The Los Angeles Clippers are set at four out of five positions.
It's a meme that's circulated for years in Clipper Nation, and one that's largely been true.
Dating back to the team's halcyon days in 2006, the Clippers have had definitive answers at point guard (Sam Cassell, then Baron Davis), shooting guard (Cuttino Mobley, then Eric Gordon), power forward (Elton Brand, Marcus Camby, and now Blake Griffin) and center (Chris Kaman). Through all the player movement, spat of injuries and turmoil, the Clippers' opening night lineups have been solid, with one glaring exception -- at the small forward spot.
The small forward -- or the "3" -- is the fulcrum of any unit. It's a member of both the frontcourt and perimeter attacks, a responsibility that requires a versatile skill set on both ends of the floor. For the Clippers, finding a player who can fulfill those needs has been an elusive undertaking. During their playoff run, the Clips went with a platoon of Corey Maggette and Quinton Ross. Maggette had a gift for getting to the line, but was also a ball-stopper who routinely botched defensive rotations. Those flaws were enough to induce Mike Dunleavy to start Ross, one of the game's better perimeter defenders, but a limited offensive player who allowed opposing defenses to sag.
Both Maggette and Ross left the team during the personnel upheaval in 2008, after which Al Thornton assumed the starting role. Although Thornton could jump out of the gym and posted double-digit scoring averages, he emerged as one of the league's least efficient small forwards and was a defensive liability.
Early last season, Thornton's deficiencies prompted Dunleavy to tap Rasual Butler as his starter. A sharpshooter from long distance, Butler was able to accomplish something no Clippers small forward had in recent seasons -- he could spread the floor. But Butler, a proficient spot-up shooter, lacks the refined ball skills, size and the complete game required of a true small forward.
Tired of single-dimensional players and "2s disguised as 3s," as general manager Neil Olshey has said, the Clippers decided this offseason to go in a different direction.
Enter Ryan Gomes, the Clippers' new starting small forward.
Knowing one's limitations as a player might be one of the least heralded attributes in basketball. It's a quality that's been absent on recent Clipper rosters, a primary reason the team has struggled to put up points despite plenty of competent scorers. But that acute awareness of his strengths and weakness is one of one Gomes' defining traits as a player.
"[The Clippers] aren't looking for someone dominant at this position," Gomes said. "Sure, if I average 18 points, seven rebounds, five assists, that'll be wonderful. But I feel like my best quality is my knowledge of the game. I don't think I'm going to wow you athletically, but I can dabble in a little bit of everything."
Gomes' humility isn't an aw-shucks brand of athlete-speak and isn't born out of a lack of confidence. He's just far too versed in basketball to peddle anything other than devout truths, and he loves talking about the game. Gomes is happy to discuss his move to Los Angeles, the apartment he's rented for himself, his wife, young daughter and mother-in-law. But what gets Gomes going, what he really loves to schmooze about is chalk-talk
Ask him why the Timberwolves struggled in the triangle, and he'll tell you the specific point in the sequence when defenses anticipated the action and clamped down on the offense. Ask him how his good friend Al Jefferson will fare in Utah's flex offense, and he'll speak in detail about how Jefferson will flourish and which reads will prove most difficult for the big man. Ask him about the particulars of his game as an NBA small forward, and Gomes is an open book.
"I'm not going to back guys down," Gomes said. "But I'm going to turn, face up and use my quickness -- get fouled, get to the rim, shoot my jumper."
Since he came into the league from Providence College, Gomes has been tagged as the dreaded "tweener" -- a player who straddles the small and power forward positions. The Clippers plan to use Gomes as a small forward, which he's played the past two seasons in Minnesota. Gomes readily acknowledges that he's not a prototypical 3. He's confident in his ability to play strong, straight-up, one-on-one defense, but that certain assignments give him problems.
"At the 3, there are some nights where it might not work in my favor," Gomes said. "But Carmelo [Anthony], I think I can guard him. I can guard guys like [Al] Thornton. I think I can do a solid job on [Paul] Pierce. I can guard guys who face up and attack you one-on-one. [Ron] Artest is a perfect matchup for me.
"Where I have limitations is with guys who get their shots by running off screens. [Kevin] Durant. A guy like Jason Richardson is tough for me."
Gomes conveys a refreshing self-awareness that could be mistaken for self-deprecation. Coaches and general managers often characterize a player as a "glue guy," but few NBA veterans are comfortable enough in their own skin to tout their intangible qualities as their strongest assets.
"You have to find a niche," Gomes said. "Find something you do well to stick around in this league. That's the case for all of us except for those 30 who can do everything. For the rest of us it's about finding a way -- knowledge of the game, smarts, those little things."
When talent isn't the problem -- the Clippers have had plenty of it -- resourcefulness often is. That's one reason the Clippers chose Gomes to fill the small forward spot, even though bigger names with gaudier stats were on the market. Gomes came to the league without a lot of fanfare. He was the 50th overall pick in the 2005 draft, joining the Boston Celtics out of Providence, where he'd love to serve as head coach some day. Gomes might be most notable as being part of the package the Celtics sent to the Timberwolves for Kevin Garnett in 2007. On draft day this past June, Gomes was sent to Portland as part of the deal that landed Martell Webster in Minnesota and Luke Babbitt in Portland. When the Trail Blazers abruptly cut Gomes, Olshey -- ready for a regulation-size, thinking man's small forward -- quickly snatched him up.
"Ryan is a self-made player that has improved and added a productive element to his game every season he has played," Olshey said. "With the firepower already in place at the point guard, shooting guard, power forward and center positions we felt it was important to add a blend player that would embrace his role."
Though he won't set any Clippers 3-point records in the manner of Butler, Gomes has established himself as a legitimate threat from beyond the arc. He's posted identical 37.2 percent marks from long distance each of the past two seasons. He regards facilitation his foremost duty on the wing, a priority Gomes confesses sometimes works against him.
"I'll just go right there and admit it -- sometimes I lack aggressiveness," Gomes said. "Some people say I overthink the game too much."
What is Gomes thinking about during those moments?
"I'm thinking about where the defensive rotations are coming from, and what shots are going to be there, like, two seconds from now," Gomes said.
He described how that dynamic manifested itself in Minnesota.
"I'll think, if I go back to Al [Jefferson], they'll double from the top with Corey [Brewer]'s man. So now I'll dump it into Al, who'll kick it back to me and I'll swing it Corey. Meanwhile, it's like, 'You had that shot first!' But I'm automatically looking at the swing because I'm thinking about pre-rotations and where guys are going to be instead of saying, 'I'm in control now.'"
As Gomes describes his cerebral, mentally hyperactive thought process on the court, you start to understand why the Clippers signed him. No team wants its players paralyzed by tentativeness, but a rise in the Clippers' collective basketball IQ can only help.
For too long, the team's id has sublimated its super-ego, and one-on-one play has taken precedence over creating shots for teammates. Some of that is a product of personnel. The roster over the past few seasons hasn't featured a lot of capable passers or ball handlers. But many of the Clippers' offensive struggles can be chalked up to not abiding by the game's basic principles.
"Shoot when you're open. Pass when you're not. Play defense. Rebound," Gomes said. "Those are my responsibilities."
Seems elementary, but Gomes will be the Clippers' first starting small forward in ages who has the capacity to both understand and implement that game plan.