It’s a testament to just how difficult team-building in the NBA is that, over the course of the last week, the Clippers traded for Lamar Odom and signed two wing players but still feel thin. The two wing players, of course, are guards Chauncey Billups and Jamal Crawford. The Clippers used their Bird Rights to reach a one-year, $4.3 million deal with Billups, and agreed to a four-year contract with Crawford, who will receive the full mid-level exception starting at $5 million a season. The latter is an extravagant contract for a 32-year-old, offense-first (and perhaps offense-only) player who shot 38 percent last season — but one that will reportedly be only partially guaranteed in the third and fourth seasons.
The two should be very useful for this particular team, but with 22-year-old guard Eric Bledsoe deserving more minutes, it’s sort of striking that the Clippers have spent their biggest chip — the mid-level- exception — to sign two wing players without finding a real defender at shooting guard or any plausible backup for Caron Butler at small forward. Odom gives them a backup big man whom opposing teams will actually have to pay attention to, but the Clippers still need at least one — and probably two — other backup bigs worthy of playing time. Remember: Despite his huge paycheck, the Clippers did not trust center DeAndre Jordan enough to play him for significant minutes in the fourth quarter of almost their entire playoff run. Instead, they opted for either Reggie Evans (likely headed to Brooklyn in a sign-and-trade deal on July 11) or Kenyon Martin for defensive purposes. Neither warranted any attention from defenses when L.A. had the ball. Jordan must progress in order for the Clippers to do the same.
Odom is a good defender when he’s engaged, but he wasn’t engaged in Dallas last season (to be generous). And the Billups/Crawford pairing obviously doesn’t represent an upgrade on defense, the Clippers’ weak link.
Los Angeles still has the biannual exception and the veteran’s minimum at its disposal, and it will presumably use them to fill out the roster. Free agents Matt Barnes, Mickael Pietrus and Marquis Daniels could all potentially be had for the minimum, though the price for Barnes might be higher. Danny Green is also out there, and the Spurs used him as a small forward at times. The Clippers could also slot Ryan Gomes back into the rotation as a hybrid forward capable of spelling Butler and then use Bird Rights to bring back small forward Bobby Simmons or shooting guard Randy Foye.
But even then, the general point holds: After three splashy moves, the Clippers look much like the Clippers of last season: thin on the wing, vulnerable to strong and/or quick shooting guards and reliant on internal improvements from Blake Griffin and Jordan to bolster a defense that ranked 18th in points allowed per possession. Improvements should come in increments as Griffin and Jordan gain more experience learning the complexities of big-man NBA defense and furthering their chemistry together on that end.
Still, this team looks a step behind the Spurs and the new-look Lakers, and several steps behind the Thunder in the Western Conference. The Clippers will also be capped out a year from now after figuring in Crawford’s deal and Chris Paul’s cap hold, and persuading Paul to stay long term is the franchise’s utmost priority. That’s especially the case now, with the jilted Mavericks and the opportunistic Hawks having joined the ranks of next summer’s probable free-agent chasers.
It’s not that the signings of Crawford and Billups are bad ideas, or even that there are other clear alternatives out there (though you’d hope the Clippers at least made a phone call to Courtney Lee and O.J. Mayo to see if either might take the mid-level). The Clippers canceled their meeting with Ray Allen upon agreeing to terms with Crawford, even though Allen is a more productive player with a skill set this Clippers team sorely needs — three-point shooting to space the middle of the floor. It’s that signing two players capable (unlike Allen) of playing the point serves as a safeguard against two things:
• Paul’s health and fatigue. Paul has lingering knee issues, and though they aren’t serious, the Clippers cannot afford to overplay him during the regular season.
• Bledsoe’s growing pains. Like any young player, Bledsoe may go through some prolonged rough patches, and the Clippers drop off immensely when Paul heads to the bench.
In fact, the above is exactly what happened last season. The Clippers scored 109.6 points per 100 possessions when Paul was on the floor and just 95.6 when he was on the bench, per NBA.com’s stats tool. That was the difference between leading the league in scoring efficiency and ranking 29th, ahead of only the lowly Bobcats. Paul can’t play 48 minutes per game, even in the playoffs, and a five-minute drought can cost a team a game and a series. Ask the Grizzlies and Clippers about Games 1 and 7 of their first-round Western Conference classic.
Billups, 35, is a career point guard who can play the two and remains productive because of his uncanny combination of threes and free throws. Crawford is a career combo guard on the decline who will take bad shots, but he also draws attention from defenses, hits some highlight four-point plays (good for trivia purposes, mostly) and runs a decent pick-and-roll if needed. He’s better with a pick-and-pop big man and had nice chemistry with Al Horford in Atlanta, another reason the Clippers would love if Griffin’s jumper keeps developing. Crawford is not the kind of guard who can consistently get into the lane and make complex passes in traffic.
But Crawford is also a pretty crummy defender, prone to getting lost on screens and too slight to check physical shooting guards. Billups is rugged, but he’s overmatched against the wrong guys. If Crawford is as inefficient as was he was last season in Portland, these contracts don’t move the dial much for the Clippers — and that’s before factoring in the possibility that the aging process hits one of these guys harder than expected.
(As an aside, in challenging the entire idea of “clutch” individual shooting, the Clippers have just signed two prime exhibits to examine. Both have reputations as big-moment shooters that the numbers have never borne out. Over the last five seasons, Crawford is 36-of-127 (28.3 percent) in the last three minutes of games in which the scoring margin was three points or fewer, according to NBA.com. Billups was more respectable — he was just below average, 97-of-245 (39.6 percent) from 2003-04 through 2010-11 — but in his prime as “Mr. Big Shot,” from 2002-03 through 2005-06, he shot just 5-of-26 on potential game-winning shots, per this 82games.com study.)
In sum: The Clippers probably could have found better ways to spend their mid-level money than by using it all on Crawford. Odom is a risk, but at the cost of a slightly redundant player in Mo Williams — who was terrific for the most part last season in carrying otherwise awful scoring lineups — he’s worth it to add a productive two-way big man on the bench. Size is a non-negotiable ingredient in the NBA to win a title — unless a team has LeBron James or Michael Jordan (and Jordan’s teams had size) — and Paul and Griffin have the potential to carry the Clips and push better teams in a playoff series, provided that both are healthy. But in the big picture, the Clippers still look like the Clippers — a mid-tier playoff team, with a ceiling at No. 2, behind Oklahoma City.
All things considered, that’s not a bad place to be. And it’s possible that no move other than a blockbuster trade would have broken through the Thunder’s ceiling.