Is Jordan Clarkson Fool's Gold?

Jordan Clarkson is working his way into the hearts of Cavaliers fans with his dominant bench-scoring. The 26-year-old shooting guard is providing a much-needed spark, but does it mean anything for this Cavs team?

For Cleveland Cavaliers fans, the Jordan Clarkson Experience has been a whirlwind. Clarkson (and Larry Nance, Jr.) arrived in the February 2018 trade which sent Channing Frye and Isaiah Thomas to the Lakers. While he played well in his 28 regular season games with the Cavaliers, his productivity took a nose-dive in the playoffs. In Clarkson's own words on episode 90 of the Road Trippin' podcast, the 2017-18 postseason was "rough" on him.

In my words, it was really rough.

Fans had bigger fish to fry: JR Smith's all-time Finals blunder and LeBron's departure in free agency dominated the news cycle of basketball in Cleveland, and Clarkson faded into the background. Once this season began, however, Clarkson started playing like the guy the Cavs thought they'd be getting in the first place. Now, 30+ games in, it feels like Clarkson is becoming a fan favorite in a way that only a bench-gunner can. Think Nate Robinson (but taller), Jamal Crawford (but younger), or Lou Williams (but taller and younger).

Clarkson has been a lot of fun, but there's a big question lingering beyond his 16.9 points per game and his budding Sixth Man of the Year case: Is he actually playing good basketball?

Fortunately for us, there's only one way to find out. Allow me to bring some light to Jordan Clarkson's game.

The Good

It's best to start with the positives, and there are several with Clarkson. After the roller-coaster he went on last spring (40% on three-pointers in his 28 regular season games with Cleveland, then 24% on three-pointers in the playoffs), he has found a middle ground. While not shooting overly well, Clarkson is providing the Cavaliers with a legitimate scoring option when starters are out of the game. He's the team's leading scorer at 16.9 PPG, and when you factor in playing time, he's averaging 23.5 points per 36 minutes. Among regulars (Matthew Dellavedova and Kevin Love notwithstanding, as each has only played a handful of games for the Cavaliers this year), the next highest per-36 scorer after Clarkson is Collin Sexton at 18.3 points.

While most of the NBA is scoring from beyond the arc, Clarkson is working from his favorite spots. There are places on the floor where he is struggling (we'll get to that later), but he definitely has a knack for finding his old standbys. For example, here is Clarkson's shot chart through Friday night's game.

 

For a guy who has always been considered a high-volume, low-efficiency scorer, he's making strides in choosing the right shots. He's still taking a lot of mid-range jumpers, but he's cutting down on the longer ones. Per NBA.com stats, he's only taking 2.1 shots from 16-24 feet per game. While that raw number is up from last season, the percentage of shots he's taking from that distance has dropped.

As for his favorite spots, he loves getting to that right baseline. And why shouldn't he? If you've found a spot where you can shoot 16% better than league-average, you should live there.

Whether it's due to Clarkson's quickness, his teammates' habit of rolling to the rim for alley-oops, or something else altogether, he is able to get to this spot regularly. The motion is consistent - he comes off a screen, hesitates to read what the opposing big-man will do, and takes a 12-16 foot shot. Here it is again.

And if you thought he could only do it from the right side, here is a nearly identical motion from the left side, albeit about two feet farther out.

Another thing Clarkson has done fairly well is attacking the rim. He hasn't been great at finishing - you can see his mediocre efficiency in the shot chart above - but he is driving to the basket more often than any other player on the team. His 4.8 shot attempts on drives per game is a team-high, as is his 9.2 total drives per game. Perhaps more importantly, he has been passing out of his drives more often than in years past. According to Basketball-Reference, Clarkson has generated 176 points off of assists in his first 32 games after only totaling 118 in 28 regular season games last season. It's not a monumental improvement since he's playing more minutes this year, but when you factor in that he played a lot of point guard last spring, it's a sign that he's willing to help get others involved.

But Clarkson's game is not all flowers and sunshine.

The Bad

For all of the scoring that Clarkson is doing - and he's carrying a substantial load for the Cavaliers - his three-point percentage is in the toilet. Through 31 games, Clarkson is shooting just over 32% on three-pointers, which is below his career mark of 33.6%. It bears mentioning, of course, that 33.6% is also a poor mark.

In his short stint with the Cavaliers at the end of last season, Clarkson took 1.8 wide open three-pointers per game (no defender within six feet) and making 1.0 of them - good for 52.9%. This season, through 32 games, he's taking 1.4 of these shots - the lower number is unquestionably due to not having LeBron James as a focal point for opposing defenses - but Clarkson is only making 32.6% of them. For whatever reason, he can't seem to convert open looks. And while there are countless video clips to show what it looks like when Jordan Clarkson misses an open three-pointer, it would be more instructive to move on.

Another glaring negative is that the Cavs are getting torched when Jordan Clarkson is on the floor, allowing 118 points per 100 possessions when he is in the game. In fairness, a lot of his teammates are in the 115-118 range, with only Collin Sexton ranking worse at 120 (for perspective, if the season ended today, the Cavs would set an NBA record for worst defensive rating ever). But there's a wrinkle to Clarkson's issue: Despite being an instant-offense guy, the Cavs offensive rating with him on the court is just 106. They're being outscored by 12 points per 100 possessions when Clarkson plays, and if that's true of (arguably) your best offensive weapon, you are in deep trouble.

Part of the explanation here is that Clarkson plays at 100 MPH at all times, meaning he's throwing more bad passes and committing more offensive fouls than he did last season. Another part of the explanation is that the Cavs have just been bad around him. Want Kevin Love to take some of the attention off Clarkson? He's in a walking boot. Want Tristan Thompson to help clean up the missed shots? He's injured. Want to know who you're playing next to on a night-to-night basis? Twenty different players have logged minutes for the Cavaliers this season. The only players with a positive net rating for Cleveland are Nance, Thompson, and three guys who've only been with the team for two weeks (Matthew Dellavedova, Jaron Blossomgame, and Jalen Jones). 

Verdict

I'm a little surprised to say it, but I'm giving Jordan Clarkson the benefit of the doubt. He is probably overpaid and he hasn't developed a three-pointer as well as the Lakers (and then Cavs) originally hoped, but he has value. For Cavaliers fan, he is a reason to tune in for otherwise bleak games. The three biggest draws heading into the season were Sexton, Osman, and Love, but Love is injured, Osman is making 25% of his wide-open three-pointers, and Sexton has the worst VORP (Value Over Replacement Player - a complicated stat that assesses value when compared to a replacement-level player) in the entire NBA. At least Clarkson provides a spark - earning him the nickname Jordan Sparkson amongst a group of my basketball-nerd friends.

Furthermore, even though it feels like he has been around for a while, Clarkson is only 26, which means his jumper can - and should - still improve. It's entirely possible that he's in a shooting slump right now and will level out near the league average of 35%. If this happens - and he finished last season at 35.2% from deep - it would make the Cavaliers a little more dynamic, it would make Clarkson a little more desirable, and it would make a dim season a little more enjoyable.

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