Los Angeles Clippers: Vinny Del Negro
“The No. 1 priority for us right now has to be re-signing our star player, Chris Paul,” Sacks said at Day 2 of the Clippers’ exit interviews. “That's our goal, that's what we want to do.”
While the Clippers’ early playoff exit certainly doesn’t sit well with their free agent superstar, ESPN.com’s Marc Stein has reported that Paul will likely stay in Los Angeles and accept the nearly $30 million extra the Clippers can offer him.
Heading into the offseason, the Clippers only have six players under fully guaranteed contracts: Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Jamal Crawford, Eric Bledsoe, Caron Butler and Grant Hill. Willie Green’s contract is non-guaranteed for the next two seasons, meaning the Clippers can waive him to alleviate cap space.
The collective salaries of the group equal 46.7 million ($45.3 million if Green is waived before July 1). If Paul signs the five-year, $108 million extension the Clippers can offer, his first-year salary would be a little under $18.7 million, bringing the Clippers’ salary total to $66.5 million, including the 25th overall selection in the 2013 NBA draft (the average salary at that slot is about $1.1 million).
ESPN cap guru Larry Coon projects a $71.5 million to $73 million tax line in 2013-14, meaning with only nine players under contract -- the league minimum is 13 -- the Clippers would have $5 to $7 million to spend on at least four players in free agency and still remain under the dreadful luxury tax.
With six free agents -- Paul, Matt Barnes, Chauncey Billups, Lamar Odom, Ronny Turiaf and Ryan Hollins -- and no decision announced yet on the future of their Vinny Del Negro, the Clippers will have a slew of difficult decisions to make in what Sacks calls a “huge” offseason.
Here are three things to look for this offseason:
Deciding on the future of Jordan and Bledsoe
The young duo was nearly packaged alongside Butler to the Boston Celtics at the trade deadline, and it’s looking more and more like one of them, if not both, will eventually be dealt.
Bledsoe is more likely to be traded than Jordan, as the back-up point guard is due for a significant raise next summer as a restricted free agent. Many, including Paul, believe Bledsoe should be starting on his own team.
That being said, it’s unlikely the Clippers move Bledsoe -- the ultimate insurance policy -- until Paul is locked up, which would be July 1 at the earliest. If the right move comes along though, especially around the NBA Draft in late June, Bledsoe could be moved sooner.
While Jordan has yet to play up to the standards of the hefty contract he signed last summer, it’ll be more difficult to replace him because athletic 7-footers are hard to come by and provide unquantifiable value on defense.
Still, the Clippers are in win-now mode and don’t have time to wait for Jordan to blossom an offensive game or become competent at free throw shooting. If he’s unable to play in crunch time, he isn’t worth keeping around.
It’s unlikely the Clippers keep both players, but still possible. Bledsoe has proven he can play shooting guard alongside Paul, and his stout perimeter defense is a game-changer; Jordan has improved every year and may finally breakthrough with a solidified role and consistent playing time.
Nevertheless, these two will be the centerpieces of any trade talks the Clippers have over the offseason.
Big man with shooting range
One of the biggest problems for the Clippers offensively this season was that besides Griffin -- who’s at his best when operating down on the low block -- they didn’t have a big man that could space the floor and stretch opposing defenses out with his shooting.
Odom was supposed to fill that role, but his shooting stroke deserted him for the second straight season. He shot 39.9 percent from the floor and 20.0 percent from the beyond the arc, figures that ranked as the second worst of his career.
Meanwhile, Jordan, Turiaf and Hollins combined to make 9 shots beyond 10 feet all season. Defenses often ignored the latter two and only paid attention to Jordan because of the ever-looming threat of a lob from Paul.
No matter who he played with, Griffin was always paired with an offensive non-factor, forcing him to single-handedly carry the interior-scoring burden. After he sprained his ankle before Game 5 of the 2013 postseason, no one else stepped up -- the remaining big men combined to average just 15 points per game over the final two games of the series.
With the Clippers on a strict budget, and floor-spacing big men a hot commodity, it’s unlikely they find a guy without severe flaws (especially defensively). Regardless, finding a shooting big man who can play with Griffin for 10-15 minutes a night will spruce up the Clippers’ offense.
Potential fits: Earl Clark, Antawn Jamison, Dante Cunningham (Team Option), Anthony Tolliver, Jon Leuer (Restricted Free Agent)
Athletic wing defender with size
The Clippers’ perimeter defenders made the Grizzlies’ wings look like All-Stars this postseason, even though none of the Grizzlies’ perimeter players averaged double-digit scoring numbers during the season.
With Butler, Crawford and Green as the only wings under contract, the Clippers will undoubtedly need to address their perimeter defense, as none of those guys are “stoppers”. To contend for a championship next year, the Clippers will need a couple of players who can feasibly defend the Kobe Bryants and Kevin Durants of the world without being burned.
Barnes did a great job filling this role this year, but due to the constraints of the collective bargaining agreement (the Clippers don’t own his Bird Rights), the Clippers can only offer him up to 120 percent of his current contract, which is a little over $1.6 million. If Barnes wants to stay in L.A., he’ll have to take a significant pay cut compared to his projected market value. Chances are, though, he bolts for more money and a larger role, as he’s already stated he wants a pay increase.
