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NBA AM: Small Forward Depth an Issue For Clippers

Though it is still just preseason, Matt Barnes’ poor shooting is a concern for the Los Angeles Clippers …

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Preseason is a time for teams to fine-tune their offensive and defensive systems, experiment with lineups, try out unguaranteed players fighting for a roster spot and build some chemistry. Considering this, it’s generally a mistake to read too much into a team’s preseason record. However, it is a good opportunity to see how individual players are performing after an offseason of recovering from injuries, working on their games, and getting into shape for the upcoming season.

The Los Angeles Clippers are 2-6 this preseason, but more significantly, small forward Matt Barnes has been in a severe shooting slump. After going 0-of-5 from the field, and 0-of-4 from beyond-the-arc in last night’s win against the Phoenix Suns, Barnes is now 3-of-36 from the field in six preseason games.

Last month, at Clippers Media Day, Barnes said that he lost roughly 20 pounds during the offseason, worked on his overall game, and is now 100 percent healthy. Nevertheless, his performance on the court so far has been discouraging and a cause for concern heading into the start of the regular season.

When recently asked about his shooting woes, Barnes seemed confident that he would eventually break through this slump.

“It’s just one of those … stretches,” Barnes said. “I’m pressing mentally. I think that’s it more than anything. I haven’t changed anything. I’ll continue to work on things, so they will start dropping.”

Last season, Barnes averaged 9.9 points, 4.6 rebounds and two assists per game, and shot 34.4 percent from three-point range. These numbers don’t jump off the page, but are sufficient for a Clippers team that runs a high-efficiency offense. But if Barnes’ shooting woes continue throughout the season, it could be a problem in the postseason for a Clippers team that is lacking in depth at the small forward position. At age 34, Barnes may not be the defensive player he once was, but he is still the Clippers best option when it comes to slowing down some of the league’s best scorers. But to play heavy minutes, Barnes needs to at least be a threat to hit shots from perimeter to keep opposing defenses honest. This is why Barnes’ poor shooting and overall lack of impact in these preseason games should be a red flag for a Clippers team that expects to compete for a championship this season.

As Barnes stated, this shooting slump could be temporary and he could round into form midseason like he did last year. But even if Barnes does put up numbers comparable to last season, the Clippers have shaky depth behind him. Beyond Barnes, the Clippers have just Chris Douglas-Roberts, second-year forward Reggie Bullock, Joe Ingles (unguaranteed contract), and rookie C.J. Wilcox (who is more of a shooting guard than small forward). Douglas-Roberts is a nice value signing for the Clippers, but, like Barnes, is a player whose value lies in hustle and effort rather than consistent, tangible production. Last season, Douglas-Roberts averaged 6.9 points, 2.4 rebounds and one assist per game, while shooting 38.6 percent from beyond-the-arc (which is by far the best three-point shooting percentage of his career). Douglas-Roberts worked hard this offseason to continue improving his three-point shooting, knowing that the Clippers need him to be a solid 3-and-D player this season. Aside from Douglas-Roberts, Ingles has played sparingly this preseason, and is at risk of not making the team. Additionally, despite his skill and potential, Bullock has been unable to knock down open shots and at times looks lost defensively like he did in his rookie season.

If either Barnes or Douglas-Roberts misses significant time because of injury, or struggles the way former Clipper Jared Dudley did all of last season, Clippers coach Doc Rivers could resort to using three-guard lineups, which he has done in the past. However, this strategy represents one of the major issues that an ineffective Barnes could cause for the Clippers. Playing small-ball may work against certain teams, but if the Clippers want to win a championship, they will have to get through some of the other contenders in the postseason. This includes the Oklahoma City Thunder, Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, and, if they reach the Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers or Chicago Bulls potentially.

These other contenders have star players like Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and Andre Iguodala at small forward. Stopping Durant last season in the playoffs was a major problem for the Clippers, and if Rivers is forced to put someone like J.J. Redick on him, it could be the difference between winning a championship and another early playoff exit. With that in mind, expect the Clippers to keep an eye on potential trades throughout the season to shore up the small forward position. If they are unable to swing a trade, they will likely wait to see if any veteran small forwards are bought out of their contracts the way Danny Granger was last season.

To keep things in perspective, six preseason games is a small sample size and Barnes very well could find his rhythm sooner rather than later. Additionally, with time Douglas-Roberts could prove to be as productive as Barnes has been for the Clippers in recent seasons, if not more. But the Clippers are a legitimate contender, and their main competition for a championship feature small forwards that have won league MVP awards, Finals MVP awards, scoring titles and multiple championships. Last season’s version of Barnes was just good enough to keep this from being a major issue for the Clippers. But if last year’s version of Barnes doesn’t reappear, the Clippers will be at risk of another early playoff exit this season. Whether he will reappear or not is arguably the biggest question facing the Clippers entering start of the regular season.

NBA Releases Annual General Manager Survey

Each season, the NBA general managers participate in a survey which answers questions and provides predictions about the NBA and the upcoming season. According to the survey, most general managers predict that the San Antonio Spurs will win the championship again this season, the revamped Cleveland Cavaliers will win the Eastern Conference Finals, LeBron James will win the MVP award, Jabari Parker will win Rookie of the Year, and Anthony Davis is most likely to have a breakout season.

The survey covers other interesting league topics and can be found in its entirety here.

 

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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