Up front, the Los Angeles have a steady dose of star power. In Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, they have a pairing of consistent, elite quality; Griffin, the elite athlete and talent who impacts every facet of the game and who could still stand to greatly improve, and Jordan, the even better athlete who uses those physical tools to do so much on the court with so little skill. They are truly fantastic, and, as my esteemed colleague Ben Dowsett documents, two thirds of arguably the best trio in the NBA. Even better than the fabled Spurs trio of Tony Parker, Many Ginobili and Tim Duncan. The two deserve as many minutes as they can handle, and, barring Griffin’s one serious knee injury from which he seem to be suffering no long term effects, they rarely suffer any injuries. For 80% of every game, then, the Clippers have a front court duo that is about as good as it gets.
Behind them, Los Angeles also now have Spencer Hawes, one time lottery pick and an extremely capable backup center whom they signed to a four year contract for the full value of the non-taxpayer mid-level exception this summer. In doing so, however, the Clippers have leveraged a big part of their championship viability on him.
The intent here is not to denigrate neither Hawes nor the signing of Hawes. Although the contract was unnecessarily long, it did give the Clippers a quality player at the weakest position on their depth chart, and a 40% three point shooting stretch big man who can add new dimensions to what was already the league’s best offense. Hawes, however, does not do certain things well, certain things his team really needs. For all his size, Hawes is not a particularly good lane nor rim protector. This would be fine – every player is imperfect, of course – were it not for the fact that the team already suffered from a lack of depth in these departments, and the reliance upon Hawes as the third big in the three man rotation exacerbates what was already a problem.
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Ryan Hollins was allowed to walk to the Sacramento Kings in the summer, signing for the same minimum salary contract that he had had in L.A. the previous two seasons. Hollins only has one halfcourt NBA skill – he is not in any way a creator offensively, finishes only when uncontested, can be pushed around on the block, and despite his height, length and athleticism, is a poor rebounder for his position. However, Hollins happens to be genuinely quite terrific at his one skill, that of standing near the basket and impeding any player or shot that comes his way. Jordan is one of the league’s best rim deterrents himself, and in tandem, the duo ensured the Clippers almost always had one great defensive paint presence on the court at any given time.
But Hawes does not provide this. He blocks a decent number of shots, to the tune of a 1.1 per game career average in only 24.8 minutes, but he will also watch others go unchallenged, both slow and lazy on rotations. He is the worrying rarity of the disinterested defender who does not have the physical tools to occasionally get away with it. And whilst Hawes might not be as bad with the Clippers as he looked in his final days as a Sixer (and as he did with the markedly ill-disciplined Cavaliers to end the year), there is no reason to assume a career’s worth of poor defense will suddenly abate.
If the Clippers are only going to play three big men (or four if Hedo Turkoglu is counted), and only one of them protects the paint, that is a problem. In entirely committing to Hawes, the Clippers are gambling that he can provide enough, on both ends of the court, to offset this hole. And it is a dangerous proposition.
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There does however exist a remedy already on their roster. Although they have yet to do anything with him, playing him only four minutes in the first three games, Los Angeles did also sign Ekpe Udoh this offseason to a guaranteed one year minimum salary contract. Udoh, a time sixth overall pick, was available so cheaply because of a poor year immediately prior. But although it might not appear obvious on a cursory examination, Udoh can bring to the table exactly what the Clippers need.
Last season was a nothing season for Udoh. He missed 40 games in an extremely injury-riddled campaign, one that began with knee surgery in the preseason and which subsequently contained additional ankle problems responsible for most of the remaining time. Udoh’s season splits speak to the extent of the injuries, and also the effect they had:
(per the invaluable Basketball Reference)
Further hindering Udoh last year was the state of his then-team, the Milwaukee Bucks. Infamously, the Bucks of last year had no structure, philosophy or cohesion to their play, had a supposedly toxic locker room, and were spectacularly poor on the court. System players cannot succeed on system-less teams, and Udoh is a system player. He is an interior defender, a team rebounder, a shotblocker with a startling 7’4 wingspan, and, at one time, a 42% mid-range jump shooter. He is a ‘little things’ player in the mold of Jason Collins, a post defender, shotblocker and defensive presence a la Adonal Foyle, and still young enough to be short of his prime years. He needs to redeem his career from the stagnation of last season, but he certainly has the time to do so.
Not especially athletic, nor strong, Udoh clearly has big holes in his game, not least of which is his entire offensive repertoire. Not in any way a creator in the post, Udoh also struggles to finish at the basket, a very poor interior finisher for a post player and not a playmaker in any way. His mid-range jumpshot is fairly decent, but it is also the only part of his offensive game which is, and his skillset on that end seems to have entirely stagnated if not regressed since his Baylor days. Furthermore, Udoh is not that good of an individual rebounder, something usually expected of a post defensive presence and something normally needed from so mediocre of an offensive talent.
However, what Udoh does (or did) do is improve the team’s rebounding. In 2011/12, Udoh’s last fully healthy season, the Golden State Warriors rebounded 48.0% of shots with him on the court, compared to 45.2% with him on the bench. Similarly, Warriors opponents shot an effective field goal percentage of 51.0% with Udoh on the bench, which dropped markedly to only 45.7% with him on the court. In what was his breakout campaign, Udoh averaged career bests of 5.6 points, 4.2 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game, yet it is the advanced statistics that speak better to the subtleties and nuances of his disciplined defensive game. Golden State’s four best line-ups all featured Udoh at center, he ranked 20th in the league in in two-year adjusted plus/minus, and was second behind only LeBron James in Adjusted Four Factors (a stat which speaks to the importance of the fundamentals of post play). And despite the injuries and the down turn that came with them, Kirk Goldsberry nevertheless ranked Udoh amongst the league’s very best paint defenders in the two year period between 2011 and 2013. He is in amongst the Duncan types in this analysis, and, it is easily noted, far ahead of Hawes.
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There is no great way to measure things such as hard hedges, defensive positioning, rotations, back screens, anticipation, timing and effort, but the measures that there are serve as testament to what Udoh can do. Udoh was a part of the Andrew Bogut/Monta Ellis trade for a reason, and that reason was not as salary filler. It may not have worked out for him in Milwaukee, but he nonetheless showed in his time with the Warriors that he had what it took to be an NBA calibre defender in the rarest of ways. We may have had to dig back quite a way to find the corroborating evidence, but such is the nature of injuries. When at his best, Udoh was quite the rim protector. And right now, the Los Angeles Clippers need that.
This is not to advocate for Udoh over Hawes. Spencer Hawes is better than Ekpe Udoh, and by sufficient of a margin for it to not be in doubt. Hawes is a quality offensive center, and every team needs quality offensive centers. But every team also needs quality paint protection. In this department, the Clippers are utterly reliant on DeAndre Jordan. The Clippers should not play Udoh over Hawes – they should play Udoh and Hawes, because someone must shoulder the load when Jordan is out.
Should Jordan miss significant time or the playoffs due to injury, of course, Udoh does not offset the loss – no one realistically available does. But he is good enough at what he does that he can shore up the weakness that might otherwise submarine them.
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