While a lot of the shooting big men in the Clippers’ price range will be defensively challenged, most free agent wing defenders will likewise be offensively challenged. There’s a reason why they’re not getting paid more.
Ideally, the Clippers would sign someone with the size and/or length to play power forward in small ball lineups, while also possessing the ability to shoot corner 3-pointers. If they can sign two such players -- one to start and one to come off the bench -- they should be set on the perimeter.
Potential fits: Barnes, Tony Allen, Corey Brewer, Ronnie Brewer, Brandon Rush (Player Option), Marquis Daniels
Stats used in this piece are from ESPN.com and NBA.com/Stats.
Salary cap information used from ESPN.com, HOOPSWORLD.com, CBAFAQ.com and ClipperBlog.com.
Vinny Del Negro has been on the hot seat since the Clippers picked up the option on the third and final year of his deal last year and did not extend him beyond this season. It was clear that this season was an audition for him and if he would be the coach who would lead the Clippers for the next four to five seasons.
With Chris Paul becoming an unrestricted free agent and able to sign a five-year extension this summer and Blake Griffin inking a five-year extension last summer, the next big question for the Clippers is who will be coaching the cornerstones of the franchise for the foreseeable future.
As good as the Clippers have been over the past two seasons, it could easily be argued that the turnaround has more to do with the arrival of Paul than Del Negro’s coaching. Del Negro was 32-50 in his first season with the Clippers before Paul arrived, and as Griffin was named Rookie of the Year. He was a .500 coach in his two seasons with Chicago and never made it out of the first round. The Bulls then replaced him with Tom Thibodeau, prompting Chicago to go 62-20 and advance to the Eastern Conference finals the next season. Derrick Rose, who was named the Rookie of the Year under Del Negro, blossomed into the league's MVP under Thibodeau. And look what the injury-riddled Bulls are doing this season in the playoffs without Rose.
Del Negro is a good coach, who surrounded himself with good assistants, but it was no secret that the Clippers needed to advance to the conference finals for him to be in the running for a long-term extension.
Outlook for 2013-14
Del Negro is scheduled to meet with Clippers owner Donald Sterling at the end of this week and it would be considered a major surprise if Sterling offered Del Negro a contract extension after his deal expires in June. The Clippers, according to sources, are expected to make a run at some big name coaches as Sterling for the first time seems willing to open up the checkbook for a respected coach with a solid resume.
The good news for Del Negro is that his last two years with the Clippers were strong enough that he’ll likely land on his feet with another team within a year or two.
C: Del Negro deserved an A for the first half of the season when the Clippers were a league-best 32-9, won 17 straight and looked well on their way to winning 60 games. Del Negro even won Coach of the Month honors in December. The wheels, however, fell off in the second half of the season where the team’s play was probably worthy of a C. The Clippers, however, did rally to win 9 straight to claim the Pacific Division, the four seed and take a 2-0 series lead on Memphis. In the end, though, Del Negro's team stalled out as Memphis made the right adjustments after Game 2 and won four straight and eliminated the Clippers in six games.
There was some uncertainty in the Clippers' front office last offseason after general manager Neil Olshey left to take a similar position with the Portland Trail Blazers. Gary Sacks was then promoted to take over for Olshey as team president Andy Roeser and Del Negro took a more hands-on approach to dealing with off-season acquisitions and moves. Sacks was on a similar one-year audition run like Del Negro but chances are that Sacks will be back. He had the backing of Paul and Griffin when he was promoted to his position and he has been working with Sterling and Roeser for 20 years.
The Clippers front office did a solid job in the offseason in putting together arguably the deepest team in the league. They went out and acquired Jamal Crawford, Lamar Odom, Grant Hill, Matt Barnes, Willie Green, Ryan Hollins and Ronny Turiaf. For all the talk about the Clippers building on the continuity from last season, there were nine players on this year’s playoffs roster that were not on last year’s playoff roster.
Outlook for 2013-14
The Clippers aren’t likely to make any moves in the front office. Sacks and Roeser will likely to continue in their roles unless Sterling suddenly gets the urge to call up Phil Jackson and give him a blank check to come across town and run the Clippers.
B: The Clippers did a fine job assembling a deep roster that won a team-record 56 games. Some might say it wasn’t built for the playoffs after losing Reggie Evans and Kenyon Martin but the Clippers got swept in the second round with those two. The Clippers rolled the dice on making some moves with a nice mixture of young players and veterans and it worked well in the regular season before fizzling out in the playoffs.
It was another stellar season for Paul, who finished fourth in the league in MVP voting and won the NBA All-Star Game MVP. He led the league in steals-per-game and assist-to-turnover ratio and finished second in assists-per-game. But Paul’s contributions to the Clippers go beyond mere stat lines and personal awards. Paul has made the Clippers legitimate contenders and a destination franchise since he came to the team before last season.
It’s no secret that Paul had a major say in what the Clippers did in the off-season as they went out and acquired Jamal Crawford, Lamar Odom, Grant Hill, Matt Barnes and Willie Green. Paul was usually the one doing the recruiting and pushing the front office to make those moves. Now it’s the front office and his teammates that might have to do the recruiting as Paul becomes an unrestricted free agent.
