The NBA’s February 18 trade deadline passed and it seemed as though all deals had been reported. However, it’s not uncommon for trade negotiations to go down to the wire and for deals to be reported well past the 3 p.m. deadline.
Twenty-two minutes after this year’s deadline had passed, Marc Stein of ESPN reported that the Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies finalized a trade before the buzzer. The Clippers agreed to send Lance Stephenson and a protected first-round pick to the Grizzlies in exchange for Jeff Green. The deal was met with mixed reactions; some people loved the deal for the Clippers, some people hated it.
While Green is certainly capable of making a significant impact on a game, he has been inconsistent throughout his career. He is a long, physically gifted forward who at times appears to be a viable starting small forward. However, when you pay close attention, you notice that he goes long periods without making much of an impact. He’ll often fade within the offense and can be lethargic and inattentive on defense. And for every nice performance where he puts up 15 or more points, he seems to follow it up with a single-digit outing.
Nevertheless, the Clippers have been searching for a viable starting small forward for years, cycling through players like Ryan Gomes, Caron Butler, Jared Dudley, Matt Barnes, Chris Douglas-Roberts and, most recently, Lance Stephenson, Luc Mbah a Moute, Paul Pierce and Wesley Johnson.
Barnes provided the most consistent production over the last few seasons with passable three-point shooting, timely cuts to the basket and solid perimeter defense, but was traded during the offseason. Stephenson had opportunities to start at small forward this season, but Coach Doc Rivers has cycled through his options all season, and most recently opted for Mbah a Moute’s consistent defense over Stephenson’s versatile, yet inconsistent skillset.
Swapping Stephenson for Green made sense in theory. Stephenson is a career 30.5 percent three-point shooter, he improvises on offense too often and is undersized at the small forward position (though he did put together some nice performances in limited minutes for the Clippers this season). Green is a long forward who can play both the three and the four, which is important for the Clippers since Blake Griffin is still sidelined and it’s unclear how effective he will be when he returns. Also, the Clippers have one of the highest payrolls in the league and acquiring Green at the trade deadline ensured they would have his Bird Rights, which would give them the opportunity to lock him up in free agency this upcoming offseason despite having one of the highest payrolls in the NBA.
However, the addition of a protected future first-round pick seemed to be an overpay by Rivers, who has thrown around future draft picks somewhat recklessly in recent seasons to facilitate trades and even to simply dump salary. But the Clippers are built to compete for a championship now, the window for this roster is closing and they needed to do something to close the gap between themselves and teams like the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs.
In eight games with the Clippers, Green has been inconsistent as a scorer and defender, to say the least. Here is Green’s scoring totals so far as a Clipper: 5, 18, 6, 22, 7, 0, 14, 0. He is averaging nine points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.5 assists, while shooting 41.4 percent from the field and 37.5 percent from distance.
Those numbers probably aren’t what Rivers and the Clippers were hoping for when they moved Stephenson and a first-rounder to Memphis. The inconsistent production is even more disconcerting when you consider that, in limited minutes, Stephenson was decently productive for the Clippers and is putting together some nice performances for the Grizzlies so far. Through nine games with the Grizzlies, Stephenson, in 23.4 minutes per game, is averaging 13 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.2 assists, while shooting 52.7 percent from the field and 25 percent from three-point range.
But let’s keep things in perspective. A trade has never been determined to be a success or bust after just eight games. Also, Green is being integrated into a new system (though he has played for Rivers in the past) and is being asked to play both forward positions in the absence of Griffin. Also, despite his inconsistency, Green is capable of producing well-rounded performances, unlike the Clippers’ other options at small forward. Mbah a Moute provides great defense, but is a complete liability on offense (despite continually finding new ways to get separation from opponents for easy shots at the basket). Pierce has been wildly inconsistent this season, shooting just 31.5 percent from three-point range, struggling defensively and is limited in the amount of minutes he can play each night. Johnson has had some nice moments for the Clippers and is a decent role player, but his inability to attack the rim when opponents close out on him at the three-point line has rendered him rather one-dimensional on offense.
For all of Green’s limitations, he is enough of a threat from three-point range that opponents will close out on him when he has an open shot. Unlike Johnson, Mbah a Moute and Pierce (at this point in his career), Green can actually take the ball off the dribble and attack the basket. He isn’t exactly LeBron James off the dribble, but he has a tight enough handle and enough athleticism to finish over and around opponents. We saw this in Green’s best performance so far as a Clipper, which came against the Sacramento Kings.
And if defenses leave him open, he can knock down the occasional three-pointer.
But with Green, the issue isn’t what he is capable of. The issue is that on any given night, we don’t know which version of Green will show up. Sometimes the forward capable of putting up 30 points and playing acceptable defense shows up. Other times, the forward that has little to any impact defensively and goes scoreless shows up. For the Clippers, this isn’t the end of the world since their starting lineup is generally a net positive even when they get essentially zero offensive production from the starting small forward. But the Clippers are going to have to go up against some very, very strong competition in the playoffs, and it’s hard to imagine them beating the Warriors or Spurs in a seven-game series without consistent production from their starting small forward, who will presumably be Green.
It’s too early to say that Green won’t be a difference maker in the postseason, or that this is a failed trade. But it seems that at this point, Green represents the Clippers’ best chance to get meaningful production from the small forward position. However, as we’ve seen through Green’s career and through the last eight games, it’s almost impossible to tell which version of Green will show up on any given night.
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