The Clippers have two All-NBA big men at power forward and center. They’ve got a solid starting point guard who was just named to the NBA’s All-Defensive First Team last week. Their shooting guard is an aggressive 24-year-old who has certainly earned a chance to start in the NBA.
But at small forward? The team only has 23-year-old Sam Dekker, a solid backup combo forward for Houston last year, and soon-to-be 30-year-old Wesley Johnson, who didn’t even resemble an NBA player last season.
It just so happens that the Clippers find themselves with a gaping need at small forward, some extra contracts to move in a sign-and-trade, and an extra late first round pick in 2018 to throw in for sweetener. For the first time in ages, Doc Rivers actually has a decent opportunity to add a legitimate small forward, and it doesn’t look like he’ll pass it up. The Clippers have been rumored to have interest in 8 players over the last few days (we heard that a 9th, Rajon Rondo, was interested in L.A., but not that it was mutual). Of those eight, seven are small forwards, with the last being veteran big man Zach Randolph.
Doc Rivers has already held meetings with Joe Ingles, Jonathon Simmons, Danilo Gallinari, and Rudy Gay. Of his other targets, P.J. Tucker and Andre Iguodala have already agreed with other teams, while James Johnson seems dedicated to staying with Miami.
Basically, he’s focusing on adding a small forward. And frankly, it isn’t a bad thing. It’s what the Clippers should target. It’s the obvious solution. But, given the events of the last 72 hours, I’d like to take a different perspective and see where it leads us.
The 2017-18 Clippers are not the 2016-17 Clippers, or any of the Clippers teams we’ve seen in the last half-decade. They are not a contending team that is one piece short. Gambling on a flawed wing is not going to lift LAC over the top and vault them into contending for the 2018 NBA Championship. So what are they doing? They’re looking for a foundational piece as they re-tool the roster around Blake Griffin and get ready for another half-decade of trying to win.
So yes, Austin Rivers is a good player. All things considered, I’m an Austin fan! But if I’m Doc Rivers, and I’m looking for a core piece, I don’t think I’m going to force a questionable fit at small forward because Austin is already in line for the shooting guard job. To me, he isn’t that kind of talent. I would prefer to add the best player available, so long as he fits alongside a Patrick Beverley—Blake Griffin—DeAndre Jordan trio, and then find a fifth starter after that. If there was a perfect fit at small forward at the perfect price point, I’d be perfectly happy with keeping Austin as the starting shooting guard. But failing that ideal small forward appearing on the market—and I don’t think he’s out there right now—I’m open to the idea of adding a guard instead.
The Clippers have two main wing targets at the moment. Danilo Gallinari is turning 29 in August, and his lateral quickness has been severely impacted by his injuries in recent years. Over the course of his career, he’s played 460 of 804 possible games. In his last seven seasons, he has averaged just 50 games played a season—that’s 32 games missed a year. And while his career minutes split at small forward and power forward are pretty even, he played power forward over 60% of the time last season. As he ages, and those injuries continue to slow him down, it’s really a question as to whether he’s a two-way small forward or a stretch-four in the next couple of years. I’ll pass on moving mountains to pay that guy $20 million a year.
And that’s the player that I like.
Rudy Gay is a couple years older than Gallo, and significantly worse. He’s best with the ball in his hands, but not good enough to really help a team win as their feature wing. While he’s historically been healthier than Gallinari, he’s a wild card coming off of an Achilles injury. Even if he signs, it will be on a one-year cheap deal to prove himself so that he can opt out and get paid next summer. That means that not only do I not think he’s good enough to be a foundational piece, but he’s not likely to stick around anyway. Again, I’ll pass.
There’s one guy who has been left on the market, the last man standing in the game of musical chairs that is the point guard carousel this summer: George Hill. And as it would happen, Hill has the size, style, and skill set to complement Patrick Beverley beautifully in the back court. He’s a better two-way player than Gallinari or Gay, and while he missed quite a few games last season, he has a general track record of healthiness (74+ games played in 6 of his 8 career seasons, excluding the lockout year). His elite defense, combined with Beverley, would tear opposing backcourts to shreds. As a 40% three-point shooter, he’d bring the same floor-spacing that Gallinari can provide, but as a veteran point guard, he’d help supplement the Chris Paul-less Clippers’ playmaking in a way that Austin Rivers, or any wing target, could never hope to do.