16.9 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 9.7 APG, 2.4 SPG, .481 FG, .328 3FG: Paul’s numbers offensively took a big dip largely because he averaged fewer minutes this season than at any point in his career. That had a lot to do with the Clippers’ second team, which played the majority of the second half during blowout wins.
Outlook for 2013-14
When Paul left the Clippers’ training facility last week after his exit interview, he did not indicate he would definitely be back with the team. Paul passed on a chance to sign a three-year, $60 million extension with the Clippers last year, but can sign a five-year, $108 million deal this summer.
"I'm going to take my time," Paul said. "I haven't even thought about it. I'm trying to figure out what I'm going to do the rest of the day. I might go home and swim with my son or something. This is nuts. I don't know what to do. I purposely didn't put anything on my calendar because we're supposed to still be playing."
While Paul was non-committal, Clippers vice president of basketball operations Gary Sacks said he was "very confident" the All-Star point guard would eventually re-sign with the team, which is the stance sources close to the team and Paul have echoed for some time. If Paul does re-sign on July 1, the focus will shift quickly to building a championship team around him for the next five years.
GradeA: Paul is the face of the franchise and the Clippers know they can’t afford to lose him. Thankfully for them, it doesn’t look like Paul is willing to lose $30 million by leaving the team.
It was Billups’ goal in the offseason to be back in time for the season opener, after rupturing his Achilles last February. Despite being back on the practice court in time for the opener, Billups was not back in the lineup until Nov. 28. He played three games and was out again until Feb. 8. Billups played in 22 games this season and struggled to gain any kind of continuity with the starting lineup or get into any kind of a groove. He scored just 7 combined points in the Clippers’ last three playoff games and went 0 for 6 for zero points in Game 4.
8.4 PPG, 1.5 RPG, 2.2 APG, 0.5 SPG, .402 FG, .367 3FG: Billups had the worst statistical season of his career, averaging less than 12 points and 4 assists for the first time since 2001.
Outlook for 2013-14
While it would seem to be a good time for Billups to call it a career and maybe move into a coaching position, he says he’s like to play one or two more seasons, preferably with the Clippers and Paul, before retiring and assuming a role in the front office.
"I'm focused on playing a couple more years," he said. "Two more years is my goal and after that my desire is more to be in the front office, not coaching. You never say never but my desire has never been to coach. It looks like I'm doing that now but I can't help myself. I would feel better about being in management and putting a team together."
If Paul re-signs with the Clippers, the odds are good that the Clippers will also lock up Billups for another year or two, which is either good news or bad news, depending on his health.
GradeC: Billups should get an A for coming back from a ruptured Achilles tendon at 36 but his performance this season and inability to stay on the court hurt the Clippers more than it helped them.
For a team that admittedly lacked toughness late in the season and in the postseason, “Tough Juice” was an integral piece of the starting lineup. Butler started all but four games this season and was third on the Clippers in three-point shooting percentage. He wasn’t always consistent offensively but he was a solid starter on the team and a leader in the locker room.
10.4 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 1.0 APG, 0.7 SPG, .424 FG, .388 3FG: Butler had his worst statistical season since his second season in the league and easily his worst season in terms of rebounding.
Outlook for 2013-14
Butler has one year left on his deal and has been mentioned in several trade proposals for the Clippers. As much as the Clippers like what Butler brings to the table on and off the court, if they can package him in a deal with Eric Bledsoe and/or DeAndre Jordan to get an All-Star caliber player there won’t be much hesitation.
GradeB: Butler didn’t have a great season but he played his role effectively and will likely be back in the starting lineup again unless the Clippers get a trade offer they can’t refuse.
When it comes to critics, Griffin is often in a no-win situation. He spent all off-season improving his mid-range game and his free-throw shooting and did just that. He shot a career-best 66 percent from the field and showed an ability to knock down shots outside the paint. But his critics will always label him as a dunker and point to a career-low in points and rebounds this season.
Griffin’s numbers being down had more to do with him playing career-low in minutes. In fact, he played six fewer minutes per game this season than he did during his rookie season. Still, Griffin was named to his third straight NBA All-Star Game, led the team in scoring rebounding and become just the fourth player since 2006 to average at least 18 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.0 steals in a season. And Griffin was the only player to average those numbers this season.
18.0 PPG,8.3 RPG, 1.2 APG, 1.2 SPG, .538 FG, .179 3FG: Griffin’s numbers were down from last season but the biggest improvement he made was at the free-throw line where he went from 52.1 percent last season to 66 percent this season.
Outlook for 2013-14
Griffin signed a five-year, $95 million extension with the Clippers last season and has been the face of the franchise since being the first overall selection in the 2009 NBA draft. His game continues to evolve each season, although those refinements and tweaks will always be overshadowed by his dunks.
Ignore any talks about a trade when it comes to Griffin. He’s untouchable, according to multiple sources within the organization, unless the name on the other end of the deal is LeBron James or Kevin Durant. That’s not only how important Griffin is to the franchise in terms of marketing and ticket sales but also how high they think Griffin’s ceiling is.
GradeA: Another solid season for Griffin, who continues to establish himself as a franchise player just three seasons into his NBA career.
Jordan is athletically one of the more gifted centers in the league but Vinny Del Negro and his staff feel he has a long way to go when it comes to work ethic and maturity. Despite working with a shooting coach this summer, Jordan’s free throw percentage actually fell from 52.5 percent to 38.6 percent. He was a non-factor offensively in the last two months of the season.
