When the Clippers shipped Eric Bledsoe and Caron Butler to the Phoenix Suns in a three-team trade with the Milwaukee Bucks for J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley, they upgraded to better three-point shooting and defense at the starting wing positions. But Bledsoe’s departure left an immense hole at backup point guard.
With limited financial means to find a replacement -- after re-signing Matt Barnes with a portion of their midlevel exception, the Clippers had approximately $1.9 million of it remaining -- they faced the possibility of signing a limited veteran or inexperienced young commodity.
But somehow, perhaps by way of hometown discount, the Clippers turned their miniscule cap space into a two-year, $3.8 million deal for Darren Collison, a 25-year-old point guard who's started 219 of the 296 games he's played in his four-year career.
While Collison and Bledsoe have inherently different styles of play -- and make no mistake, Bledsoe is clearly the more talented player -- Collison can provide similar value within the confines of his new and more appropriate role as the Clippers’ second-unit leader.
Collison, a Rancho Cucamonga native and UCLA alum, was most productive as a rookie during the 2009-10 season with the New Orleans Hornets when, under the tutelage of Chris Paul, he averaged 12.4 points, 5.7 assists and 1.0 steals to go along with 40 percent shooting from beyond the arc. With Paul limited to just 45 games because of a knee injury, Collison started 37 games and, at times, was as effective as any floor general in the league.
Since his initial success, Collison has been miscast in starting roles with the Indiana Pacers and Dallas Mavericks, leading to an overall decrease in his scoring, shooting efficiency and general productivity.
As Paul’s backup, though, Collison will have considerably less pressure to succeed. He’ll play 10 to 20 minutes a night, depending on the matchup, and have less offensive responsibility while playing alongside new backcourt mate Jamal Crawford.
At his core, Collison is an open-court player, not unlike Bledsoe, with 29.2 percent of his offensive possessions occurring in transition situations. His devastating speed allows him to get to the rim before opponents can react, and his finishing ability has improved to an above-average level for a point guard (66.9 percent shooting at the rim).
Collison is more of a traditional point guard than Bledsoe, with a higher career assist percentage (28.4) and lower turnover percentage (17.3). Though he doesn’t have elite court vision -- he’s prone to tunnel vision on drives and creating for himself first -- Collison is the better decision-maker and safer bet offensively. He’s a more efficient shooter, with a career 54.7 true shooting percentage, and shoots 86.2 percent from the free-throw line.
A career 36 percent shooter from deep, Collison shot 44.3 percent on spot-up three-pointers last season, proving he’s capable of playing off the Clippers’ other primary ball-handlers, Paul and Crawford. Collison played shooting guard opposite Paul in New Orleans -- the only time he’s done so in his NBA career -- so coach Doc Rivers will have an unorthodox two point guard lineup to use if he so chooses.
Defensively, Collison presents some cause for concern. He’s susceptible to being overpowered in the post and on drives because of his frame (6-0, 175 lbs.), and can sporadically get lost out of position when navigating through pick-and-rolls and in helpside. Still, his quick feet and solid fundamentals allow him to play adequate on-ball defense, and his tendency to reach for steals when a player blows by him occasionally results in fastbreak opportunities.
Overall, Collison’s teams have performed better offensively with him on the floor, and slightly worse defensively. That trend may actually benefit the Clippers’ second unit, as despite the bench’s defensive dominance -- they only allowed 89.8 points per 100 possessions, led by Bledsoe’s efforts -- the lineup lacked a reliable fallback option outside of Crawford’s brilliance in isolation situations.
Collison can provide the steady offensive hand the Clippers’ second unit needs. Since he has a player option after this season -- an option that he’s almost certain to exercise -- Collison will have no choice but to buy into Rivers’ concepts and be hungry to prove he still has value after three straight inconsistent seasons as a starter. This role, serving as a backup on a contender, fits him perfectly and is a win-win for both parties.
When examining the free-agent market and determining realistic backup options for the Clippers, Collison was a dream. Players with his skill and ability normally command a far greater price and, more importantly, long-term security.
Whether Collison lives up to his potential, this was a low-risk, high-reward move by the Clippers, and one that is key to surviving the wrath of the recent Collective Bargaining Agreement.
The arrival of Rivers and re-signing of Paul are the blockbuster deals of the Clippers’ summer, but the signing of Collison is the type of smart, cost-effective move that proves beneficial in the postseason.
Stats used in this post are from ESPN.com, NBA.com/Stats, MySynergySports.com, HoopData.com and Basketball-Reference.com.