NBA Saturday: Added Depth Paying Off Early For Clippers


All NBA fans are well aware at this point that depth has been an issue for the Los Angeles Clippers for the last few seasons. This issue culminated last season with a historically bad collapse in the second round of the playoffs. The Clippers managed to out-duel the San Antonio Spurs in an epic first-round matchup, but had little left in the tank against the Houston Rockets. The Clippers started off playing excellent basketball in the second-round, but couldn’t find the energy or discipline to close out Houston. In doing so, the Clippers became just the ninth team in league history to lose a playoff series after going up 3-1 in a best-of-seven series.

Clippers team president and head coach Doc Rivers managed to address his team’s depth issue this offseason by trading for Lance Stephenson, re-signing DeAndre Jordan and Austin Rivers, and signing free agents Paul Pierce, Josh Smith, Wesley Johnson and Pablo Prigioni. With these new additions, many fans and analysts have pegged the Clippers as a title contender, though there are still many who question whether this team can make it out of the Western Conference.

While the Clippers have plenty of talent, the major question is whether the pieces can fit together cohesively. In the preseason, we saw some early concerns with the second-unit as Rivers, Stephenson and Crawford all need the ball in their hands to be effective. This caused several instances of awkward, stagnant offensive play and seemed like it could be a season-long issue. However, Coach Rivers switched up his rotation recently and plugged Stephenson into the starting lineup at small forward. The early returns have been positive and the move has done wonders for the second-unit so far.

The Clippers’ primary second-unit (Rivers, Crawford, Johnson, Pierce and Smith) has scored 97.7 points per 100 possessions and held opponents to 89.6 points per 100, which is good for a +8.1 net rating. Those offensive numbers aren’t earth-shattering and, again, this is a minuscule sample size, but this is a nice start for a new group of players that is replacing a unit that couldn’t be on the floor for more than a few minutes together without surrendering any lead the Clippers’ starters managed to generate.

A prime example of where the Clippers’ bolstered depth helps came in the third quarter against the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday night. With just a little over three minutes remaining in the quarter, Coach Rivers swapped out his starters and went with all of his main backups – a strategy that has backfired in past seasons. This unit entered the game with a 72-61 advantage, but unlike last season’s second-unit, these reserves didn’t cough up the lead the starters had generated.

Instead, during this stretch, the Clippers’ offense showed nice execution and cohesiveness, such as on this play involving Josh Smith and Wesley Johnson.

With Smith, the Clippers now have a big man who can pass nearly as well as Blake Griffin from the power forward or center positions. And in Johnson, the Clippers now have a big wing-player who can make athletic plays like this at the rim (Matt Barnes had lost some of his athleticism over the last few seasons). It’s a simple set, but it requires a decent passer like Smith to execute (something that Spencer Hawes was not able to do last season) and a small, but effective screen from Pierce. A tighter defense probably could have prevented this play from working, but even if the Mavericks had a shot blocker on the court, he likely would have been positioned up at the three-point line guarding Smith.

Through the second half, we saw consistent ball-movement and passing from the reserves, which led to an open layup at the rim for Rivers, another alley-oop for Johnson, several open three-pointers and an uncontested layup for Cole Aldrich off of a pick-and-roll with Prigioni.

In addition to the cohesive offense, the Clippers’ reserves showed some nice rotations and awareness on defense as well.

On this play, the Clippers reserves do a solid job of staying with their opponents. Rivers and Pierce do a decent job containing the pick-and-roll and the Mavericks fail to take advantage of Pierce’s slow rotation back to his man. Josh Smith bites on Nowitzki’s pump-fake, which opens a driving lane, but Johnson and Pierce rotate over and Johnson stuffs Nowitzki at the rim. It’s not exactly Warriors-level precision on rotations and applying defensive-pressure, but it’s an improvement from what we generally saw last season, especially considering this season just started and the players are still adjusting to playing with one another.

Coach Rivers’ move to put Stephenson in the starting lineup seems to be paying off for the second-unit so far. The reserves seem to understand their roles more clearly and they are running the team’s offensive sets consistently, which wasn’t always the case last season when the Clippers would often resort to standing around watching Crawford play isolation-ball.