While Jordan is a force on defense, the Clippers were often playing four-on-five on the offensive end with Jordan’s limited offensive repertoire and his inability to hit free throws. There were several times when Jordan would actually stand out of bounds during an offensive passion to avoid being intentionally fouled. While Jordan did develop some offensive moves it is still well short of where he should be after signing a four-year, $43 million contract before last season.
8.8 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 0.3 APG, 0.6 SPG, .643 FG, .000 FG: Jordan had a career year in points but his rebounding and block totals took a hit. Still, the most troubling stat about Jordan is his regression at the free-throw line.
Outlook for 2013-14
It’s hard to get a good read on Jordan. On one hand, he looks like he has all the physical tools to be one of the best centers in the league. But on the other hand you look at what he’s done over the past five seasons and he looks like a one-dimensional player who may never realize his full potential.
The Clippers need to decide what camp they are in this season and move forward. However, judging by his performance in the postseason and certainly late in games the past two seasons, the Clippers would be wise to look at ways they could package him in a deal for a big man that will actually contribute offensively late in games and possibly take more of a leadership role on the team. (Yes, I’m talking about Kevin Garnett.)
GradeC: Jordan developed some new moves offensively and was a force on defense but his inability to make free throws and stay on the floor late in games is a big reason why he may not be in the Clippers’ long-term plans.
The Clippers lost to the Memphis Grizzlies 103-93 Tuesday night at Staples Center and face the daunting task of having to go on the road to win a playoff game to keep their season alive. Not only that, the Clippers are looking at playing with a less-than-100 percent Blake Griffin, who sprained his ankle Monday in practice and couldn’t finish Tuesday’s game.
The loss Tuesday was the third consecutive in the series for L.A., which is trying to avoid becoming only the 16th team in NBA playoff history to lose a series after taking a 2-0 lead.
“We’ve got to be desperate,” said Chris Paul, who scored 35 points Tuesday. “They say the playoffs don’t start 'til somebody loses at home, so I guess ours started.”
A loss would be a serious blow to a franchise that is trying to turn a corner and become a respected team after years as an NBA also-ran. The Clippers seemed to be headed in that direction this season when they set a franchise record for wins, won a division title for the first time, and swept the season series from the Lakers for the first time since moving to L.A.
A first-round playoff exit would almost certainly rekindle whispers of “the same old Clippers” and would put the Clippers in the same first-round loser’s boat as the Lakers. A win Friday and another one Sunday to take the series would help the franchise edge out of mediocrity and offer some hope that the recent renaissance is for real.
“None of that means anything,” Paul said. “The division, who we beat during the season -- none of that means anything. … For me, all I’m focused on is Game 6.”
Winning at Memphis will be difficult. The Clippers have lost the last two games there by 12 and 21 points. The Grizzlies are rolling now, having won the last three games by an average of 14.3 points. But the Clippers have won in Memphis in must-win situations before.
Last year, the Clippers won Game 7 of their first-round series at FedEx Forum. Just a couple of weeks ago, L.A. defeated the Grizzlies in Memphis with home-court advantage in this series on the line. Even in the two lopsided losses last week, the Clippers were within single digits at the end of three quarters.
“We know we have to play better, regroup and see how healthy we can get between now and then,” coach Vinny Del Negro said. “We’re not going to lay down. We're going to never give up, we’re going to play hard, play together and do what we can to make it work.”
It stands a better chance of working well if Griffin can play. The All-Star forward was the team’s leading scorer and rebounder in the regular season. He landed on teammate Lamar Odom’s foot during practice Monday and tried to play through the pain Tuesday, but had to come out near the end of the third quarter.
“When I feel like I can’t really do what I need to do to help our team, I don’t want to put our team at risk and make it worse,” Griffin said.
It’s still too early to determine Griffin’s status for Friday’s game. And even with a healthy Griffin, it won’t be easy for the Clippers to keep this series alive.
“It’s a challenge,” Griffin said. “They’re tough at home, but we’ve gotten tough wins at their place before so you can’t really rule anything out. Obviously, this is it. Our backs are against the wall. We have to play with a sense of urgency or obviously everybody knows what happens.”
LOS ANGELES — The first game was a blowout and the second was won on a buzzer-beater, but both were wins for the Los Angeles Clippers, and that means they hold a 2-0 series advantage over the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the Western Conference NBA playoffs.
It’s a good omen for the Clippers, who have been up 2-0 in a playoff series only one other time in franchise history. That time, in 2006, they went on to defeat the Denver Nuggets 4-1. A 2-0 series lead also holds a historical advantage: In NBA playoff history, a team has lost a series only 15 times after winning the first two.
Those things mean little to the Clippers, however. Nobody in their locker room was satisfied after Chris Paul’s buzzer-beating bank shot gave L.A. a 93-91 victory in Game 2 at Staples Center.
“All we did was protect our home court,” Vinny Del Negro said. “You have to win four games. We did what we were supposed to do. We know we’re going to have to play better in Memphis.”
It would be difficult to play better than Paul did down the stretch. He scored 19 of his 24 points in the second half and was the only Clippers player to score in the final 3:46 of the game. The Clippers held a 12-point lead with just under 10 minutes to play and let the Grizzlies get back in to tie the game. L.A. was able to get away with that at home, but trying that on the road would be playing with fire.