I know what the knee-jerk reaction is: following four years of Chris Paul and J.J. Redick, Clippers fans don’t want another small back-court. They’re ready for the young, energetic, 6’5” Austin Rivers to take over for the older, slower, 6’4” Redick. Let’s just have an open mind and consider the following NBA Combine* measurements (shout-out to DraftExpress), please:
- Chris Paul: 5’11.75” barefoot, 6’1” in shoes, 6’4.25” wingspan
- J.J. Redick: 6’4” barefoot, 6’4.75” in shoes, 6’3.25” wingspan
- Austin Rivers: 6’3.5” barefoot, 6’5” in shoes, 6’7.25” wingspan
- Patrick Beverley*: 6’0.25” barefoot, 6’1.5” in shoes, 6’6.5” wingspan
- George Hill: 6’1.5” barefoot, 6’2.5” in shoes, 6’9” wingspan
Patrick Beverley wasn’t at the NBA Combine, so I used his 2009 Eurocamp measurements.
Yes, Hill is a couple inches shorter than Austin Rivers. But consider that Rivers is almost exactly the same size as J.J. Redick—so why does he feel bigger? It’s the 4” difference in wingspan. If George Hill was 6’4” instead of 6’2.5” it would be even more ideal, but I’m betting that 2” more in wingspan makes up for 2” less in height when compared to Austin, especially with George being a much better player on both ends of the floor.
One of the questions that you get asked (and rightly so) when you propose a small backcourt is “who guards Klay Thompson?” It’s a great question—are you equipped with sufficient size at shooting guard to deal with the 6’7” wings who occupy that position for some teams? Let me put it this way: if the Clippers are in a playoff series against the Warriors, give me George Hill in that match-up over Austin Rivers any day.
The reality is that George Hill is going to be available at a great value because of how the point guard market has played out. Houston, thought to be a major player, got Chris Paul a few days before free agency opened. Minnesota quickly moved for Jeff Teague, and the Pacers aren’t looking for a win-now veteran type. The Spurs were interested in Hill, but negotiations didn’t go far. And Hill’s incumbent team, the Utah Jazz, chose to trade for Ricky Rubio hours before free agency began so that they wouldn’t have to worry about potentially losing Hill.
Utah offered Hill an in-season extension that would have given him a $13 million raise for the 2016-17 year plus three additional years at 25 million each—and Hill turned them down, stating that he was seeking a bigger payday over the summer. That ship has clearly sailed, and the Clippers have a chance to nab him at a discount—possibly even less than they’re offering to Gallinari. Let me ask you something: in a vacuum, would you rather pay George Hill 64 million over 4 years, or Gallinari 60 over 3? Hell, would you rather pay Hill 60 over 3, or Gallo 60 over 3? The answer to both questions is George Hill.
Follow-up question: as much as we might like him around these parts, is Austin Rivers really worth compromising on that value as you build the new Clippers? And wouldn’t it probably be for the best for everyone long-term if Austin isn’t a core piece on the team that his dad coaches?
The avenues for adding a small forward to put around between the Beverley/Hill guard pairing and Griffin/Jordan big pairing are limited, but not barren. First of all, if Rudy Gay is considering a mid-level deal, the Clippers could still offer him one year at $8.4 million as he rebuilds his value. I’m still not a huge fan, but it’s a lot more palatable if he’s the 5th piece than the 4th.
Beyond Gay, the Clippers could explore several trade options involving targets like DeMarre Carroll (in a salary dump), Wilson Chandler (if Denver keep Gallo and continues shopping him), or Jae Crowder (if Boston adds Gordon Hayward and needs to move his salary). In free agency, a lesser tier of wings like Omri Casspi, Shabazz Muhammad, C.J. Miles, and Arron Afflalo are still available and could be snabbed for great value. I, for one, don’t even hate the idea of returning Luc Mbah a Moute as a stopgap rotation forward—especially if the alternative is making a big purchase of Gallinari or Gay stock. And I definitely want to leave some minutes available to get well-acquainted with Sam Dekker’s game this season.
George Hill in a Clippers uniform, forming the league’s most formidable defensive guard tandem with Patrick Beverley and sharing offensive lead guard duties. I know it’s not the clear-cut, obvious solution that adding a starting-caliber small forward seems to be. Just think about it.