“Now your small unit has more shooting and more firepower, with Austin and Jamal being the primary ball-handlers,” Rivers said to Sam Amick of USA Today Sports. “With Lance in that group, you had three (primary ball handlers), and it was too many. Now Austin is playing well. Jamal is playing well, and Paul is playing well. But it’s a great example of how you go into camp with one idea, and then you see the team play and it’s a whole different thing.”

The move also puts Stephenson in a limited and defined role with the starters. With the starting unit, which has an effective, set structure, Stephenson has to quickly initiate an action, be ready to take open jump-shots or attack the rim against a rotating defense.

In this play, Griffin and Paul work a high pick-and-roll, a staple of the Clippers’ offense that often leads to an open shot, whether it’s a Griffin midrange jumper, a lob to Jordan, or a kick-out to an open shooter. In this particular play, the pick-and-roll draws four Dallas defenders, including Devin Harris who is cheating hard off of Stephenson. Griffin recognizes this and finds Stephenson open for a corner three-pointer. Stephenson misses the shot, but this is the type of efficient shot you want him taking within the team’s offense.

On the Clippers’ next offensive possession, Redick’s movement draws so much defensive attention that Stephenson again finds himself unguarded in the corner. With a quick pass from Jordan, Stephenson gets another look at an open corner three-pointer, which he again misses.

At some point Stephenson will have to punish defenses by making these corner three-pointers, but again, it’s encouraging that he is getting such efficient shots while playing with the starters, rather than taking step-back midrange jumpers as a primary ball-handler with the second-unit.

Another issue for the Clippers in past seasons has been their reliance on Paul to make big shots in clutch situations. Despite a few instances of players like Crawford or Griffin taking the final shot in clutch situations (to varying degrees of success), opposing teams know that Paul is the Clippers’ biggest threat and will likely be the one to take a clutch-time shot. With the addition of Pierce, opposing defenses can no longer scheme to shut down just Paul since Pierce is still one of the best in the league at creating space off the dribble and nailing step-back jumpers, which we saw already against the Sacramento Kings.

Pierce can thank Rudy Gay for not helping Rajon Rondo, leaving Pierce open to shoot over the top of the smaller player. But whether he is stepping into a three-pointer or exploiting a mismatch in the post, Pierce is another threat on the floor for the Clippers, which should help relieve some of the pressure Paul has faced in clutch situations since arriving in Los Angeles.

One additional issue to keep an eye on pertains to Jordan. It was reported during the offseason that part of Jordan’s discontent with the Clippers was his role, or lack thereof, in the offense. For years Jordan has made his offensive impact primarily off of lobs and put backs and rarely ever had plays run directly for him. It was reported that Coach Rivers assured Jordan he would be featured more on offense moving forward, but we haven’t seen that play out yet. Against the Kings, Jordan attempted only six field goals and just two against the Mavericks. The Clippers have not done anything to expand Jordan’s offensive role yet as he continues to score mostly off of lobs and put back dunks.

It will be interesting to see if Coach Rivers addresses this situation and finds a way to get Jordan more directly involved in the offense. Winning cures all, but it’s no secret that this issue caused a lot of strain between Jordan and the Clippers over the last few seasons. We’ve seen this issue occur in the past with other big men like Dwight Howard, who would pout and exert less effort on defense when he wasn’t getting touches on offense. If the Clippers hit a rough patch during the season and Jordan is still averaging around five field goal attempts a game, he may show signs of frustration and lose focus on the court the way Howard has in the past.

Nevertheless, the Clippers have a lot to be happy about through two games. I’ll say it again, this is a tiny sample size and the opponents weren’t exactly powerhouses (especially the Mavericks, who were missing several key players). But the Clippers’ reserves struggled against the best and worst of opponents last season and considering the concerns entering this season, it’s encouraging that the second-unit is showing notable chemistry and that the starting unit is still extremely efficient even with Stephenson at small forward. There may be less optimism later in the season after the Clippers play tougher opponents and struggle through some chemistry issues, but for now things are looking good for the revamped Clippers.