The Cleveland Cavaliers have agreed to deals with two free agents so far this offseason. On Saturday, I analyzed the move to ink Jarrett Jack to a 4 year, $25 million deal. Today, I'll take a look at the reported agreement between the Cavs and Earl Clark.
It was long rumored that the Cavaliers were interested in the former member of the Los Angeles Lakers. Once they got a chance to pound out the details, it was a done deal. Clark will be joining the Cavaliers next season and adds some much needed depth, length, and athleticism to the roster. Clark is just 25 years old and comes to the Cavs as a 6-10 forward. He bounced around the league a little bit before having a semi-breakout year with the Lakers. He averaged 7.3 points and 5.5 rebounds in 23.1 minutes per game last season. Per 36 minutes, that's averaging 11.3 points and 8.6 rebounds. He shot 44% from the floor, 33.7% from three, and 69.7% from the free throw line.
Once again, you cannot officially sign contracts until after July 10th. But as far as we know right now, the deal between the Cavs and Clark is for 2 years, $9 million. Similar to the reported contract with Jarrett Jack, I initially thought these numbers were pretty high. $4.5 million per year for a guy who has never truly been an above average NBA player. Heck, you could make the argument that he's never even been an average NBA player. It's possible that my initial reaction is pretty accurate. In fact, it's likely that Earl Clark will be overpaid by the Cavaliers on this contract. But allow me to rationalize and weasel my way into thinking that it's an appropriate contract.
First of all, the second year is a team option. That means Cleveland is only guaranteeing $4.5 million to Clark and if they need the cap space or Clark is just bad next year, they can decline his option. Once we found out that there's a team option on the second year, it becomes a much more manageable contract. There's virtually no risk because there's no long term commitment.
Since the Cavs need to hit the salary floor at some point and didn't have to give up any other assets for Clark, the only thing we really have to worry about is opportunity cost. Was there something better that the Cavs could have gotten with the $4.5 million committed to Clark this season? I don't know. Lots of people wanted Andrei Kirilenko, and I would have been really excited about that sort of move. But he's going to get more than $4.5 million and will definitely want more than 1 year of guaranteed salary. If we're focusing only on 1 year deals, the Cavs could easily spend more money this offseason and get a player better than Clark. However, it'd be hard to get better players without guaranteeing money for the 2014-15 season. Dorell Wright agreed to a 2 year deal with the Portland Trail Blazers after turning down an offer from the Oklahoma City Thunder. He was a player that many Fear the Sword writers and commenters wanted the Cavs to target. We never did hear Cleveland's name brought up in rumors, but that doesn't mean they weren't interested. Martell Webster re-signed with the Washington Wizards, but he got a four year deal and it seems like he was never really leaving his former team.
A cursory glance at this year's free agent crop makes me think that the Cavs weren't going to get a better player at the same position as Clark without guaranteeing money into 2014-15. I won't deny that the Cavs probably had the chance to get a better player, but if they are really valuing future cap flexibility then Clark's deal is pretty acceptable. There's virtually no risk and has the potential for some reward.
What can Earl Clark contribute to the Cavs?
That's probably enough about the salary committed to Clark, so let's talk about actual basketball. As often is the case with free agent signings, the Clark deal is about risk versus reward. Seeing as the contract makes the risk minimal, what's the potential reward?
First of all, Clark fills a position of need. Despite the fact that he stands 6-10, the Cavs likely believe that he's a small forward. He far from an ideal fit, but it's not bad. Defensively, Cleveland will probably use Clark to guard a lot of the bigger small forwards that may present difficult mismatches for Alonzo Gee. In the Central Division alone, we see Paul George and Luol Deng possessing enormous length. Clark is a much better matchup for those types of players, on the defensive end. Due to his relative lack of playing time before this past season, it's hard to get a reliable statistical look at what Clark can do in the NBA. He played a lot of power forward for the Lakers year, but held his opponents to a PER of 12.0 when he was slotted at SF, according to 82games.com. The Cavs were one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA last season and really ran Gee into the ground by throwing him at the opponent's best perimeter player, regardless of size. Clark's 7-3 wingspan offers another defensive option for Mike Brown to use. Much was made about Mike Brown liking Earl Clark from their time together in Los Angeles, despite the fact that Brown was fired after just 5 games. I have to assume that the main thing that intrigued Brown about Clark was his defensive potential. It appears that he has the tools to become a very good defender if he gets proper coaching and really dedicates himself to that end of the floor.
Offensively, the potential reward is likely much lower. Thus far in his NBA career, he's yet to be a good offensive player. He's never been very efficient, posting a career high PER of 12.4 last season. He shot 44% from the floor with a true shooting percentage of 51%. Both of those figures are significant improvements from earlier seasons in his career, so that's encouraging. Furthermore, we saw Clark add the three-point shot to his game last season. He made 35 of 104 three-point attempts, good for 33.7%. Prior to 2012-13, Clark had attempted only 10 threes in his entire career. While 33.7% is still below league average, it's at least worth noting that he has been working hard to develop something that was previously non-existent in his skill set. It's no secret that teams are starting to value "3 and D" players. While Clark isn't an ideal candidate at this point in his career, there seems to be at least some hope that he can develop into that type of player.
Small sample size alert: Clark scored 1.04 PPP (49th in NBA) as the pick and roll big man last season. It was a mere 55 possessions, but could be something that we see more often in Cleveland. His play in the PnR was one of his strengths coming out of college as the 14th overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft.
How does Earl Clark fit with the Cavs?
After the Cavs seemingly opted for talent over fit in the 2013 NBA Draft, I hoped we would see the reverse during free agency. It's hard to say whether or not they did that by picking up Clark. There seems to be some sense that Clark has untapped potential and can end up being an under-the-radar pickup. Meanwhile, it's a little tough to talk about Clark's fit before we see how Mike Brown intends to use him in games. My best guess is that he'll be used to cross-match with Anthony Bennett and hopefully make up for some of Bennett's defensive deficiencies. In theory, Clark could play the "3" on defense and the "4" on offense, while Bennett does the opposite. In that sense, I think Clark and Bennett complement each other quite well. The questions arise when you try to imagine Clark playing the 3 with Tristan Thompson at the 4 and Anderson Varejao at the 5. What happens to the spacing with that lineup? Does Clark improve his three-point shot enough to make that work? I can't say for sure and we'll probably just have to wait and see.
One thing that Clark does do quite well is rebound the ball. This provides a stark contrast to Alonzo Gee on the wing last season. For the 2012-13 Cavs, Gee provided 4.5 rebounds per 36 minutes and a total rebound rate of 7.3%. Clark, on the other hand, has a career average of 8.0 rebounds per 36 minutes and a total rebound rate of 12.4%. Cleveland is a team that struggled to rebound the ball after Anderson Varejao went down with injury. On the glass, Clark is most definitely an upgrade on the wing.
Bottom-line: Is this a good move for the Cavs?
I think so, but I'm far less confident about this one than the Jarrett Jack addition. My view of the contract is that this really can't be a bad move. There's very little risk. The question is: how much reward is there? I'm not sure. I like the idea of Clark and I love his physical tools. I love the improvement that he made last season once he finally got actual playing time. There's some extrapolation going on when we assume that Clark's addition will provide a positive impact. We're projecting that he'll build upon what he did last season, buy in to Brown's defensive mindset, and mesh with the current talent on the roster. These aren't unreasonable assumptions to make, but they also aren't guaranteed. Fortunately for Cleveland, neither is Clark's contract after this season.
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