It was midway through the fourth quarter of Game 7 of an epic first-round series, and the San Antonio Spurs had just gone on an 8-1 run to take a five-point lead. Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers decided to make a move and pulled DeAndre Jordan for Matt Barnes, going small and putting Blake Griffin at center.
The Clippers rode that small-ball lineup for almost the entire remaining 5:24, which included a late 7-2 run that gave Los Angeles the 111-109 victory and moved them on to the next round. (Jordan did sub in for a couple defensive possessions late.) The Clippers scored 19 points with that small lineup.
Those minutes could be the window to the future for the Clippers now that Jordan has bolted the Clippers to get a bigger role in the offense — and, more importantly, the recognition he feels he deserves — from the Dallas Mavericks.
Doc Rivers rode Jordan hard last season — he was seventh in the league in minutes played at 2,820 (more than 34 minutes a game for the full 82 games). Jordan was in the six most used Clippers lineups last season (and their regular starting five was leaned on heavily by Rivers, who didn’t trust the bench Doc Rivers the GM had given him). Jordan delivered 11.5 points on 71 percent shooting, but more importantly he was a beast on the boards at 15 a game, his offensive rebounding warped teams fast break efforts, and on the other end he was first-team NBA All-Defensive team because of his rim protection.
The Clippers cannot replace Jordan with anything near equal talent. Not with the money they have available. Once Jordan signs in Dallas and the Clippers fall below the tax line, they could have a full mid-level exception they can use (depending on Paul Pierce’s signing), but that is just $5.5 million — the money that got them Spencer Hawes a year ago (and the Clips just traded Hawes to get Lance Stephenson). The Clippers are pushing to send Jordan to Dallas in a sign-and-trade that would create a big trade exception they could use to get a big. (That alone can’t land them Roy Hibbert, who makes north of $17 million with a trade kicker; it likely would take a complex three-team trade involving the Pacers and Mavs to do that, and it is highly unlikely.) The Clippers might try to trade Jamal Crawford for a big, suggests Alex Kennedy of Basketball Insiders, and maybe his salary (plus filler) could net someone like Kosta Koufos of Memphis (who is currently a free agent but might do a sign-and-trade).
The Clippers do need to land another center, but he’s not going to be the same as the guy they lost.
What the Clippers do have is the ability to go small.
That small ball lineup that Doc Rivers used against the Spurs — Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, and Blake Griffin — played just 19 minutes last regular season. But they were +59 points per 48 in that very small sample size, with an offensive rating of 134.4 points per 100 possessions.
The Clippers just signed Paul Pierce, who has had his best success in recent seasons as a four in a small lineup that spaced the floor in Washington. The Clippers are trying to chase David West now (although that is a long shot at best).
The pieces are there for Doc Rivers to go small, play fast and overwhelm teams on offense. At least for stretches — longer stretches than he was willing to try it last season. It can work. It’s not going to work the same as Golden State, a team that suffers no real defensive drop off when they go small thanks to Draymond Green’s versatility. The Clippers don’t have that kind of defender (nobody else does).
But small can work for the Clippers. And it may be their best chance to stay among the elite of the West.
If they were willing to go to it in Game 7 against the Spurs, with their season on the line, they shouldn’t fear it when next season tips off.