Cleveland’s ill-fated addition of Andrew Bynum last summer and the return of LeBron James this year have overshadowed another significant miss from last season’s free agent haul for the Cavs. Earl Clark signed with the team a year ago for two years and $8.5MM, and while only the first season’s salary of $4.25MM was guaranteed, GM David Griffin wasted little time in divesting the team of the deal that former GM Chris Grant had signed with the combo forward. Griffin made the best of the Clark contract, shipping it to the Sixers as part of the deadline deal that netted Spencer Hawes, a major contributor for Cleveland in the season’s second half. The Sixers promptly waived Clark and after a pair of 10-day contracts with the Knicks, the 14th overall pick spent the rest of the season out of the league.
It quickly became apparent that the Cavs misjudged Clark last summer, but it nonetheless seems like a similar market overreaction that the 26-year-old has remained without a contract for so long. The Lakers gave him consistent playing time during a 22-game stretch in the 2012/13 season, when Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol were injured, and Clark showed why the Suns made him a lottery pick in 2009. He averaged 11.6 points and 9.2 rebounds in those 22 games, and the career 33.1% three-point shooter lifted his accuracy to 37.8% during that hot streak. That performance over a small sample size helped him earn his contract with Cleveland, even though he tailed off in his final days with the Lakers once Gasol and Howard returned. Still, a regression to the mean might not be the only explanation for why Clark didn’t pan out with the Cavs.
The former Louisville standout took a total of 15 three-point shots over his first three seasons in the league, but with the Lakers, he turned the three-pointer into a significant part of his game, as 104 of his 386 field goal attempts came from behind the arc. Still, he shot more often from three feet and in than any other range on the court that season, according to his Basketball-Reference profile. In Cleveland, three-pointers constituted nearly half his shot attempts, and he took just 16.3 percent of his shots as a Cav from three feet and in. He made threes at a 34.5% clip for the Cavs, but overall, he was inefficient, posting a woeful 8.6 PER in wine-and-gold, down from the 12.4 PER he recorded over his full season with the Lakers. The three-pointer that once served as the missing piece of his game became far too much a part of it.
The Spurs certainly seem wise enough to diagnose the problem, and they were reportedly set to work out the Kevin Bradbury client this week. Clark said earlier this summer that he had fielded interest from a few teams, but otherwise it’s been quite a reversal from last year, when Clark and the Cavs struck agreement during the first week of free agency. He’s proven effective in the right system, and perhaps the key is finding an up-tempo approach that gives Clark chances to go to the basket in transition, like the Mike D’Antoni-led Lakers attack he thrived in, and doesn’t leave him too many opportunities to stand around behind the arc. Clark struggled playing for the defensive-minded Mike Brown in Cleveland and failed to find his way with the Magic when they were focused on pounding the ball inside to Howard. There is irony in that he merely passed through Philadelphia, where the Sixers were the league’s fastest-paced team last season, and never suited up. Still, the Sixers easily could have kept him if they wanted him, so he seems unlikely to end up with Philadelphia again. The Rockets and the Suns loom as other teams that run go-go offenses and possess fewer than 15 guaranteed contracts, though neither Houston nor Phoenix has been linked to Clark this summer.
The Spurs didn’t play at a particularly speedy tempo last season, finishing 12th in possessions per 48 minutes, according to NBA.com. GM R.C. Buford and his staff are reportedly working out a handful of others, so Clark still has much to overcome. Yet mere interest from the Spurs stands to drive up Clark’s value, given the respect around the league for San Antonio’s continued ability to turn lightly regarded players into key contributors. It wouldn’t be surprising to see other teams jump into the mix soon as long as the Spurs don’t reach a deal with him. There aren’t many available former lottery picks who stand 6’10” and are less than two years removed from having played effectively in the NBA. Clark probably won’t validate his draft position, but he can provide depth of the sort that helped the Lakers sneak into the playoffs in 2013. Clark would no doubt like to see guaranteed money if he were to sign, but should he open himself to accepting a non-guaranteed camp invitation, it seems he’d still be in strong position to stick on the roster all season.