Jordan Clarkson has been one of the more perplexing stories among a panoply of development narratives the Lakers have dealt with in Luke Walton’s inaugural season.
Projected in the summer to start alongside D’Angelo Russell as part of the Lakers’ proverbial backcourt-of-the-future, he was consigned to the bench unit in a seeming admission that what many suspected as Clarkson’s ultimate ceiling was correct: a sparkplug scoring sixth man.
After initial success in this role thanks to a newfound dedication to the defensive end, Clarkson’s play has sputtered, arguably regressing even from the numbers he put up last year under the Byron Scott and Kobe Bryant retirement tour debacle. As indicated in our evaluation of the Lakers’ playmaking capacity, Clarkson now no longer defends effectively (-2.31 DRPM), creates opportunities for his teammates consistently (12.6 AST%), or scores efficiently enough to make up for the aforementioned limitations (52.6 TS%).
This noted, there are noted caveats with respect to whether this is truly the current state of Clarkson’s play, namely the presence of Lou Williams, who commands an enormous portion of the offense whenever he is on the floor and limits Clarkson’s ability to make plays and regain the point guard chops he demonstrated in his rookie season.
By the same token, however, Clarkson will turn 25 this summer and is far closer to realizing what type of player he will be than essentially every other member of the young core aside from Tarik Black. It is entirely possible that Clarkson simply might not be salvageable at this juncture in his career.
With this in mind, we asked the Silver Screen & Roll staff to evaluate the merits of the contention that jettisoning Lou would permit Clarkson to flourish in his absence, and to look at whether Clarkson, accepting arguendo that his current play be representative of his future worth, should be considered a fungible asset this summer for the Lakers to pursue pieces that better fit the more important members of their young core.
Do you think playing with Lou Williams has been detrimental to Clarkson's development? If so, would trading Lou help to reverse this trend?
Harrison Faigen: I'd say yes, Lou has been harmful to Clarkson's development (as good as the former has been). Having Williams on the team is essentially a security blanket for the Lakers, giving them a stable option they know what to expect from with the bench unit each game. That would be great if wins were the Lakers' main priority, but running the offense through Clarkson with the second unit would seem to be a good way to either juice his potential as a playmaker or at the very least figure out that he isn't one.
I think trading Lou would help the trend, but I also don't think the Lakers should just give him away, which makes it tough to find a realistic trade partner.
Craig DePriester: I do believe that Lou has hindered Clarkson's development by being so good this season. With the rise of D'Angelo Russell as the point guard of the future, Clarkson's natural role is spark plug off the bench, which Lou is currently dominating at a 6th Man of the Year-level.
In a perfect world, this season would be Clarkson's chance to run the offense, score in bunches, and make his mistakes in an environment where reps are valued above wins. If he is going to be a key cog in the future of the purple and gold, the Lakers need enough data points to make a decision on his ability to play this role.
Now, as far as Lou's future goes, the Lakers should be aggressively shopping him and his contract, which is one of the best in the league with only $7M due next season. Many a borderline playoff team / contender with a thin bench could benefit from Lou's shooting and ability to terrorize opposing second units. If the Lakers can get a late first-round pick (or any kind of real asset) for him, they should pull the trigger and hand Clarkson the reins. Not only would it help inform Clarkson's role in the future, it would absolutely make them worse in the short-term and give the Lakers a better chance at keeping their top-three protected pick this summer. In Kupchak we trust!
Jameson Miller: At least in regard to playmaking, the numbers tell an uneven story. We’ll call it a meditation on prosperity and isolation. While Clarkson and Williams appear on three of the Lakers’ six best five-man lineups in terms of offensive rating, they also appear on each and every one of the five lineups with the lowest assist percentages (minimum 30 minutes played). While those means of evaluation are imperfect and it’s a bit unfair to hold up Clarkson’s robust rookie season assist percentage (during a time when he was possibly the only NBA-level player on the court for huge chunks of minutes) as the bar he has to clear to show improvement, his stagnation in the playmaking department is troubling, and, it appears, not totally unrelated to his time on the court with Sweet Lou.
As for trading Williams, I’m a fan only if he’ll net the Lakers real value in return, not solely as a means of unsticking a Laker offense that tends to bog down for long stretches. Jettisoning Lou may end up having that effect, but shouldn’t be the impetus behind a deal—timelines aside, at his production level and contract value, he’s still an asset.
Gary Kester: This is a tricky question, because while I think Lou's stellar play this season (the best of his career) has overlapped some of the contributions that Clarkson brings to the table, it's important to consider the latter's rollercoaster ride in terms of defining his role with the Lakers. As a rookie, he was almost solely a point guard when he finally cracked the rotation, and it allowed him to showcase his playmaking ability, both as a scorer and a facilitator.
Last year, he started the year at the two until Russell was benched, sliding him back to the point guard spot while the team tried to force-feed Kobe the ball in a year filled with dysfunction.
Now Clarkson is in the first year under Walton and this system that has provided a mixed bag so far for him individually. Clarkson is easily at his best when he is allowed to initiate the offense, but Williams is a ball-dominant scorer. So, to answer the question, yes, playing alongside Williams has hindered Clarkson's development to a certain extent, but part of me thinks that there are times Clarkson is still struggling to balance his scoring and playmaking because of the specific role and demands that have been asked of him at different points of his career.
