We’re about one-fourth of the way through the 2012 season, and we can safely say that the Clippers are who we thought they were: a good, but not great, team with a few glaring weaknesses. Chief among those weaknesses is their anemic bench play. Given that they traded away three rotation players to obtain Chris Paul, it’s not surprising that their bench is thin. Far too often, we’ve seen the starters build up a lead in the first quarter, only to watch the second unit let the opponent climb back into the game. Per 82games.com, each of the Clippers’ starters has a highly positive “Net48,” which is a measure of a player’s plus/minus per 48 minutes. For example, Chauncey Billups leads the team in Net48 at 6.9; this means that the Clippers outscore their opponents by 6.9 points per 48 minutes when Chauncey is on the floor. Once you get past the five starters, the Net48 figures get ugly: Mo Williams (-5.6), Randy Foye (-7.6), Reggie Evans (-9.0), and Ryan Gomes (-4.9) are squandering much of the cushion that the starters have built up.
The fundamental problem is that the second unit is completely incapable of generating easy baskets. The Clippers’ bench (defined for the purposes of this post as Williams, Foye, Gomes, Evans, Solomon Jones, and Brian Cook) features just one player (Williams) with an above average usage rate. The two big men in the bench rotation, Evans and Jones, have single-digit usage rates, which means they are almost non-existent on offense. When the starters come out, the offense generally consists of Mo, Foye, and Gomes playing hot potato around the perimeter, with the possession ultimately coming down to a long jumper by Mo or Foye. An astounding 64.7% of the shots attempted by the second unit have been from 16 feet or deeper.
Fortunately for the Clippers, Mo Williams has been on a rampage from outside, single-handedly keeping the Clippers competitive while the starters rest. Mo is draining 45% of his threes and 52% of his shots overall. His hot shooting has bailed the bench out of innumerable ghastly possessions. One shudders at the thought of how atrocious the second unit will be when Mo inevitably regresses to his career shooting percentages of 39% from three and 44% overall.
So how can the Clippers fix their bench? Well, the obvious answer is better players. As I see it, the Clippers have just two legitimate NBA rotation-quality players on the bench, Mo and Reggie Evans. Ryan Gomes, Brian Cook, and Solomon Jones have no business sniffing minutes outside of garbage time. Randy Foye will, at times, fool you into thinking he’s a legitimate asset, but he has never posted a PER above 14.0 in his NBA career (he’s at 11.4 this year), nor a true shooting percentage anywhere close to the league average. So that leaves the Clippers with a total of seven bona fide NBA players. Come playoff time, that might be enough; rotations are usually truncated to 7-8 men in the postseason. But if the likes of Gomes and Jones continue to suck away minutes from the starters, the Clips may not even reach the playoffs. That is especially true in this compressed season in which legs are tired and injuries are frequent.
The Clippers desperately need two additional players: a fourth guard who can generate his own shot and a big man who can score off the bench. It would also be nice if said big man had enough size to guard centers, as I never again want to see Reggie Evans trying to defend Pau Gasol. Then again, any big man who can score and guard centers is probably a borderline all-star making $10 million a year. Speaking of which, isn’t it ironic that Chris Kaman, whom New Orleans is actively shopping, would be the perfect tonic for the Clippers’ bench? Playing with the second unit, Chris could shine against backup big men, and could be the offensive focal point he always thought he deserved to be. Maybe the Hornets would be interested in some kind of Kaman+Gordon+Aminu for CP3 package.
Partial relief may be on the way as soon as tomorrow. Eric Bledsoe is expected to make his return against the Nuggets on Sunday. Per the Los Angeles Times, Bledsoe will compete with Foye for minutes. It’s awfully generous to Randy Foye to use the verb “compete” in that context. Bledsoe may or may not be the better overall player, but he will be a much better fit in the Clippers’ second unit. In his rookie year, Bledsoe showed that he has one elite NBA skill: attacking the rim. 37% of Bledsoe’s field goal attempts last year were at the rim, according to hoopdata.com; Foye, on the other hand, shoots just 18% of his attempts from short range. Considering the current second unit’s proclivity for hoisting jumpers, Bledsoe will add a welcome new dimension. For what it’s worth, the proprietary SCHOENE analytics system developed by Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus predicts that Bledsoe will have a breakout season. Even if he merely maintains last season’s level of play, he’ll inject some energy into the listless Clippers bench as the fourth guard behind Paul, Billups, and Williams.
That leaves the Clippers with one final hole to fill. They must find an offensively-inclined backup big man, so that they are not playing three-on-five whenever Blake takes a breather. Any PF/C combination of Jones, Evans, and DeAndre Jordan allows the defense to cheat onto the perimeter and force contested jumpshots. A big man who can keep the defense honest would help to space the floor and balance out the second team; and, in case you are wondering, Brian Cook is emphatically not that big man.
One intriguing possibility is Kenyon Martin. Martin signed a one-year contract with the Xinjiang Guanghui Flying Tigers (almost certainly the name of my next rec league team), but will be eligible to return to the NBA as early as February 16. According to ESPN, the Clippers are one of five teams (NYK, SAS, MIA, ATL are the others) pursuing Martin. Chauncey Billups, Martin’s former Nuggets teammate, has reportedly been recruiting him for some time. The Clippers and the Knicks can offer Martin more money – the $2.5 million “mini-midlevel” exception – than any of his other suitors. As the Knicks are miserable, the Clippers would seem to be in the pole position to land Martin; although I could certainly see him taking less money to play in Miami.
So does the former #1 overall pick have anything left in the tank at age 34? Perhaps the more appropriate question is, could he possibly be any worse than the dreaded Brian Cook/Solomon Jones tandem? The numbers indicate that Martin still has plenty to offer. Coming off of knee surgery, Martin played nearly 26 minutes per game for Denver last year. While he’s no longer the offensive threat he was in his New Jersey heyday, he still posted a very respectable true shooting percentage of 52.6%. With the exception of points, his per-minute stats were roughly in line with his career averages. When you factor in his playoff experience and toughness, it looks like it would be a major coup to sign Martin for a pro-rated $2.5 million contract.
Martin and Bledsoe would elevate the Clippers’ second unit from putrid to, at the very least, solid. If Bledsoe can cut down his turnovers (he was fourth in the NBA in turnover rate last year) and improve his outside shot, and Martin can sustain last year’s level of productivity, then the bench could potentially become a major advantage. Williams, Bledsoe, Gomes, Evans, and Martin would form a nice blend of finesse and ruggedness, with both offensive firepower and defensive toughness. If the Martin acquisition falls through, then there are myriad trade scenarios for the Clippers to explore. Mo and Bledsoe are both attractive trade chips; one would think that either could fetch a solid backup center in return. Even Randy Foye has some trade value thanks to his $4.25 million expiring contract. But those are possibilities to explore in a later post, if and when Kenyon Martin signs elsewhere.