Twice it's seemed Earl Clark was on a fast track out of the NBA. The Suns, who made him the last pick of the lottery in 2009, declined their third-year option on his rookie contract, a maneuver usually reserved only for the most egregious of draft busts. A midseason trade to the Magic in 2010 opened up more playing time, and in the summer of 2011, Orlando saw fit to give Clark a two-year, $2.4MM contract. His scoring output in 2011/12 went back down to the same 2.7 points per game that prompted the Suns to turn down the option on his rookie contract, and he appeared to be little more than salary ballast accompanying Dwight Howard in the trade that sent both from the Magic to the Lakers.
When Howard and Pau Gasol were both injured earlier this season, that opened up playing time for Clark, who responded with an average of 11.6 points and 9.2 rebounds over a 22-game stretch in January in February. His playing time and shooting percentages took a nosedive for the rest of the season as the Lakers' star big men returned to health, and Clark put up just 6.1 PPG and 4.3 RPG over the final 27 regular season games. He totaled just 14 points and 11 rebounds in 82 minutes over L.A.'s four-game playoff ouster, leaving suitors for the unrestricted free agent to wonder whether his midseason emergence was simply a mirage.
What's indisputable is the 6'10" Clark's renewed willingness to shoot three-pointers. He took just 15 shots from behind the arc over his first three NBA seasons, making two of them, but this year he averaged 1.8 attempts per game, the same number of long-distance attempts he averaged during his college career. While at Louisville, launching from the shorter college distance, he made just 29.8% of his treys, but this season he nailed 33.7% of them, capably filling the role of the stretch power forward in coach Mike D'Antoni's offense. He was particularly fond of the right corner, as his Basketball-Reference.com shot chart shows, and shot 37.8% on all of his three-point attempts during his hot stretch in the middle of the season.
Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak told Clark during their exit interview this week that he'll have plenty of teams lining up to sign him in the offseason, but the 25-year-old has expressed a desire to remain with the Lakers, even if it means coming back at a discount. Still, Clark changed agents this spring, jumping from Happy Walters and Relativity Sports to Kevin Bradbury of BDA Sports. The Lakers have full Bird rights on Clark, but HoopsWorld's Steve Kyler predicts a one-year deal without much of a raise if he elects to return to L.A., given the team's luxury tax constraints. I'd be surprised if Clark bothered to change agents if he's simply seeking whatever the Lakers can give him. I also doubt that all of those suitors that Kupchak told Clark about are willing to pay him too much more than the Lakers are, especially if Clark's seeking a long-term deal.
Clubs that will take a look at Clark this summer will note his versatility on defense, where he guarded both wing and post players this season. He was often involved in cross-matches with Metta World Peace in which Clark guarded the other team's small forward while the older World Peace took the power forward. The net effect of the Lakers' defense wasn't pretty this season, as the team was 22nd in points allowed, so it's hard to give Clark too much credit, even though his defensive rating of 105 was tied with Jordan Hill for second-best on the team among players who saw significant minutes.
Clark seems well-suited to the Bi-Annual Exception amount of about $2MM a year, and if a team used that exception to sign him, it could offer a two-year deal. That would be long enough to give Clark some stable footing in the league, but allow the team a relatively early out if the former lottery pick can't duplicate his midseason success from this year.