On the face of it, the Los Angeles Clippers' four-year, $25 million deal for scoring guard Jamal Crawford, reported by Yahoo!'s Marc Spears Thursday afternoon, is pretty foolish. At 32 years old, Crawford is already at an age at which players with his strengths tend to fade away, losing athleticism and quickness that helps them separate from defenders and elevate for jumpers. Crawford's performance with the Portland Trail Blazers last season bears out that trend: 38.4 percent shooting from the field, 30.8 percent shooting from 3-point range, and a career-high 24.9 percent usage rate.
Nevertheless, there are reasons to hope that Crawford can improve. The Blazers were a weird outfit in 2012, what with a coaching change, a pretty thin backcourt after the retirement of Brandon Roy, and the general unease that comes with a change in a franchise's strategy. Crawford was thrust into a non-ideal role, which is borne out by his unusually high shooting percentage. And while he has never been a pass-happy player, Crawford has proven that he's best when he's allowed to score and do little else. Plus, to make matters worse, he was also the subject of trade rumors for virtually the entire season. It was a very uncomfortable situation for Crawford, particularly when you consider the standard travails of aging.
The Clippers offer Crawford a clearer role, one in which he's excelled in the past. With Chris Paul and the freshly re-signed Chauncey Billups established as starters, Crawford can occupy the bench scorer job as a hybrid of the roles played by the since-traded Mo Williams and the likely gone Nick Young in 2011-12. He might be an uneasy fit with rapidly improving backup point guard Bledsoe — the Clippers have many guards at their best with the ball in their hands, plus capable ballhandler Lamar Odom — but they at least know what's expected of them. Crawford might not be able to reclaim the form that made him the Sixth Man of the Year with the Atlanta Hawks in 2009-10, but he can still be a solid contributor. Last year's stats need not be his new normal.
However, even the most optimistic view of this contract must criticize its length. Simply put, Crawford is not going to be worth this kind of money for all four years of his contract. Frankly, he might only approach that sort of value for the first year (and, again, not everyone shares that opinion). The Clippers filled a gap in their roster for one season by committing for four, which is really only a good idea if the people who pay the bills have proven themselves committed to overpaying across the board. Given owner Donald Sterling's history — and the fact that the Clippers aren't even operating with a general manager right now — the terms of this deal feel very shortsighted. (Credit to agent Andy Miller, who got some bad news from the NCAA on Thursday, for getting it done.)
Yet that myopia could be advantageous in this case. The primary question for the Clippers over the next year will be if superstar point guard Chris Paul plans to sign a contract extension when he becomes an unrestricted free agent in July 2013. If the Clippers want to have any sort of future, they must placate Paul. Even with all the good feelings surrounding the franchise these days, their hopes of sustained relevance fall apart without CP3 as leader. He's the sort of talent who all teams — let alone one with as poor an organizational reputation as the Clippers — don't come by easily. If Paul leaves next summer, the Clippers suddenly become a laughingstock again.
Paul made it clear in June how much he wanted Billups to return to the team, and the presence of another veteran guard shouldn't make him particularly upset. While there's no way to determine if this Crawford signing will be the difference in keeping Paul, it has major value if it helps convince him that the Clippers are serious about putting together a winning club. That needs to be the Clips' top priority, and all their decisions must occur with that goal in mind.
In two seasons, the Crawford deal will look bad no matter whether Paul stays or leaves. For all we know, it'll hinder the Clippers' ability to add new players as they contend for a title. But a really bad toothache only seems like a big deal if you don't also have a broken back.
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