LOS ANGELES — The best player on the Los Angeles Lakers is Jordan Clarkson, a slithery 6’3” combo guard who’s as unpredictable as he is talented. But leading an 8-29 team (as of Jan. 8) isn’t something to brag about, and the 23-year-old isn't a guaranteed star-in-the-making.
Evaluating any player on a losing team is difficult, but judging Clarkson is especially challenging. After just two seasons in the NBA, he’ll be a restricted free agent this summer, potentially forcing the Lakers to make an uncomfortable decision.
Should they re-sign him to a long-term deal or wait for another team to extend an offer sheet? The Lakers have the right to match anything, but how much is too much for Clarkson’s service?
On some nights, Clarkson is a low-budget version of Russell Westbrook. He dictates tempo and fearlessly attacks the hoop without hesitation. It’s a necessary characteristic to impact games on a nightly basis; Clarkson never backs down from looming rim protectors.
“Jordan has got an ability to score and plays with bounce and a cocky side that you respect," Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown said before a recent Lakers-Sixers game. "And he’s always one of those people that has a chance to have a big game. And so I feel like the Lakers found something special in him. He for sure looks like a keeper…He’s a young talent.”
Head coaches around the league generally admit stopping Clarkson is a central component in their defensive game plan versus the Lakers. “He can get going if we don’t keep our eye on him,” Golden State Warriors head coach Luke Walton told Bleacher Report.
But Clarkson’s forceful play only gets him so far. Defense remains a major question mark, along with his outside shot and diminutive size. Beyond the context of L.A.’s future, and how Clarkson meshes with the other members of its young core, what's his long-term role?
Should Clarkson come off the bench? Can he make teammates better? Is he system-dependent? Would he thrive or crumble on a good team? Is he a poor man’s Monta Ellis or a miniature Dwyane Wade? (Clarkson and Wade have been virtually identical scoring out of the pick-and-roll this season, per Synergy Sports.)
All these questions make this summer a pivotal one for Clarkson and the Lakers.
The financial particulars are peculiar because Clarkson is subject to the “Gilbert Arenas provision”. Here’s Los Angeles Times writer Eric Pincus with a detailed explanation of what that means:
After Clarkson's second season in the league, the Lakers will hold his early bird rights, which enable the team to spend up to $6 million, and $26.7 million over four seasons, to retain him. That figure is presumably below Clarkson's market value, but because he is restricted and the Lakers only hold his early bird rights, the Arenas rule applies -- limiting what other teams can offer Clarkson to just $5.6 million for the 2016-17 season. While another franchise can pay him up to $5.9 million in the second year, his salary for the third and fourth seasons could jump significantly to $22.7 million and $23.6 million for a total of $57.8 million -- or $14.5 million on average.
It’s similar to what the Houston Rockets did in 2012, when they signed Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik to a pair of contracts that ballooned on the third year, dissuading their respective teams from matching.
With the cap expected to rise $19-20 million next year (it’s currently at $70 million), and go up to $108 million for the 2017-18 season, teams will have more money to spend and more space to fill; hypothetically speaking, at a little over $10 million spread over the next two seasons, Clarkson would be one of the better bargains in the league and give the Lakers plenty of flexibility to bring in some of the free-agency pool's richer talent.
But on that third year, when his cap hit potentially skyrockets to the equivalent of what this season’s highest-paid players are making, things get a bit tricky. There’s no guarantee anyone makes that high of an offer.
Clarkson isn’t an ideal guard in today’s NBA. He doesn’t terrify anyone as an outside shooter—particularly off the dribble—and can’t slide back and forth on defense between both backcourt positions. (In spite of a hot start behind the three-point line this season, he’s now down to 33.3 percent on the year, and 32.3 percent in his career.)
Maybe his shot improves over the next few years—if not, his impact without the ball will be severely limited—but he won't grow. Clarkson isn't a bad defender on the ball against players his size. He's long and quick. But several shooting guards are either too strong (Jimmy Butler, James Harden) or tall (DeMar DeRozan, Klay Thompson) for Clarkson to keep down.
Beyond that, his impatience with the ball tends to get him in trouble. He’d rather shoot than pass, which may make him more useful as a scorer off the bench. (It’s something Lakers head coach Byron Scott has considered, but yet to actually do.)
Generational skill is required from high-volume ball-handlers who play that way—think Westbrook or a pre-ACL injury Derrick Rose. Clarkson only passes on approximately one out of every five drives to the basket, an extremely low ratio, per SportVU. And despite averaging seven more minutes per game this season, he’s delivering one fewer assist (from 3.5 to 2.5). That aggression often comes back to bite him.
The Lakers made zero passes on this possession, resulting in a wild drive into Kosta Koufos’ chest while Brandon Bass is wide open just a few feet away.
Clarkson is below average in the restricted area and loves pulling up at the elbows. (If paired with a stretch 4 who’s good enough to warp defensive pick-and-roll coverage, Clarkson can be dangerous, but the Lakers don’t have that type of player on their roster right now.)
Nearly a quarter of his shot attempts come with fewer than seven seconds on the shot clock, and when it reads between 7-4 seconds (designated as “late” by SportVU), his effective field-goal percentage is only 36.5 percent. That’s not great.
On their march toward the lottery, L.A.’s defense is thin, its offense is limp and both are worse with Clarkson on the court. The upcoming lottery could play a role in Clarkson's future, too. If L.A. retains its first-round pick and selects a ball-handler, there's obviously a greater incentive to distribute resources elsewhere, toward different areas of the team.
His gifts are a curse. Dynamic athleticism is only so useful when dulled by tunnel vision, leading to careless turnovers and wasted possessions. But Clarkson definitely puts pressure on opposing teams, and he's still growing.
There's a chance his next contract will be a little wonky, but should it be heavily back-loaded, the Lakers will have plenty of time to improve their roster and turn Clarkson into a complementary piece instead of a primary weapon. Sooner than later, the Lakers will need to establish an environment that makes any long-term commitment worthwhile.
All quotes in this article were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted
(All data used in this article is current as of Friday, Jan. 8.)