“Each game is a game in itself,” Paul said. “You don’t carry over points, possessions, foul trouble or anything like that. We know that they’ll be at home in front of their fans with a lot of energy and they feel like they need to win two games at home now.”
The Clippers don’t need to look too far in the past to know how important it is to protect home-court advantage. Last year, Memphis had home-court advantage against the Clippers, but L.A. won Game 1 in Memphis and eventually won the series in seven games -- with Game 7 also in Memphis.
Those aren’t the only good memories the Clippers have of Memphis, either. Less than two weeks ago, the Clippers went into FedEx Forum with home-court advantage in this series on the line and won 91-87.
“I have complete confidence with our team on the road, especially,” Del Negro said. “We know what we’re in for, but that’s what it’s all about. The best part is the competition and challenging yourself to be better. I’m going to challenge this group to prepare the right way and have the right mindset going in.”
Lately, the Clippers have had a pretty good mindset. The win Monday was their ninth in a row overall, going back to the regular season. A streak like that only serves to boost the confidence level for the players. They showed that Saturday in their 112-91 dismantling of the Grizzlies, and Paul’s game-winner Monday was another shot in the arm.
“Every game in the playoffs is must-win,” forward Lamar Odom said. “It’s all about finishing the season strong. You can only do that with wins. It’s all about doing whatever it takes. We got another game, another inch, took another step toward our goal.”
Going up 2-0 in the series will make the plane ride across the country a much better one for the Clippers.
“In the playoffs it’s very important,” Odom said. “Mentally, it takes a little pressure off you, but at the same time we don’t want to go back there and just -- we want to push them to the limit and even play better than we played tonight.”
Odom has been around long enough to know that the series is far from over. Memphis coach Lionel Hollins can only hope so. He was preaching optimism despite the deficit his team is facing as it heads back home.
“We’ve got to go home and hold serve,” Hollins said. “That’s what they did. We almost got one here. It’s not doom and gloom. It was just a tough, hard-fought battle, and we’ve got to go home, and there are going to be two hard-fought battles there. And we’ve got to come away with two of them.”
Grizzlies guard Mike Conley expects the Memphis crowd to come out in full force. The fact that the team is down 2-0 is enough of a rallying cry, but it means even more that the Clippers are coming to town because of all the big wins L.A. has had in Memphis over the past year.
“When the Clippers come to town it’s obviously a different type of crowd because we have a history with them,” Conley said. “We’ve played a bunch of good games with them. We expect it to be loud and crazy and hopefully we can take care of that business at home.”
The Clippers aren’t exactly in a must-win situation on the road. They can merely win all of their home games and still win the series, but that’s not a thought that is crossing their heads as they head to Memphis.
“We’ve got to go down to Memphis and try to steal a game,” Paul said. “We’ve got to be greedy.”
The Clippers have accomplished so much already this season, but so much is still to be decided Wednesday night in Sacramento. The Clippers, on a seven-game win streak, are already a lock for the playoffs so Wednesday’s game isn’t exactly for all the marbles, but there are some pretty big ones still rolling around out there.
A victory Wednesday night at Sacramento would clinch home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs for the Clippers and they still have an outside shot of moving up to the No. 3 seed and an easier first-round matchup.
Securing home court and moving up to the No. 3 seed depends on one thing, however: The Clippers have to win.
“You can speculate and think about this and the other thing, but at the end of the day you have to go out and you have to earn it,” Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. “No one is going to give it to you. If they do, we’ll take it, but right now our mindset is we’re going to go earn it and it’s not going to be an easy game.”
The scenarios for the Clippers (55-26) on the last day of the regular season are three-fold:
1. If the Clippers win and the Denver Nuggets (56-25) lose to the Phoenix Suns (25-56), the Clippers would tie the Nuggets, earn the No. 3 spot because they are the Pacific Division champions and get home court in the first round against the Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets.
3. If the Clippers and Memphis both lose, the two would meet in the first round of the playoffs with the Clippers holding home court advantage.
“We’re not set in stone in one seed,” Chris Paul said. “All the previous 81 games led up to [Wednesday] so [Wednesday] is another big game for us.”
The Nuggets and the Grizzlies both play early enough Wednesday that the Clippers will have an idea of the situation by the time they tip off at 7:30 p.m. in Sacramento. Surely they will be scoreboard watching but they say they must prepare as if Memphis and Denver will both win.
“We have to take care of our business and that’s all we can do,” Matt Barnes said. “There are some other games that have an effect on what we do, but if we go out and take care of our business, nothing too bad will happen to us.”
The odds are against the Clippers moving up to the No. 3 seed. The Nuggets and Phoenix are playing in Denver, where the Nuggets boast an NBA-best 37-3 home record. Phoenix, meanwhile is at the bottom of the Western Conference standings and is tied with Sacramento for fewest road wins in the conference.
Memphis is also at home for its game against the Jazz. The Grizzlies are 31-9 at home this season while Utah is 13-27 on the road. One thing going in the Clippers favor is that Utah is playing for its playoff life. The Jazz must win and hope the Lakers lose in order to make the post season.
