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A cautionary tale for Brandon Clarke

Unlike some of the NBA’s best bench big men, Brandon Clarke has the skill set to remain an advantage in the postseason.

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NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday, Brandon Clarke enjoyed his 24th birthday. It was the just the latest reason for Clarke to celebrate in the month of September, as he and teammate Ja Morant have had plenty to smile about over the past few weeks. Morant won the 2019-2020 NBA Rookie of the Year Award, while Clarke finished fourth in the final voting. Both Grizzlies rookies were also named to the NBA All Rookie First-Team, finishing first and third in the overall voting for that honor, respectively. The recognition and positive reaction to both players has been wonderful to see, as both certainly earned it with their historic play this season.

However, the recognition for Clarke should not solely focus on how he compared to his fellow rookies. Though he was not listed among the leading candidates for the award, Clarke was among the best reserves in the league, and you can argue deserved more attention in the NBA Sixth Man of the Year Award discussion. However, that lack of awards buzz does not take away from how valuable Clarke proved to be in his role this year, and how valuable he will remain in that role going forward.

Logically, it would seem that the individual who did win the NBA Sixth Man of the Year award, Montrezl Harrell, would have just as much reason to be enjoying September as Clarke. Though others certainly had strong cases, Harrell deserved to be recognized as the NBA’s best reserve. Similar to Clarke, Harrell was quite efficient and made a big impact in his role this season when on the court. In fact, as I mentioned in Clarke’s season review, as impressive as his numbers were this season, Harrell was even better:

Despite his success in the regular season and well-deserved honors, Harrell has not had much to celebrate over the past couple of weeks. The Clippers, a clear title contender and in many eyes the favorite to represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals, were upset by the surging Denver Nuggets in the conference semifinals. Harrell himself also had a forgettable end to the season. Not only did he have highly publicized spats with Luka Doncic and Paul George, his play on the court was more harmful than helpful for the Clippers.

Like many traditional big men in today’s NBA, Harrell’s impact in the playoffs declines once he faces better competition. Last year, Harrell actually performed quite well, making 73% of his shots in six games during the Clippers opening round loss. However, in this year’s playoffs, Harrell was much less effective, making only 57% of his shots. He also offered far less value outside of scoring when he was on the court during the playoffs compared to the regular season, as his 13.2% Total Rebounding and 10.3% Assist rates dropped to 8.7% and 3.2%, respectively. Simply put, Harrell transformed from a significant asset to a clear liability for the Clippers once the playoffs commenced.

Though Harrell certainly struggled offensively, it was his putrid defense that really hurt the Clippers when he was on the court. Harrell had the fifth worst Defensive Rating and was tied for the worst NET rating for any player who played at least 10 games and averaged at least 15 minutes per game in this year’s playoffs. Beyond struggling in individual matchups, Harrell also did not do well protecting the rim. Among players who defended 30 or more field goal attempts at the rim during the playoffs, Harrell allowed the highest FG% of the group, as 74.2% of the attempts he defended were converted. That was an increase from the 51.4% mark Harrell allowed during the regular season.

The significance of Harrell’s playoff struggles in relation to the Grizzlies and Clarke is that it serves as a cautionary tale. As I mentioned last week, the Grizzlies bench is one of their biggest assets moving forward, and Clarke is a major reason why that truth exists. Though Clarke has not actually played in the playoffs, the Grizzlies NBA Bubble experience was a playoffs-like setting in which they faced significantly better competition. Due to facing better talent, just like Harrell, Clarke’s effectiveness did decline in Orlando. However, unlike Harrell this season, a few aspects of Clarke’s game offer hope that he can remain relevant into the postseason once the Grizzlies start arriving their regularly.

