Clippers’ offense takes an unavoidable step back. Nobody can replace Chris Paul, and Felton’s play as a starter has been unremarkable, with averages of 10 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists while shooting 38% from the field and 22% from deep. It probably shouldn’t be surprising—like I said, Felton’s a solid veteran backup guard, but he’s not a starting-caliber point guard at this point in his career. Partially, this is just a matter of dealing with reality: few teams have two starting caliber point guards, and the Clippers invested their resources elsewhere. For the veteran’s minimum, Felton has been one of the most effective signings in the league.
Another problem emerges, however, when Felton goes to the bench. The Clippers’ last option at point guard is Austin Rivers, a young combo guard who is having a career year. Rivers was scouted as a point guard and drafted in the lottery before struggling early in his career. The verdict is likely in on Austin—he’s not a very good NBA point guard. But he is a good NBA player—he drives to the rim a lot and finishes at a decent rate, his three-point shooting has improved, and his energy and athleticism defensively mostly make up for occasional lapses in awareness. He just doesn’t have the skills that he needs to be an effective point guard: namely, running an offense and distributing the basketball. His AST% this season is actually his highest in three years with the Clippers, and both other years he played significant minutes at point guard.
Still, Austin is serviceable at point guard, even if there are rough patches. The real issue here is a problem of opportunity cost: right now, Austin Rivers’ is the Clippers’ best wing scorer. J.J. Redick is still making an impact, but you can’t quite throw him the ball and tell him to get a bucket on any given possession. Jamal Crawford is in the deepest slump of his five years in Los Angeles. Who else is there? Alan Anderson? Luc Mbah a Moute? Paul Pierce? Wesley Johnson?
Every minute that Austin Rivers has to play at point guard is a minute that the Clippers are forced to mitigate the effectiveness of their best wing scorer by playing him out of position. For example, if Felton and Rivers were to each play 36 minutes, that would leave them with just 24 minutes together, and 12 minutes each of Felton running a Rivers-less offense, and Rivers running the offense. You’d like to have your best wing scorer playing as wing scorer for the entire game, and that can’t be accomplished without another point guard.
The obvious answer to this solution is the imminent return of Blake Griffin. After missing almost five weeks following a minor knee surgery, Griffin is set to return this week, and he’ll immediately become the Clippers #1 option on offense, with most plays running through him as a scorer or distributor. Griffin is one of the best passing big men in the league, and whenever Chris Paul is out, we see it on full display. Here’s the problem: Austin Rivers still needs to bring the ball up, run a play, control the tempo, and find Blake in his spots so that Blake can create offense. That’s not a situation where Austin thrives—that’s exactly where you want Raymond Felton, a solid veteran point guard who can manage the game but struggles when tasked with a large offensive burden.
I think that determining that the Clippers could use some short-term help at point guard is pretty straight-forward. Chris Paul could miss over 20 more games—wouldn’t it be nice to have upgraded point guard play for the next quarter of the season? Adding that help, though, is a little trickier.
The Clippers currently have 15 guaranteed contracts on their roster, which means that they can’t just sign a new player—if they could, they probably already would have. So the only options are to either make a trade, cut a player, or both.
I’ve floated a few trade ideas on my Locked on Clippers podcast in the last week: Jamal Crawford for Rajon Rondo, or smaller packages for Jose Calderon or C.J. Watson. None of these options are especially enticing: Rondo’s issues are well-documented, Calderon’s salary is in an awkward range, and Watson’s struggled in Orlando. The larger, looming issue with trading for one of these guys is that the writing would be on the wall regarding their long-term status with the team: 20 games in the rotation, and then likely relegated to third-string when Chris Paul returns. How is Rajon Rondo going to handle that, and do you want to pay him $14 million dollars to be a backup for 20 games? Do you want to trade Wesley Johnson, an option at your weakest forward positions, for an aging player who will be at best the team’s 6th guard come playoffs?
The easiest solution probably comes via free agency. It would be somewhat painful to part ways with one of the Clippers’ current players—Doc obviously has an emotional attachment with Paul Pierce, we’re all still waiting to see Alan Anderson break through and contribute, Brandon Bass has been enticing in limited minutes. Cutting a rookie—Brice Johnson or Diamond Stone—seems foolish when there are 13 veterans on the roster.
The most obvious choice is Paul Pierce, who has finally managed to convince Doc Rivers that he isn’t worthy of playing time—even short-handed, even rolling with 9-man rotations, Pierce hasn’t gotten a call in 11 of the Clippers’ last 12 games, following an unimpressive four-game stretch as a fill-in starter for Blake Griffin. There are, however, obvious sentimental factors at play with Pierce, who was the NBA Finals MVP on Doc Rivers’ championship team in Boston. With that come a host of intangible things that Pierce brings—experience, leadership, etc. But he also contributes in one tangible way—his above-minimum contract could prove useful in potential trades.
The next choice would be Alan Anderson, who has clearly contributed the second-least of the Clippers’ 13 veterans. Anderson has drawn inconsistent spot minutes, and like Pierce, Doc has occasionally opted for 9-man rotations as a healthy Anderson rides the bench. It’s hard to judge such a minuscule sample size, but he definitely hasn’t impressed in his few minutes, missing most of his shots and often resorting to fouling defensively when he can’t contain his man. If the Clippers have to cut a player, my bet would be Anderson. Look at it this way: Anderson has played 11 minutes a game in 17 appearances in the Clippers’ 45 games. If they cut him and signed a replacement-level point guard today (Shane Larkin? Ray McCallum? Ronnie Price? Tony Wroten? There’s a long list of mediocre options), that point guard would see more floor time in the next 20 games than Anderson has in the past 40.
One intriguing option, though, would be to simply clear a roster spot via a trade that doesn’t affect the point guard position. The Clippers are interested in the Suns’ P.J. Tucker and reportedly offered a second-round pick for him. That trade would either be structured for Wesley Johnson’s salary to go to Phoenix, or, more likely, for Paul Pierce and a minimum salary (Anderson) to be heading back to the Suns. Phoenix isn’t interested in Johnson—they want the pick (though they want the Clippers to offer a first rounder instead). So why would they take on Johnson’s multi-year contract when they can simply buy out a retiring Pierce and let Anderson expire in July? That trade, along with any potential Carmelo Anthony trade, would leave the Clippers with open roster spots, and a guard would be at the top of the shopping list.
Any such trade would have to happen soon, though—by my estimate, Chris Paul’s recovery timeline will sideline him for a maximum of 23 more games (that would be the 8-week mark on his 6-8 week window), and the Clippers have 11 of those games before the trade deadline. If you’re going to seek help at point guard, you’d like to acquire it for more than half of the window where you have that need.