One thing working against the Clippers is the situation in Sacramento. The Kings (28-53) are among the bottom three teams in the Western Conference and a pedestrian 20-20 at home this season, but the fans will surely be out in full force Wednesday because it could be the last game for the Kings in Sacramento. The team is contemplating a move to Seattle so the game will carry some emotion.
The Clippers embrace that.
“I hope it’s going to be crazy,” said Barnes, who played for the Kings in 2004-05. “I hope the fans really come out and support that team. It’ll be a hostile environment similar to the playoffs so we’ve got to go in there and keep our composure and play good basketball.”
The only thing that really matters to the Clippers, however, is getting a win.
“It’s not about the environment,” Del Negro said. “It’s about us locking in and executing and slowing them down in areas and transition defense. We’ve got to go in with the right mindset, the right level of intensity that needs to be executed and if we do that we’ll have more opportunity.”
Sound defensive rotations
The Clippers’ Achilles heel this season has been their 3-point defense, which stems from poor defensive rotations. They’ve lost a handful of games to some of the worst teams in the league -- the Cleveland Cavaliers, Orlando Magic, New Orleans Hornets and Sacramento Kings – because of their inability to defend beyond the arc.
For the season, the Clippers rank 26th in opponent 3-point percentage and 24th in opponent 3-point makes per game. Despite their ninth-ranked overall defense, the Clippers rank just 22nd in opponent points-per-shot, which factors in the amount of 3-pointers they allow.
“We have to play with a little more sense of urgency on both ends of the floor. Our defensive percentages have gone up, which means we're not playing the defense we're capable of," shooting guard Willie Green said after practice last week.
This, in part, has to do with the Clippers’ pick-and-roll defense. While it’s much improved from last year, it’s still susceptible to breakdowns, especially if the ball-handler can get by the Clippers big man who’s hedging. If this happens, the Clippers are left playing three-on-four, which almost always results in an open 3-pointer or lay-up.
"Our bigs are getting stretched out a little bit," head coach Vinny Del Negro said after practice last week. "They have to have a little sense of urgency in closing out. Some guys can make that adjustment, and some guys are struggling with that but we drilled it again today. That's obviously an area of concern."
Since most NBA defenses focus on packing the paint and preventing lay-ups, the Clippers usually collapse toward the rim when they suffer a breakdown and leave shooters open all over the court. And, of course, there are certainly other reasons the Clippers’ defense slips up, whether it’s a guard getting blown by on the perimeter or weak-side defenders over-helping on a drive.
The Clippers need to get on the same page defensively. The two teams they will likely have to defeat in order to make the NBA finals -- the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder -- are the third and fifth-best 3-point shooting teams in the league, respectively, so the Clippers will need to shore up their rotations and figure out a way to stop the bleeding.
The Clippers have given 13 different players rotation-level minutes at some point in the season. That number will shrink to nine or 10 guys, at the most, in the playoffs. Tough choices will be made and egos will be bruised.
“It really depends on who’s healthy and who can go. We really haven’t had that consistently. It’s been different lineups for just health reasons,” Del Negro said at practice last week. “Hopefully we can sew that up as we move forward at the end.”
Here are a few postseason lineup tweaks the Clippers probably should make:
The closing lineup
The Clippers best lineup this season, by far, has been DeAndre Jordan at center, Blake Griffin at power forward, Matt Barnes at small forward, Jamal Crawford at shooting guard and Chris Paul at point guard.
The lineup scores 118.4 points per 100 possessions and allows just 90.2 points per 100 possessions defensively (+28.2 net rating), figures that would rank as both the NBA’s top offense and defense by a considerable margin.
Thus far, the Clippers have mainly closed games with Griffin, Barnes, Crawford, Paul and Lamar Odom, not Jordan. The lineup has done very well, scoring 111.5 points per 100 possessions and allowing 103.1 points per 100 possessions (+8.4 net rating). It has been nowhere near as dominant as the lineup with Jordan in the middle, though.
Jordan’s inconsistencies on both ends of the floor, as well as his free-throw shooting woes, have made it difficult for Del Negro to fully trust Jordan with legitimate starter-level and closing-time minutes.
But the numbers say he should be out there.
“We need him big time,” Paul said of Jordan after last week’s win over the Brooklyn Nets. “I think he knows that and he needs to know that. With him in the game, he's a game-changer.”
With Jordan, the Clippers post a 57.0 rebounding percentage; replace him with Odom in that same lineup, and the figure drops to 49.8 percent. The same drop-off occurs offensively (60.4 true shooting percentage with Jordan; 54.6 percent with Odom).
Defensively, the Clippers see a significant boost in their 3-point defense with Jordan, allowing just 28.2 percent shooting on opposing 3-pointers, compared to 40.3 percent 3-point shooting with Odom.
It may run counter to Del Negro’s instincts, but Jordan should finish games.
The bench lineup
With Grant Hill constantly in and out of the lineup, and Eric Bledsoe’s recent injury, the bench has lacked the consistency and structure it had earlier in the season.
Since Jan. 1, the “Tribe Called Bench” lineup of Ronny Turiaf, Odom, Barnes, Crawford and Bledsoe has been outscored by 16.1 points per 100 possessions. But those numbers stem from a very small floor-time sample size (56 minutes).
To spark the struggling bench, Del Negro replaced Turiaf with Ryan Hollins in early February. The results have been abysmal.
