At one time, Kenyon Martin played at close to an All-Star level, but it's been a long time since that was true. By agreeing to a deal with Martin on Friday, the Clippers aren't looking for a difference maker so much as a modest, incremental upgrade to its bench. Martin just turned 34 and has been collecting mothballs while searching for the loophole that would allow him to leave China. With that in mind, it's fair to ask whether Martin can fulfill even the modest expectations of the role he's going to fill.
Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro has been using Reggie Evans has his primary backup on the frontline. He's tried Brian Cook, Solomon Jones and rookie Trey Thompkins at times as well, but all have fallen out of the rotation in recent games. Martin should help end that merry-go-round and provide stability to Del Negro's rotation. Martin is an established name and no matter how poorly he might play, Del Negro can use him without absorbing much criticism. So at least L.A. has that going for them.
Martin isn't that good any more, but he's less bad than the other options Del Negro has backing up Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. He's projects to be a better rebounder than Cook, Thompkins and Jones and a superior defender to that trio as well. Jones may carve out an occasional niche as a shot-blocking specialist. Cook can be used when the Clips need a deep threat from the center position. Thompkins can spend time in the D-League. Martin offers a more complete skillset than each.
According to our SCHOENE projection system, Martin is pegged to produce about 4.9 points, 3.3 boards and 1.2 assists in a 16-minute role, with a bottomline tally of -0.2 WARP (Wins Above Replacement). He really doesn't offer any more offensive value than Evans, believe it or not, because he doesn't have the same impact on the offensive glass. On the plus side, he doesn't have Evans' propensity for turning the ball over.
Before the Martin signing, SCHOENE had the Clippers' 66-game win baseline set at 41.7 games, with a No. 3 ranking in Offensive Rating and No. 14 in Defensive Rating. Once you slot in minutes for Martin and adjust the other bigs down accordingly, those numbers do improve: 42.4 wins, still third on offense but up to 13th on defense. Given the other players on the roster, Martin makes the Clippers better.
The problem is what economists call opportunity cost. By squandering their mini mid-level exception of $2.5 million on Martin, the Clippers are missing out a better player that will invariably become available down the line, whether or not it's a big man. There are some bad teams in the league this season and some of them are going to be buying out veterans to gear up for next season. Still out there on the unrestricted free agent market are superior talents like Andrei Kirilenko and Joel Przybilla. What about D-Leaguers that are killing it, like Brian Butch and Chris Daniels? You can get them for minimum salary, but now you're out of roster spots.
This is really what the concept of replacement level is all about. If Martin, as we project, is going to produce at replacement level or below, then you should be able to find a freebie that can do a similar job for a minimum salary. The Clippers' $2.5 million exception would have been very attractive to any more productive player that is or may be looking for work. (Such as Przybilla, who may sign with Miami or Chicago this weekend.) Perhaps that player, such as Kirilenko, is not the precise type of player you're looking for, but that doesn't mean you throw value out the window. If you can't find the right fix for a weakness, you compensate by strengthening other areas. Kirilenko would be a big upgrade over Ryan Gomes as the backup three, would offer some of the rim protection lost when Jordan is out of the game, and would give Del Negro an excellent option to go small by playing AK47 at the four.
This isn't about Kirilenko per se, just more of idea of a player like him -- a productive talent that might not fit exactly what you need. You still have to consider things like the diminishing returns of redundant parts, but that still shouldn't lead you down a trail where you end up giving your exception to a player like Martin. It's poor player evaluation -- what Knicks fans will recognize as collecting names.
This may be similar to the errors Miami made with its roster construction last season, when a slow of over-the-hill big men led to a bunch of unused centers on the inactive list during the postseason. The Heat learned its lesson and added some young talent to its bench mix this season. The Clippers will use Martin, but signing him is not a very creative move for a team that has a shot at winning its conference. To be fair, Miami was reportedly one of the other contenders to land Martin, as were several other playoff-caliber teams. It seems the collective perception of Martin is askew with the reality.
But, who knows, maybe it'll work out. If it does, it'll be because Martin proves to be an upgrade to the defense. According to 82games.com, the Clippers are a whopping 18.5 points per 100 possessions worse defensively when Jordan is on the bench. They are 5.8 points worse when Griffin sits. It shouldn't be hard for Martin to close those gaps. For all his hard work, the Clippers get torched when Evans is in the game and now his role should be reduced. Last season in Denver, the Nuggets were 3.7 points better defensively with Martin on the floor.
In the end, Martin represents a slight upgrade to what the Clippers had on hand. The roster's depth took a serious hit when L.A. traded for Chris Paul. It was well worth it of course, but it's tough to rebuild a bench on the fly. Martin is a name that will excite his new teammates and Clipper fans all over Los Angeles. Really, though, they could have done better.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
Get your copy of the most comprehensive guide to the new NBA season. Pro Basketball Prospectus 2011-12 is now available in .PDF and paperback format.
Follow Bradford Doolittle on Twitter.
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.