The NBA free agent market opened for business Tuesday, and it didn't take long for the first big headline of the summer to be written. While most of Tuesday's reported moves (free agents can't officially sign until July 9, when the league's moratorium on player movement is lifted) came as little surprise, including Jose Calderon and Antawn Jamison agreeing to return to their teams, one move stood out as an exception.
Baron Davis had surprised analysts Monday by opting out of the last year of his contract with the Golden State Warriors, which would have paid him $17.8 million. The bigger bombshell came yesterday, when ESPN.com's Marc Stein reported that Davis had reached agreement with the Los Angeles Clippers on a new five-year, $65 million deal.
Davis is a major addition to a team that has struggled to find consistency at the point since Sam Cassell's veteran savvy keyed the team's 47-win 2005-06 campaign. Assuming that the Clippers are able to re-sign Elton Brand, an unrestricted free agent after opting out of his own contract, they'll boast one of the league's best inside/outside duos.
Last year, Davis rated as 13.3 wins more valuable than a replacement-level player by my rating system, while Brand was even better (17.3 WARP) two seasons ago before missing the first 74 games of 2007-08 after tearing his Achilles in an offseason workout. If they're able to repeat that kind of performance, they would be worth a combined 30.6 WARP to the Clippers. Just three duos in the league rated as more valuable last season--New Orleans' Chris Paul and Tyson Chandler (33.9); Phoenix's Amaré Stoudemire and Steve Nash (31.8); and San Antonio's Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili (31.7).
Add in center Chris Kaman, who matured in Brand's absence into a low-post force, and the Clippers have a trio that can compete with anyone in the league. The issue is the same one raised about another talented trio in Boston a little less than a year ago: depth. Signing Davis means letting go of forward Corey Maggette, the team's second-most valuable player. Even with Maggette, the Clippers' depth a year ago was simply embarrassing. No other Clippers player was worth even two wins above replacement player.
A look at L.A.'s likely depth chart with each player's 2007-08 WARP (besides Brand and newly-drafted rookie Eric Gordon) is striking in its imbalance.
Ps Player WARP
PG Baron Davis 13.3
SG Cuttino Mobley -1.6
SF Al Thornton -1.0
PF Elton Brand 17.3*
C Chris Kaman 7.6
PG Brevin Knight 1.2
SG Eric Gordon R
F Tim Thomas 0.0
F/C Nick Fazekas 1.2^
* 2006-07 statistics
^ Restricted free agent
Outside of Davis, Brand and Kaman, the rest of the Clippers' rotation rated right at replacement level as a group. Still, this looks on paper like a competitive squad. Replacement level for a team is rated as 10 wins over the course of the season. In general, you can add up the WARP for a team, add 10, and get a rough sense of where they should finish. Run that exercise here, taking away a win or two for the sub-replacement minutes the team will get from the end of the bench, and you come up with a 46-win team, give or take.
The best hope for improvement on the Clippers is Thornton, the second-year forward who was an All-Rookie First Team pick a year ago and figures to inherit Maggette's spot in the starting lineup after starting 31 times last season. Thornton was occasionally brilliant as a rookie, scoring 30-plus points three times. Yet he was maddeningly inconsistent, as perhaps best reflected by his April. Thornton scored 20-plus points four times in eight April games; the other four games, he scored no more than eight points. He never scored between 10 and 19 points the entire month.
The net result was that Thornton rated as slightly below replacement level, hardly a stunning development for a rookie on a bad team. With Davis and Brand around to draw defensive attention, Thornton figures to have better looks, if not as many. Add in his natural development and Thornton should easily be worth at least 2-3 wins over replacement level next season.
Other than maybe backup point guard Brevin Knight, the Clippers don't have any players in the steep downhill portion of their careers. What they do have, harkening again to the Celtics, is some major injury issues. Davis played all 82 games last year, the first time since 2001-02 he had missed fewer than 15 games. It's unlikely Davis goes a full 82 again. Brand's Achilles isn't an ongoing concern like Davis' back, but he may be unable to regain all of his pre-injury value.
The other important issue is defense. It was a historically-great defense, in addition to some solid pickups in free agency, that allowed the Celtics to overcome some similar issues and put together a championship roster. That's not going to happen in L.A., but if Mike Dunleavy can get the Clippers back to where they were in 2005-06 (eighth in the league in Defensive Rating), they can make some noise. Davis will help in that regard; he's a huge upgrade from the slow-footed Cassell.
The Clippers have some of the weakest wing defenders in the league, with Thornton, Gordon and Tim Thomas all liabilities. Maggette and Vlade Radmanovic were little better two years ago and the Clippers were able to overcome it on the strength of their interior defense. However, they're likely to lose stopper Quinton Ross, an unrestricted free agent.
All told, this looks like a team that could win anywhere between 40 and 50 games, depending largely on how health shakes out. The problem is that, in the current Western Conference, that might not be good enough. Adding Davis has the corresponding benefit of significantly weakening a rival in the Warriors, but with Portland adding Greg Oden and Rudy Fernandez and none of the incumbent playoff teams suffering major losses, the competition for playoff spots in the West will be fierce again next season.
Players like Davis don't become available on a regular basis, especially not to the Clippers. Add in that he's taking something of a pay cut and this move was a no-brainer for Elgin Baylor and company. If the Clippers are to really make noise in the West, there's still work to be done to the rest of the roster over the next season or two.
Up the coast, the Warriors have suddenly become free-agent players as they seek to replace Davis. Reports have them attempting to lure Gilbert Arenas back to the Bay, but the Washington Wizards have the upper hand because they can offer Arenas an extra year.
There are plenty of other options available, but Golden State might do well to eschew the bigger names on the market. Davis' departure marks something of a shift for the Warriors, who ought to focus around their young core, including restricted free agents Andris Biedrins and Monta Ellis. Golden State might opt to move Ellis to the point to replace Davis, but that's not his natural position. Also, the Warriors' offense benefited from the mismatches Ellis' speed created alongside Davis.
As I see it, Philadelphia guard Louis Williams is the right fit. Williams has been overshadowed by more accomplished players in free agency, but after averaging 11.5 points as a sixth man for the Sixers last season at age 21 in his third NBA season, his future is as bright as almost anyone available. Williams and Ellis--both second-round picks out of high school three years ago--could share ballhandling duties and create numerous mismatches with their ability to get to the basket off the dribble. A Williams/Ellis backcourt could serve the Warriors for years to come.
Williams is a restricted free agent and Philadelphia has the ability to match any offer to him, but the 76ers must also try to preserve their cap space to make a run at adding an outside free agent themselves. If Golden State was to make a quick, hard run at Williams, it would force 76ers GM Ed Stefanski into a difficult decision on Williams.
If the Warriors can't land Williams, it would almost certainly force Ellis back to the point, but Golden State could still try to land another marquee restricted free agent like one of Chicago's Luol Deng and Ben Gordon or Atlanta's Josh Childress. Where the Warriors would err is to try to add a veteran like Maggette and try to win now. Again, the depth of the Western Conference will make it difficult for Golden State to make the playoffs without Davis, so the best course of action is to build for a run a year or two down the road, especially with three young core pieces (Biedrins, Ellis and a newcomer) signed to long-term deals.
Losing Davis is a blow to the Warriors, but in a decent free-agent market with few teams under the cap, they should be able to recover nicely down the road.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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