Clippers, after year of talent upgrades, still facing major bench problems

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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – Jamal Crawford, too long the Clippers’ only reliable reserve, couldn’t believe how much talent president/coach Doc Rivers has added given the team’s salary-cap constraints.

In the last year, Doc has traded for or signed:

  • Austin Rivers, the No. 10 overall pick just three years ago
  • Lance Stephenson, who finished second in 2014 Most Improved Player voting and played at a near-All-Star level that season – at just age 23
  • Paul Pierce, whose lengthy résumé – an All-NBA second team, three All-NBA third teams, 10 All-Star appearances and an NBA Finals MVP – will send him to the Hall of Fame
  • Josh Smith, a Defensive Player of the Year runner-up and multi-time near-All-Star

Crawford, an unapologetic gunner, was so impressed with the haul, he’s even deferring more.

“I’m trying to get them as comfortable as possible, so I’m not being the normal assassin,” Crawford said. “…For years, I’ve been the guy, period. I still am that guy, but we still have more guys to help me out. So, I’m trying to help them out.”

They need it.

The Clippers have four standout players: Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan and J.J. Redick. When those four share the floor, the Clippers outscore opponents by 14.5 points per 48 minutes. Otherwise, the Clippers get outscored by 5.4 points per 48 minutes.

Relative to every other teams’ most-used quartet, the Clippers’ +14.5 per 48 is second only to the Warriors (+24.4) and a decent step above the third-ranking Thunder (+11.9) and fifth-ranking Spurs (+10.8).

But the Clippers’ -5.4 with other lineups ranks just 24th in league – well behind those other Western Conference contenders. Top-ranked San Antonio (+14.5), second-ranked Golden State (+10.1) and fifth-ranked Oklahoma City (+4.6) continue doing damage once substitutions begin.

Simply, the Clippers look like a Western Conference contender when Griffin, Paul, Jordan and Redick share the court. Otherwise – even relative to other teams’  backup-infused units – the Clippers look like a lottery team.

The Clippers’ 19.9-per-48-minutes point difference from their their most-used quartet (+14.5) to their other lineups (-5.4) is the largest drop in the NBA. Here’s how each team’s performance with its most-used quartet on the floor (solid) changes when it goes to other lineups (faded):

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Team Most-used quartet Quartet +/- per 48 minutes Other lineups +/- per 48 minutes Difference
LAC Griffin-Jordan-Paul-Redick +14.5 -5.4 +19.9
NOP Anderson-Davis-Gordon-Smith +10.7 -8.5 +19.2
DET Caldwell-Pope-Drummond-Jackson-Morris +11.3 -7.8 +19.1
SAC Cousins-Gay-McLemore-Rondo +9.6 -5.2 +14.9
GSW Barnes-Curry-Green-Thompson +24.4 +10.1 +14.3
DAL Matthews-Nowitzki-Pachulia-Williams +7.5 -2.9 +10.4
POR Aminu-Lillard-McCollum-Plumlee +5.5 -4.4 +9.9
HOU Ariza-Beverley-Harden-Howard +6.1 -3.5 +9.6
MIL Antetokounmpo-Carter-Williams-Middleton-Monroe +0.2 -8.0 +8.2
OKC Adams-Durant-Ibaka-Westbrook +11.9 +4.6 +7.3
PHO Bledsoe-Knight-Morris-Tucker +2.9 -2.1 +5.0
MIN Garnett-Rubio-Towns-Wiggins +1.7 -2.5 +4.2
ATL Horford-Korver-Millsap-Teague +3.4 -0.4 +3.7
UTA Favors-Hayward-Hood-Neto +2.2 -1.5 +3.7
BRK Jack-Johnson-Lopez-Young -5.4 -7.5 +2.1
CHA Batum-Jefferson-Walker-Williams +5.4 +3.7 +1.7
NYK Anthony-Calderon-Lopez-Porzingis -1.6 -1.7 +0.1
CHI Butler-Gasol-Rose-Snell +1.8 +1.9 -0.2
BOS Crowder-Johnson-Sullinger-Thomas +3.8 +4.0 -0.2
WAS Beal-Gortat-Porter-Wall -6.0 -4.3 -1.7
DEN Faried-Gallinari-Harris-Mudiay -5.9 -4.1 -1.8
LAL Clarkson-Hibbert-Randle-Russell -11.6 -8.7 -3.0
SAS Duncan-Green-Leonard-Parker +10.8 +14.5 -3.7
TOR Carroll-DeRozan-Lowry-Scola +0.1 +4.2 -4.1
MEM Allen-Conley-Gasol-Randolph -8.6 -3.6 -5.0
MIA Bosh-Dragic-Wade-Whiteside -2.7 +4.2 -7.0
ORL Fournier-Harris-Payton-Vucevic -2.9 +4.3 -7.3
CLE James-Love-Mozgov-Williams -2.9 +7.6 -10.5
IND Ellis-George-Hill-Mahinmi -4.5 +8.9 -13.4
PHI Grant-McConnell-Okafor-Stauskas -28.6 -10.6 -18.0