Trading Williams is definitely an option that could simplify things for Clarkson, but the Lakers should absolutely maintain a high asking price for the former. The Lakers need varying skill sets out on the perimeter. A solid three-and-D player or two out on the wing is badly needed, but so are playmakers. Clarkson still has the ability to create in his arsenal, and hopefully Walton can find a way to consistently bring that out of him. It would be difficult to accomplish, but I think that can be managed without trading Lou right now.
Ben Rosales: As I discussed at length in my piece on the Lakers’ playmaking deficit, I think Lou has harmed Clarkson’s ability to be an effective playmaker significantly because of the degree to which he aggrandizes the offense whenever he’s on the floor. This is not necessarily to absolve Clarkson of all agency in this discussion, as after all, he’s the one choosing to drive recklessly with no plan at the rim time and time again, but rather to acknowledge the reality that his play has suffered ever since he was taken off the ball following his successful rookie season. And even though 24-year-olds generally find it hard to change their stripes in a meaningful way, forcing Clarkson into a role in which he must distribute well to stay on the floor is a worthwhile attempt to salvage his value, whether you wish to ultimately keep or trade him.
Naturally, this is impossible without trading Lou, who, put bluntly, isn’t going to really change how he plays however Luke asks him to avoid hijacking the offense. The long history of Lou’s career more or less confirms this for good or ill.
To be sure, the Lakers shouldn’t look to dump Lou merely to free up Clarkson and should try to maximize his value insomuch as is possible, but one presumes that some contender will pony up a decent package for the 15th ranked player in the league in ORPM (3.91) who is also having a career year, is on a cheap contract that doesn’t double as a rental, and has a ready-made role for any prospective playoff team as a scoring sixth man.
If Clarkson ultimately is who he is right now in terms of development, is he a worthy long-term piece to keep around? If not, would you attempt to trade him this offseason for pieces that better complement the current core?
Harrison: If the player Clarkson has been over the last month or so is who he is, he's definitely not worth building around.
That being said, I think Clarkson is better than he's shown over recent weeks. He showed promise as a scorer who could also facilitate a bit out of pick-and-rolls during his rookie year, and I have confidence he could be a rock-solid sixth-man if given the opportunity be the hub of the bench offense.
He hasn't been given that chance either of the last two seasons (last year mostly due to Kobe, this year due to Lou), and I think the Lakers should at see if he can play that role before giving up on him (which I don't think is happening anytime soon, anyway).
Craig: I don't think we've seen the best of Clarkson - he has a tendency to drift and this role is not suited to his strengths. It's no coincidence that his best play as a Laker was when he was in the driver's seat as a rookie, a situation I think handing him the second unit would basically replicate.
That said, I have been disappointed in the results we're seeing on the court this season. His per 36 numbers are on par with last year, but his turnovers are up significantly and I am still waiting for that guy who was unconsciously draining threes on Instagram this summer (33% 3PTers this season).
If this is who he is, I still think Clarkson is a useful player with some upside on a great contract. Yes he's tradeable, but I don't believe that getting a potpourri of random pieces is the way to go. If we are going to package Clarkson with other assets for a real, in-their-prime star, I'm probably in. If not, I'd let it ride.
Jameson: I still think he is. I think some of the frustration surrounding Clarkson stems from the fact that he was the first ray of hope the Lakers actually got to see in on-court action, and to see him plateau at a franchise inflection point in which the entirety of each player’s value is based on potential for growth is disheartening. I would absolutely support the Lakers trading Clarkson, but again, only if they feel the return is tangibly improving their on-court product or asset stash, not solely as a means of “shaking things up”, or in service of any other similar platitude that a certain newly reacquired front office figure prone to overuse of exclamation points might employ.
Gary: While I think parts of Clarkson's game can be salvaged, he looks like a player that has either hit his ceiling, or is very close to doing so before turning 25 this summer. For that reason, I would definitely gauge his value on the trade market both in the time left before the trade deadline and during the offseason.
If the right deal comes along that will provide a better fit for the core that has been built, it should strongly be considered. He has some work to do to prove he is a definite major long-term piece for the Lakers, but perhaps getting a second season under Walton and his system would provide Clarkson more comfort and allow him to iron out some of the kinks.
If he learns to stop pounding the ball into the floor and use his dribbling for a specific purpose or action, he can be a really good sixth man in Los Angeles for the foreseeable future. But the Lakers should keep all of their options open.
Ben: I’m not terribly sanguine on Clarkson fixing his issues since he’s never been an especially good playmaker for others even going back to his college days at Tulsa and Missouri. The greater weight of the evidence is that his rookie season was more of a flash-in-the-pan phenomenon (thanks Steve Nash!) and that the more gunner-y player that has worn a Lakers jersey for the majority of his career is the real Clarkson. And honestly, even if Clarkson improves his playmaking chops, he’d still be deficient in two big areas (defense and shooting efficiency), making a drastic improvement from him at this stage seem quite improbable.
To be sure, the Lakers should trade Lou to try to see if rookie Clarkson can be resurrected, but the road back to respectability in terms of being a long-term piece is long and steep, making a trade feel like the best endgame option. As with Lou, the Lakers certainly shouldn’t trade him blithely, but looking for young pieces that better complement the current core (read: wing athleticism and defense) is increasingly looking like the best way for the Lakers to move forward here.