Print and Go Back ESPN.com: TrueHoop [Print without images]

Thursday, December 8, 2011
The Clippers reverse course

By Kevin Arnovitz

After Blake Griffin landed in the Los Angeles Clippers' lap in the summer of 2009 after a disastrous 19-63 season, the organization gradually committed itself to a rebuilding blueprint. This later became known to Clippers fans as "the Oklahoma City template," once the Thunder took off during the 2009-10 season.

The Clippers would build around their future superstar (Blake Griffin) and his trusty perimeter sidekick (Eric Gordon), both of whom were on rookie-scale contracts. In the meantime, the team stockpiled intriguing assets, such as DeAndre Jordan, Eric Bledsoe and Al-Farouq Aminu. The Clippers managed to unload Baron Davis for the shorter, less-expensive contract of Mo Williams. Though the front office had meager offers for Chris Kaman, they held onto their All-Star center with the appreciation that he'd fetch more as his contract nudged closer to expiration.

There were a couple of hiccups along the way. The draft pick they sent to Cleveland along with Davis projected to be in the 8-12 range turned into a Kyrie Irving, a stroke of bad luck (the lottery pick had only a 2.8 percent chance of landing at No. 1). But for the most part, general manager Neil Olshey exercised discipline and foresight. Rather than overspend for middling talent in a dash for the No. 8 seed, the Clippers took a waiver on low-cost options such as Gomes and Randy Foye during the summer of 2010. Neither set the world on fire, but the Clippers' primary objective was keeping the balance sheet free of clutter as Griffin and Gordon approached their primes, even if it meant visiting Secaucus for a couple more years.

By agreeing to a three-year with Caron Butler, $24 million deal, the Clippers have taken a detour from their planned route. A franchise that's been protective of its cap flexibility will now pay $8 million to a small forward who is coming off a severe knee injury and has posted a player efficiency rating (PER) of 13.77 and 14.25 each of the past two seasons, respectively. Since the 2005-06, Butler hasn't played more than 67 games in a single season.

D.J. Foster of ClipperBlog took a look at where Butler stands, three months shy of his 32nd birthday:
Here’s the biggest problem with Butler -- [Butler] is a high usage scorer. Butler’s career usage rate (the percentage of offensive possessions used by a player during his time on the floor) is 22.7 percent. Last year in an injury-shortened season on a championship Dallas Mavericks team, it was at 25.1 percent. That ranked him seventh in the NBA for small forwards, ahead of guys like Paul Pierce and Rudy Gay. Short version: Caron Butler uses a lot of possessions.

... With Chris Kaman coming back healthy and demanding a big chunk of the looks (he hasn’t passed up an open 15-footer since, oh, 2005), and Gordon and Griffin demanding more possessions if anything, where are all these shots for Butler supposed to generate from? Who loses all those possessions?

... Let’s say, despite all that, you’re sold on Butler as the scorer the Clippers need. Sixteen points a game at 44 percent shooting is nice. He’s got a nice midrange game and can slash. OK. I’m with you.

But if the priority is placing shooters around Gordon and Griffin — and unless something has changed, it is — then why add Butler? Prior to what can probably be labeled as a statistical outlier (43 percent in 29 games last season), Caron Butler was a 31 percent career 3-point shooter. On his career, he’s attempted less than two 3-pointers a game. He’s not a deep threat or a spot-up shooter by any means, and he doesn’t really stretch the floor because all of his damage is done in iso situations, off his own jab steps. If you want to chase good 3-point shooting numbers in a small sample size, Al-Farouq Aminu’s start to last season works just as well.

The Clippers don't have a legitimate ball-mover on the floor to help jump-start their gummy 23rd-ranked offense. Now they'll have a player at the small forward position whose assist rate ranks below the likes of Kaman, Zach Randolph, Chris Wilcox and Corey Maggette.

Is Butler an upgrade over Ryan Gomes?  Yes, so long as he's in uniform -- something he often isn't. The small forward market is dwindling by the hour, so it's likely the Clippers felt the urgency to do something at the 3 spot. But for a team that hopes to add a max player alongside Blake Griffin (who, himself will demand a max contract before the expiration of Butler's deal) and needs to find money to retain Eric Gordon and DeAndre Jordan in the next year, the cap hit for an aging small forward with a high injury risk and ball-stopping tendencies doesn't conform to a model of smart team-building that have made the Clippers relevant and potentially on the cusp of something bigger.