One area where Clarke can certainly find ways to add value is defensively. As mentioned above, Harrell struggled to protect the rim during this year’s playoffs, as baskets converted against him increased from 51.4% during the regular season to 74.2% in the playoffs. In terms of Clarke defending the rim, he actually remained quite effective defending the rim in the Bubble. Before the suspension of the season, Clarke allowed 55.9% of attempts he defended to be converted. In the Bubble, he allowed only 45.5%. This is why Clarke maintained his block rate in the Bubble, while Harrell’s block rate was basically cut in half.

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Memphis Grizzlies Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Contributions beyond scoring is another reason to be encouraged that Clarke can remain effective in future playoff series. Harrell experienced significant declines across the board in his production, to the point that he was hardly contributing any value at all if he was not scoring. Despite having a slight decline in scoring efficiency, Clarke was able to still find ways to contribute at similar rates that he was producing before the season was suspended. This comparison highlights the difference in non-scoring production value when Harrell and Clarke started facing better competition:

Harrell Before Season Suspension (27.8 MPG): 7.1 TRPG, 1.7 APG, 0.6 SPG, 1.1 BPG

Harrell in the Playoffs (18.6 MPG): 2.9 TRPG, 0.4 APG, 0.4 SPG, 0.5 BPG

Clarke Before Season Suspension (22.4 MPG): 5.9 TRPG, 1.4 APG, 0.6 SPG, 0.8 BPG

Clarke In The Bubble (26.5 MPG): 6.3 TRPG, 1.3 APG, 0.7 APG, 0.9 BPG

Though these comparisons are certainly far from perfect, they do show that Clarke was able to remain a valuable contributor when he was in the game. Versatility and being able to contribute in many different ways is crucial for post players in the playoffs, especially when the scoring strengths of Harrell and Clarke are not as advantageous as they were during the regular season.

Finally, the overall shooting profile of Clarke compared to a player such as Harrell allows for Clarke to be more resourceful as a score against better competition. During the regular season, 78.3% of Harrell’s shot attempts were within five feet of the basket. He made 65.6% of those shots. He made only 34.6% of his shots beyond five feet. Before the season suspension, 53.6% of Clarke’s shot attempts were within five feet of the basket. He made 73.2% of those shots. Clarke also made 48.6% of his shots beyond five feet.

A big reason why both Clarke and Harrell were successful this season was their ability as finishers. Both are wonderful sources of scoring in transition and on the fastbreak, and also on lobs and passes to the post for high percentage shots. However, the difference between Harrell and Clarke is that Clarke is a significantly bigger threat away from the basket, including as a catch and shoot option from beyond the arc. This means Harrell’s value as a scorer is overwhelmingly dependent on how he does at the rim.

Though Harrell’s scoring rates in the playoffs remained at the level that they were during the regular season, his shot attempts were cut in half due to his poor play. Successful shooting from distance becomes a more valuable trait in the postseason. In the Bubble, despite a struggling start with his threes, Clarke still made 44.4% of his shots beyond five feet. Clarke’s ability to be a threat from all three scoring levels on offense should allow for him to be more useful in postseason situational basketball than a player whose scoring is limited to the rim like Harrell’s.

Memphis Grizzlies v Portland Trail Blazers - Game One Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

For proof, in their win or go home matchup against the Trail Blazers, Clarke was 8-11 for 20 points in 25 minutes of play. That included making four his five three point attempts. On the biggest stage and in the most important game Memphis played this season, Clarke delivered one of his best performances.

The intent of this information is not meant to suggest Brandon Clarke is currently a better player or more valuable than Montrezl Harrell. It is meant to highlight the fact that Clarke has shown aspects of his game that would allow for him to remain an asset against better competition as the style of play changes in the postseason. Without a doubt, both Clarke and Harrell have shown that can be tremendous assets during the regular season. However, Harrell’s playoff performance shows that regular season success does not guarantee playoff prosperity.

The lesson to be learned for Clarke is that impacting the game on both ends of the court and having versatility as a shooter are extremely important to be a contributor in the playoffs. Though the bubble was just a small sample size, Clarke showed that he has the ability to display both those characteristics consistently in time.

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