Paul Pierce has come off the bench in 10 of his 1,408 NBA games (including playoffs). He’s no sixth man.
But Doc Rivers knows he needs Pierce in May and, they hope, June — not so much November and December. Pierce will be 38 by the time the season starts and Rivers has talked about keeping his minutes in check. It has been expected Pierce would start in Matt Barnes slot at the three and play some four as well.
And with Matt Barnes now in Memphis, it would make sense for Pierce to slide into the starting lineup, a place where he’s been for all but 10 of his 1,400-plus career games. But whispers out of the Clippers’ training facility in Playa Vista make it sound like that plan isn’t set in stone.
Wes Johnson, who the Clippers signed in free agency from the Lakers, is still being considered as an option to start, sending Pierce to the bench.
Bringing Pierce off the bench could be a way to limit minutes and preserve his legs for the postseason. It would also allow Rivers to use Pierce at multiple positions, perhaps at power forward in all-bench lineup with Josh Smith, Lance Stephenson, Jamal Crawford and Austin Rivers.
You can see the appeal of this. Pierce could play the four off the bench and then, late in games when he’s needed, slide into the three with the starters, but only for limited minutes.
One thing holds me back from thinking this could work: Wesley Johnson.
I bet right now in workouts in Playa Vista Johnson looks good — he passes the eye test of an NBA player. He is athletic, long, he hints at the promise of versatility — then he gets on the court in an NBA game and none of it materializes. He’s just a guy — one who doesn’t really hurt you too much, but relies on his athleticism and doesn’t show any meaningful NBA-level skills beyond that. Johnson has started 121 games for the Lakers the past two seasons, but did you see that roster? He started because he had to beat out Xavier Henry, Manny Harris, and coach-frustrating Nick Young. Johnson barely looked like a guy you want in your regular rotation, especially if you care about efficiency, with his true shooting percentage of 50.9 and a PER of 11 last season (both well below the league average). He has the physical tools to be a good defender, but often he coasts on that end (especially if his offense isn’t going). He’s struck most people as a bubble NBA rotation player on a good team.
And Doc Rivers is going to start him on a contender?
Because the other four starters on the Clippers are so strong, maybe the idea is he could be hidden a little. Just ask Johnson to do specific things — defend, hit the three (which he does pretty well, 35.1 percent last season), and soak up minutes while Pierce rests. But the Clippers have been looking to upgrade at the three and, to be blunt, the Johnson playing for the Lakers the last couple seasons is no upgrade over the solid professional that is Matt Barnes. It’s a step down.
Which is why the Clippers brought in Pierce in the first place.