Since Feb. 1, about the time Hollins took over as the bench’s center, the new lineup has been outscored by over 20 points per 100 possessions.
Neither Hollins (+0.5 points per 100 possessions) nor Turiaf (+3.8 points per 100 possessions) projects to play much in the postseason, but if one of them needs to be called off the bench, almost all signs point to Turiaf being the better choice.
The wildcards of the Clippers season have been Billups and Hill. If healthy, both will play vital roles in a playoff run. If not, the Clippers will start Willie Green and be stretched thin with Barnes and Butler as their only wing players with size.
The small ball bench lineup with Hill as a big man instead of Turiaf or Hollins has only played 42 minutes, but has been dominated on the glass (47.1 rebound percentage), struggled offensively (87.7 offensive rating) and been outscored by 1.4 points per 100 possessions. Designed around versatility and speed, the lineup might fare well against a team like the Denver Nuggets.
Against the Dallas Mavericks on Tuesday night, the Clippers briefly went with a lineup of Griffin, Barnes, Butler, Crawford and Paul down the stretch. The Clippers’ defense struggled, and in 32 minutes overall, the lineup has been disastrous (-25.1 net rating). Replace Crawford with Jordan, though, and the results are much better (+23.5 net rating), indicating the duo of Barnes and Butler can coexist on the wings.
An intriguing lineup of Jordan, Griffin, Barnes, Bledsoe, and Paul has only played 21 minutes and been outscored by 4.4 points per 100 possessions, but has shot efficiently and dominated the boards (62.1 rebounding percentage). The lineup oozes elite defensive potential and off-ball movement, and could have value against a long, athletic team like the Oklahoma City Thunder.
A realistic possibility, depending on the situation, is for Del Negro to finish with Odom, Griffin, Barnes, Billups and Paul. Crawford is the Clippers’ second-best shot creator behind Paul, but Billups has a reputation for making big shots and would alleviate pressure on Paul with his sound decision-making, shooting and court vision. This lineup has only played seven minutes, so it’s impossible to glean anything from the data, but it’s the type of veteran-savvy lineup coaches prefer.
For most of the season, the Clippers’ starters and bench players have played almost entirely separately.
Four of L.A.’s nine lineups that have played at least 100 minutes are entirely compromised of either starting players or bench players. Two other lineups feature either four starters and one bench player or four bench players and one starter.
Therefore, there will be a lot of inexperienced lineups in the postseason, as lineups will be mashed and new player combinations will be tested in the name of defeating the Thunder and San Antonio Spurs. Luckily, Paul, Griffin and Crawford will be on the floor at almost all times, mitigating any potential lulls.
Deciding who should play, who shouldn’t and more importantly when they should play is a difficult and delicate task.
The Clippers’ best chance of playing into June hinges on the coaching staff’s ability to strike the right balance between managing egos and deploying the right combinations, that will be their playing in June.
Stats from nba.com/stats
There’s no question that process is, to a certain extent, never-ending until a championship is won. But with 20 games left in the regular season, the Clippers’ process at some point has to transition into a more concrete identity and lineup.
In Sunday’s loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Del Negro played 12 players. Now, that had a lot to do with Blake Griffin and Lamar Odom getting into early foul trouble in the first quarter, but before the playoffs begin, Del Negro needs to shore up his lineup and select a rotation he thinks will win in the postseason.
For all the talk of the Clippers’ depth, the truth is that come playoff time, the best teams roll with their best eight or nine players. The Thunder, for example, played nine players Sunday. Sure, Del Negro is trying to keep everyone happy, but at some point this team’s lineups and rotations have to be as dependable as Chris Paul in the fourth quarter. You have to know what to expect. Far too often with Del Negro, his rotations are a mystery.
We’re in March and there are still moments when the Clippers will run out a lineup we haven’t seen before. It’s usually a mishmash lineup that will include Chauncey Billups and/or Grant Hill, who has missed most of the season with injuries, or Ryan Hollins, who was the odd man out earlier in the season but now is seeing more time.
The Clippers know Paul, Billups, Caron Butler, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are their starters. They know Jamal Crawford is their sixth man. They know Odom is the first big off the bench, and Matt Barnes and Eric Bledsoe are in that top nine as well.
The question now becomes: How much do you play Bledsoe and Crawford in relation to Billups, who is at the end of his career and coming off a major injury? How much do you play Barnes in relation to Butler when Barnes on some nights is more effective on both ends of the floor? And where do Hill, Ronny Turiaf, Hollins and Willie Green fit in?
There’s time for Del Negro and the Clippers to figure that out, but that process needs to begin now so players aren’t wondering what their roles are during the playoffs and what assignments they have when they’re on the floor with someone they’ve hardly played with. Del Negro has done a good job of balancing the egos and needs of the players on the team during the season, but he’s going to have to make some hard decisions on playing time soon, such as giving Hill, Turiaf, Hollins and Green DNP-CDs as he tightens his lineup.
There’s a certain rhythm and flow that goes with a shortened lineup and every player knowing what his role is and what is expected of him.
There wasn’t much Del Negro could have done about the rotation on Sunday, with Griffin picking up two fouls in four minutes and Odom picking up three in five minutes, but the lineup he was forced to juggle in the first half showed why consistency and familiarity are so important. Del Negro played 12 players in the first half, each for more than five minutes, and not surprisingly the Clippers had 16 turnovers, which led to 17 points for the Thunder.
