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2017-18 Cleveland Cavaliers exit interview: Jordan Clarkson proved he wasn’t ready for playoff basketball

Clarkson shined at times in the regular season. The playoffs? Not so much.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Boston Celtics - Game One Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Jordan Clarkson was an odd addition to the Cavaliers roster.

He came as part of the deal that jettisoned Isaiah Thomas’ (reportedly) poisonous presence from the locker room. It’s easy to think that Clarkson came as a tax in exchange for the addition of Larry Nance, but the fact that the Cavaliers attached their 2018 first-round pick to complete the deal indicates that the Cavaliers may have felt otherwise.

For the front end of the Clarkson experience, things were great!

In the regular season, Clarkson managed to be a strong change-of-pace guard that was able to attack in transition and hit open threes when Lebron James was running the show.

Clarkson, a career 33.9 percent three-point shooter, shot 40.7 percent in his 28 games with the Cavs in the regular season. He acted as the prototypical “fill it up off the bench” guard, scoring 20.1 points on 16.3 shot attempts per 36 minutes. Efficiency isn’t always the game when you’re trying to kill time until your stars can get back onto the floor, and on that front, Clarkson did a great job.

Ultimately, Clarkson’s lack of pure point guard skills were an issue. He averaged 1.7 assists with the Cavs to 1.1 turnovers as often the lead ball-handler. That meant pairing him in lineups with LeBron or even Jose Calderon allowed him to be aggressive without burdening him with the playmaking responsibilities of getting the Cavs into their offense.

Defensively, Clarkson’s instincts were about as advertised. That’s to say - they weren’t great. He doesn’t always particularly know where he needs to be in space, and he’s not the strongest defender on-ball. One strength Clarkson does have is one you can’t teach - size. At 6’5, he allowed the Cavaliers to switch him onto small forwards with little trouble, and that allowed them to avoid making multiple rotations — something the Cavs, uh, aren’t great at.

That was the regular season.

In the playoffs, things veered towards total disaster.

  • Clarkson went an entire eight game stretch without a single assist.
  • He shot 23.9 percent from three on 2.4 attempts per game.
  • His free throw rate dropped from .202 to .049.
  • He posted a PER of 3.2.
  • The Cavaliers were outscored by 9.2 points per 100 possesions when Clarkson was on the floor.

Basically, it was a problem. If the Cavaliers had any better options, they would have played him, and did indeed bench him multiple times over the course of the playoffs. He never let it affect his energy, like Rodney Hood did at times, but man, he was bad.

The handle wasn’t strong, and he actually looked off an open LeBron James under the hoop in an attempt to score against his man off the bounce. Those kinds of instincts won’t get it done, especially if your three-point shot has abandoned you as well.

Ultimately, the difference between Clarkson’s postseason and regular season action for the Cavaliers makes him really hard to evaluate. Were his limitations exposed in a playoff environment, and that’s all we can expect out of him moving forward? Or was the Cavaliers lack of time together ultimately the culprit for the poor playoff offense, and a full season in a system will do Clarkson some good?

It’s impossible to know, though it’s probably fair to skew pessimistic. Knowledge of a system doesn’t make your passing instincts any better, and Clarkson’s couldn’t have looked worse in the playoffs. He also regularly was lost in space defensively and didn’t know his next rotation.

The jumper is always going to struggle when contested at a higher level. Clarkson’s form has him springing forward inside the three point arc in a very odd motion, and that just doesn’t hold up to a hard close-out that you’re going to see in the playoffs. If he’s going to be a strong playoff competitor, his ability in transition and finishing at the rim will be the reasons he gets there.

Is that going to happen for Clarkson? Who knows?

For now, the Cavaliers have their backup point guard of the future, as nobody’s taking on Clarkson’s $11 million per year salary. We’ll see if he can grow into the role when the games matter most.