Remarkably, it doesn’t matter whom the Clippers play with Griffin, Paul, Jordan and Redick. It always works.

Three players – Luc Mbah a Moute, Stephenson and Wesley Johnson – have started multiple games with the quartet. Each five-man lineup has produced offensive/defensive/net ratings near the Warriors’ overall marks (113.1/97.8/+15.3).

Here’s how the Clippers have performed with their big four and:

  • Mbah a Moute: 109.7/96.8/+12.9
  • Stephenson: 115.0/97.3/+17.7
  • Johnson: 113.6/96.7/+-16.9

Here’s how that compares to the overall ratings of the other Western Conference contenders – Warriors (113.1/97.8/+15.3), Spurs (106.1/92/+14.1) and Thunder(107.7/99.9/+7.9). The bounds are set to the NBA’s best and worst offensive and defensive ratings, and the axes represent the median marks

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The Clippers’ defense is excellent with their big four, and their offense is literally off the charts.

Doc appreciates having a unit he can count on.

“That helps, but we want two,” Doc said. “And we’re working on that.”

It’ll take more work than the Clippers hoped, though that wasn’t entirely unpredictable.

You can scroll up to see the optimistic view of the newcomers, but there was certainly another outlook.

Austin needed significant improvement just to become a viable NBA player, though he thinks much more highly of himself and too often plays like it. The Hornets seemed fed up with Stephenson from nearly the moment they signed him. Pierce is 38 years old. Smith was so unproductive in Detroit, the Pistons ate more than $30 million to waive him.

Doc has tried multiple solutions – playing all the reserves together, staggering when Griffin, Paul, Jordan and Redick sit and even recently giving Stephenson a DNP-CD. The results have all been similar: The Clippers look uncomfortable playing together whenever reserves infiltrate the lineup.

Maybe that will get better with time. Griffin, Paul, Jordan and Redick didn’t immediately click to this degree. Now, those four mesh seamlessly, their styles complementing each other. Stephenson, Smith and Pierce have the varied skill sets to find ways to help  – if they put their minds to it. It doesn’t help that Smith is in a contract year, and Stephenson faces the likelihood of having his 2016-17 team option declined.

The 16-10 Clippers can get by in the regular season like this, but this isn’t a recipe for playoff success. In the postseason, their most important question could become: How much playing time can Griffin, Paul, Jordan and Redick handle before fatigue causes their performance to decline? The answer, after a round or maaaaybe even two, will almost certainly be “not enough.”

Still, the Warriors have been so dominant when they use their best players – even more so than the Clippers. Unless Golden State comes back down to earth, it might not even matter if the Clippers’ reserves make tremendous strides.

But for the Clippers to have any chance of winning big in May and June, they need to find a rotation – not just a four-man unit – that works. Despite all their efforts, they’re still not close.