The Los Angeles Clippers are entering offseason number two in what appears to be a different approach to reaching the NBA Finals. Long gone are the faces that made up Lob City, except for Deandre Jordan, who may be out the door as well, if he does what everyone expects, and opts out of his contract.
Jerry West, the architect of the current Golden State Warriors, took on a risk by blowing up the most successful Clippers team in franchise history. He let J.J. Redick walk away in free agency without a fight, and made a blockbuster deal with Houston that sent Chris Paul packing in exchange for Patrick Beverley and a host of role players.
His biggest move, however, came on January 29, when Blake Griffin was shipped off to the Detroit Pistons in exchange for Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, and Detroit’s first-round pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. The pick was 1-4 protected, meaning, if the Pistons received a top-four draft pick, they’d get to keep it.
This was not the case. Detroit was awarded the 12th pick during Tuesday’s Draft Lottery, which they immediately handed over to Los Angeles. The Clippers then earned the 13th pick due to their own record, giving them two subsequent picks in a strong part of the NBA draft.
The immediate thought is that the team should trade one, or package both of these picks into a trade for established NBA players, or to move up in the draft to take a prospect that can contribute faster. However, the teams at the top of the draft order have very little need to move down. As for NBA-ready players available for trade, point guard Dennis Schroder of the Atlanta Hawks is the only one who has expressed interest in finding a new home. The Clippers’ best bet at this junction is to use both of their picks to fill areas of need. The expected departure of Jordan leaves a hole at the center position, and although Beverley has been a serviceable point guard in the past, especially on the defensive front, he only played 11 games with Los Angeles last year, so no one really knows how well he fits with the team.
Three prospects come to mind when looking at the middle of the first-round. Multiple mock drafts have the Clippers taking Shai Gilgeous Alexander, a point guard out of Kentucky, but it’s the second pick that is up for debate. Centers Robert Williams and Mitchell Robinson are expected to be available when Los Angeles is on the clock, but both are far from a sure thing. Alexander could very well be the Clippers’ answer at starting point guard for a very long time. He is an excellent ball handler and gets into the paint with ease. This makes him an excellent pick and roll point guard, as he can use a screen at the top of the key to get to the rim. There, he has a host of moves that allow him to create his own shot, and when he draws multiple defenders, he has the vision and passing ability to find the open big man for an easy bucket. This is what allowed Alexander to be an efficient offensive player in his time at Kentucky. He maintained a true shooting percentage of 58 percent with an offensive rating of 117 points per 100 possessions. He also averaged 5.1 assists per game, which isn’t an eye-popping stat, but is a good foundation for him to grow.
One potential cause for concern with Alexander is his weight. At 180 pounds, Alexander may find himself getting bullied by bigger NBA guards as he begins his professional career. It’s easy to say he can just gain the weight to ensure this doesn’t happen, but it’s a harder concept to put in to practice.
Even if Alexander doesn’t bulk up significantly, he is 6 feet 6 inches, with lanky arms and fast feet. These attributes helped him on defense in college, where he had a defensive rating of 100.8 points per 100 possessions.
Now comes the difficult task of figuring out who Los Angeles should take with their second first round pick. Williams is consistently projected to be taken higher than Robinson, and there is merit to that argument. First and foremost, Williams has two years of college basketball at Texas A&M under his belt, whereas Robinson committed to Western Kentucky before un-enrolling and taking the 2017 NCAA season off to prepare for the draft.
Williams was a defensive force for the Aggies, posting a team-best defensive rating of 91.9 points per 100 possessions. He used the entirety of his hulking frame to ensure opposing teams rarely had an easy path to points in the paint, and averaged 2.63 blocks per game in doing so.
Offensively, Williams was the most efficient member of the Texas A&M squad. He had a team-high true shooting percentage, at 61 percent, and had the fourth best offensive rating, at 114.1 points per 100 possessions. He was able to post such lofty numbers because all of his points came at the rim. There weren’t too many players that he was unable to post-up and out muscle. His skill-set is eerily similar to Jordan’s, making the All-Star center’s departure slightly more bearable. The two share the same weakness as well. Williams’ offensive game is limited to the paint, allowing defenders to focus their attentions there. Today’s NBA seems to be shying away from the traditional center, in lieu of a big man who can stretch the floor by shooting jump shots. This is what makes Robinson such an appealing prospect.
Robinson takes the edge in height, standing at seven feet compared to Williams’ 6-foot-10 inches, but Williams outweighs Robinson 240 pounds to 223 pounds. It’s the difference in weight that truly dictates the differing styles between the two. Unlike Williams’ brand of physical play, Robinson uses his exceptional athleticism to excel.
He moves his feet very quickly on defense, so even if a player initially gets by him en route to the rim, Robinson can easily recover and disrupt the play. He is also lankier than Williams, and can use his long arms to swat away shot attempts. Like Williams, Robinson looks to score in the paint first. His speed gives him the potential to succeed in pick and roll plays, as he can set a screen to free the point guard, and quickly get to the basket, where his height will make it hard for a defender to stop him from scoring.
The fact that Robinson has a jump shot in his arsenal, makes him different than any center the Clippers have had in a long time, and adds a new wrinkle to their offense. Although Robinson hasn’t demonstrated the ability to shoot NBA-range 3-pointers yet, just having him able to take and make shots outside of the paint spaces the floor, and forces defenders to have to guard Robinson anywhere, instead of focusing all of their efforts inside.
All of Robinson’s strengths are well and good, but it is hard to have complete faith in him, as he has yet to demonstrate his ability against college, let alone NBA caliber players. The Clippers would need to know they are taking on a project by picking Robinson, a risk they may be willing to take, as they are not looking to compete for the championship in 2018.
With a president like West, it is impossible to tell what will happen with these draft picks. He may very well be able to pull off an amazing trade and snag Kawhi Leonard from the Spurs, but more likely than not, the two picks will become two players that set Los Angeles up for success in the long-term.
The Warriors rule the Western Conference for now, due in large part to West’s ability to build a team. If he can work his magic again, the Clippers could be on their way to dominating the conference as Golden State begins to decline. The players taken in the 2018 NBA Draft aim to be a big part of this plan.