The Los Angeles Clippers added talent and depth this offseason, but the failure to address the small forward position could ultimately come back to haunt them in the postseason.
On the surface, it's hard to argue with the decisions Doc Rivers and the Clippers made this offseason. Signing Spencer Hawes as a third big man was a great move, particularly since not many expected him to be available for the mid-level exception.
Taking shooting guard C.J. Wilcox with the 28th pick in the draft was more questionable, but the logic of taking the best player available at that point makes sense. Wilcox may be a shooting specialist, but you can never have too much shooting on a roster.
Still, if you were to pinpoint the Clippers' primary weakness last season and heading into this summer, it would have been the small forward position. For the Clippers not to make a trade, sign a free agent or use a draft pick on a 3 seems a little risky.
Here's Jeff Nisius of Bleacher Report:
Matt Barnes, Jared Dudley and Reggie Bullock. That is what the Los Angeles Clippers' depth chart at small forward looks like. Not exactly a trio that strikes fear in opposing teams. Unfortunately, the Clippers have already used both salary-cap exceptions, leaving a trade and the league minimum left to improve the position. ...
Scoring-wise, not much is expected from the Clippers’ small forwards, but even factoring in the rest of their offensive contributions, they are average at best.
While Matt Barnes has been serviceable in the starting lineup, he's by no means on the level of other small forwards in the Western Conference. When you consider that Barnes is tasked with guarding the likes of Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Chandler Parsons and more, you can understand why the Clippers would want to upgrade on both ends.
Barnes is a valuable rotation player to be sure, but it's not ideal playing him a full starter's load. He's a smart player on both ends, but at age 34 it's a stretch to ask him to guard the opposing team's best wing all night. With J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford next to him on the wing, that's exactly what the small forward for the Clippers will be tasked with.
Here's what Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times wrote earlier this offseason: "It's no secret Rivers wants to upgrade his small forward position and that he has been trying to trade starting small forward Matt Barnes."
Trading Barnes doesn't necessarily need to be the solution. He'd be useful in a lesser role, and the Clippers have Redick, Crawford, Wilcox, second-year wing Reggie Bullock and future draft picks to potentially deal instead.
Point being, there are options here, even if free agency has all but dried up and the Clippers have exhausted their exceptions.
Here's Marcus Bass at HoopsHabit.com:
The Clippers are still in search of an upgrade at the small forward position. All of their primary targets have been signed to deals with other teams, and while they’re not in a panic, the Clippers still need more production from that position to get over the hump in the very-competitive western conference.
Last season Danny Granger didn’t produce the fruit head coach Doc Rivers would’ve hoped, and Jared Dudley transitioned from the player who received fan optimism to the guy who received the most fan hatred. Matt Barnes provided a lift in production in the starting unit, however he’s better served on the second unit giving energy and defensive intensity when the Clippers need it most.
The Clippers may be counting on a bounce-back campaign from Dudley, who should be healthier and in position to revert to the mean after a career-worst season. Theoretically, Dudley's corner three-point shooting should be a perfect fit offensively, and defensively he has the size and smarts to defend capably. It's all about how mobile he'll be.
If Dudley doesn't regain his old form, Bullock may be called into action. Bullock may be considered a bit of a tweener, but he has the size at 6'7" to guard other small forwards. He's limited in terms of offensive skill, but Bullock was a great shooter in college who knows how to use screens.
The Wilcox pick was interesting, if only because he may be a smaller version of Bullock. Here's what Rivers told Arash Markazi at ESPNLosAngeles.com about Wilcox and his draft strategy:
"C.J. is a great shooter and I value shooting," Rivers said. "You know, when you're at 28, I don't think you can afford to pick [for] what needs you have. I have never thought that.
A great example is last year, when we picked Reggie [Bullock]. We didn't need a three at the time; we had [Jared Dudley] and thought we were going to get that, and Matt [Barnes].
We have Jamal [Crawford] and J.J. [Redick], but he's the best player, and I think you can always make it work when you can get the best player, and I thought as far as for shooting, in this league, you need it, you can never have enough of it, and I'm a big believer in it, and I thought he may have been the best shooter in the draft, if not No. 1, No. 2."
The big takeaway there is that Rivers views Bullock as a 3, so not blocking his chance for playing time with a veteran like Hedo Turkoglu or Danny Granger makes some sense. While a trade can happen at anytime, it looks like Rivers wants to see what he has in Bullock.
That may be a bit risky for a team with legitimate title aspirations, but it's important to remember that the Clippers will be a premium destination for players who are bought out or released during the season. That's how the Clippers ended up landing Glen Davis, a serviceable backup big man, as well as Granger last year.
Giving Bullock a shot makes sense, but the Clippers shouldn't be afraid to pull the trigger on a trade that would upgrade the small forward position. That's the one weak link in an otherwise strong starting lineup, and maybe the one spot that could hold the Clippers back from reaching the NBA Finals.
There's no rush or a need to panic, but if Bullock doesn't prove to be a capable three-and-D player early on and if Barnes declines, making a move during the season for a legitimate starter would probably be wise.