Clippers again examining point guard: How does John Wall figure into future?
It is the topic that has never been extinguished for as long as the Clippers partnership with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George began nearly four years ago.
To maximize their championship aspirations, will the Clippers feel the need to make a move to add another point guard?
As the Feb. 9 trade deadline nears, and after their lack of a backup center hurt them in Thursday’s loss in Milwaukee that saw a 21-point third-quarter lead disappear, it might not even be the most pressing position of need on the depth chart.
Yet judging by their words and actions, the Clippers’ position on the importance of a point guard appears clear, although current backup John Wall, who has not played since Jan. 13 because of an abdominal injury, might not be the best fit.
During the past month, coach Tyronn Lue acknowledged that while he, a former NBA point guard, held a slightly biased opinion, he prefers to keep what he calls a “traditional point guard” in his rotation, and the team’s front office remains engaged in trade discussions for lead ballhandlers, said people across the league granted anonymity to discuss the situation candidly.
Toronto’s Fred VanVleet appears to be the top target, but Miami’s Kyle Lowry, Utah’s Mike Conley and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Charlotte’s Terry Rozier have been linked to the team at various points.
The Clippers led as much as 21, but Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 54 points was enough to lead the Bucks to a 106-105 win over Los Angeles on Thursday.
Brooklyn’s Kyrie Irving demanded a trade Friday, according to multiple reports, but the Clippers aren’t viewed as an obvious landing spot.
The question doesn’t seem to be whether a point guard is needed but whether one can be acquired who possesses the skills to elevate a championship-hungry yet still-meshing team that will run its offense through Leonard and George at a cost the Clippers can stomach. A point guard’s success depends on a team’s specific needs, said Wall.
Asked what best suits the Clippers’ heliocentric, high-usage offense, he described an operator similar to “kind of like how Mario Chalmers was with the Heat,” Wall said at the team’s shootaround Thursday in Milwaukee. “Play defense and knock down threes. That’s kind of really what your role will kind of be.
“If you’re not able to do that, it’s kind of hard to play with those guys because you’re not going to have the ball in your hands a lot, you’re probably going to be in the corner, you’re probably going to be the guy that’s setting screens and rolling a lot.”
There is also the question of what the Clippers would do to accommodate a new guard to a roster that already has too many for Lue’s current nine-man rotation.
Lue featured the 32-year-old Wall prominently before Jan. 13 and Wall has missed the last 11 games since. Yet league sources cast doubt on his fit moving forward. Wanting a “traditional point guard” on the floor in crunch time this week, Lue entrusted former starter Reggie Jackson off the bench. With Lue no longer playing lineups with three smaller guards because of their acknowledged defensive shortcomings, it leaves the Clippers with not enough opportunities to play Jackson, Wall, Norman Powell and Luke Kennard.
Multiple people across the league said the Clippers have been proactive in seeking trade partners for Wall and are considering the possibility of buying out the former five-time All-Star if a trade doesn’t materialize. Wall has averaged 11.4 points, 5.2 assists and 2.7 rebounds, but on 40% shooting, with a team-low minus-9.2 net rating, a measurement of the difference in points scored and allowed when a player is on and off the court. Wall’s catch-and-shoot efficiency (52% effective field-goal percentage) has been markedly more reliable than his pull-up shots (27%).
Asked about hearing his name in trade rumors, Wall said that he cared only about what he could control. For now that means his recovery from injury, which reached a new milestone Thursday when he took part in a controlled, full-court scrimmage for the first time against the team’s player-development coaches and his younger teammates. He said he does not have a target date for a return.
“This period for the whole league is interesting, trying to see if any trades happen, getting to see if teams stay healthy and stuff like that, so you kind of just all playing it by ear,” Wall said. “Kind of like, if you be here just try to figure out what your role is, and if you’re not here, then you got to try to find a new situation, like what the new situation might be and stuff like that.
“I’m just trying to focus on trying to get back and play. Just let everything else happen the way it’s going to happen.”
When Lawrence Frank, the team’s president of basketball operations, weighed in on the point-guard debate one year ago, he described a philosophy that eschews rigid definitions of what a traditional ballhandler should look like in favor of finding the right skills to distribute, organize, make shots and defend no matter a player’s size.
The Clippers have tested such different options in recent weeks. George was asked to increase his responsibilities as a lead ballhandler in late January and Terance Mann, a high-energy player Lue ideally views as a small forward, has been a nominal point guard since replacing Jackson in the starting lineup one month ago, though he did not play in Thursday’s fourth quarter.
Leonard said this week that improvement hinges on “us getting better, not [at] that position, it’s about every position out there.” He also noted that the team’s deepest postseason run, in 2021, was fueled in part by strong point-guard play.
“We was making a great run when I tore my ACL and I think we had a point guard at the time, which was Reggie [Jackson],” Leonard said. “Time will tell. It’s a T Lue question, I feel like. I’m out there playing with whoever is out there on the court and I’m confident in my teammates.”
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