“I think we were out of rhythm, out of sync,” Del Negro said. “For whatever reason we just kept turning it over, and we didn’t make the easy play. We just couldn’t get any type of rhythm with anybody, really. Obviously Blake got in foul trouble early and then LO picked up three, so I was just trying to manage things for the half, and we made some adjustments.”
One of the biggest adjustments was playing only nine players in the second half and leaning on eight. The Clippers got into a nice rhythm with their core group and came back from 19-point deficit to take a one-point lead before eventually losing.
“Hopefully,” Del Negro said, “we can use this as a barometer to tighten some things up.”
If Del Negro can do that, it would go a long way in speeding up the Clippers’ process heading into the playoffs.
By not trading Bledsoe, the Clippers guaranteed they’d have at least one talented point guard on the roster if Chris Paul were to leave as a free agent this summer. They also kept on hand a developing, dangerous change-of-pace player who could be a difference maker in the playoffs.
The Clippers have the next year and a half to decide whether or not they will keep Bledsoe, a restricted free agent in 2014, as a core part of their foundation.
The 23-year-old point guard watched a recent game on an iPad with Clippers assistant coach Robert Pack. As they went over clips, Pack demonstrated where Bledsoe should have hedged when the Trailblazers’ LaMarcus Aldridge had the ball in the post.
“Bled is a student of the game,” Pack said. “His first two seasons, I’d usually be the one grabbing him to watch film. But this season, he’s beating me to the punch. He’s bringing the clips to me. He’s studying the opposition and looking for any breaks and advantages he can get.”
The two watched film for more than 30 minutes before Bledsoe suited up for what was his seventh start in nine games. With Paul recently out with a bruised right kneecap, Bledsoe had been thrust into the starting role. While he exceeded expectations, Bledsoe knew he was only scratching the surface of his potential.
“I think I’m doing pretty well, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement,” he said. “I need to come out and take it to another level.”
The hype surrounding Bledsoe can be traced back to a breakout performance in the 2012 playoffs, when he emerged as an athletic defensive pest with energy and upside.
As the Clippers prepared for their 2012 playoff run, Bledsoe, who averaged only 11 minutes of action in the regular season, wasn’t expected to contribute much. That quickly changed when he was given an opportunity against Memphis in the first round. He was surprisingly productive on offense (62.1 true shooting percentage) and suffocated the Grizzlies’ Mike Conley, holding him to just 25 percent shooting and a +/- rating of -19.4.
“I finally had confidence going in. My coach and my teammates had confidence in me all season,” Bledsoe said. “I just had to find it in myself. It took a while, but I played with something to prove in the playoffs.”
With the departure of Mo Williams in an offseason trade, Bledsoe became a full-time backup point guard this season.
Outside of high school and a small portion of his rookie season, Bledsoe didn’t have much experience at the position.
“Being the lead guard was an adjustment for him,” Pack said. “We’ve constantly stressed to him that he needs to be a leader on the floor, play with the pace that he plays at, but just make the right decisions with that pace.”
Over the summer, Bledsoe played competitive pick-up games at a local rec center in his hometown of Birmingham, Ala,, arriving at the gym at 9 a.m., working on his core and legs for an hour or two, and then spend the rest of the day playing basketball against former college and overseas players. No drills. No weight lifting. Just basketball.
Pack visited him in late August and the two ran drills at nearby Samford University, focusing on Bledsoe’s pull-up shooting off pick-and-rolls, spotting up for corner 3-pointers and learning how to pick his spots offensively, or, as Pack said, “the cerebral part of his game.”
Bledsoe participated in the Clippers’ summer pick-up games at their training facility and impressed his teammates.
“To see how much Bled has grown is just amazing to me,” Paul said earlier this season. “I’ve known him since high school. He was actually a camper of mine at my point guard camp. To see how his confidence has grown from last to this year is impressive.”
He’s always had the athletic gifts, but now he’s started to develop point guard habits, finding open cutters and shooters, connecting with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan for lobs. He looks much more comfortable controlling the offense than ever before.
Bledsoe has been a statistical anomaly so far this season. His per-36 minute stats are in line with his starting numbers, suggesting he could be an All-Star candidate with increased playing time.
He started -- and performed well -- during Paul’s recent injury stint. He averages 18.5 minutes with Paul having returned to the starting lineup. With more traditional shooting guards on the roster -- Jamal Crawford, Willie Green and now a healthy Chauncey Billups -- Vinny Del Negro has opted to mainly deploy Bledsoe at point guard, and rarely alongside Paul.
“I just come in and provide that spark that we need to get everybody involved,” Bledsoe said.
“He’s a good defensive player. He likes to play center field and gamble,” Memphis Grizzlies head coach Lionel Hollins said after a recent loss to the Paul-less Clippers. “He’s got great quickness and great athleticism. … Just that aspect of his game, his athleticism, is what creates problems.”
Though he’s generously listed at 6-foot-1, Bledsoe has a deceptively long 6-foot-7 wingspan and a 40-inch vertical, allowing him to steal passes and block shots most players his size aren’t capable of reaching. “Bledsoe is a very good pressure guy,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said earlier this season. “If you turn your back on him and expose the ball at all, they’re going to get it.”
Defense and energy are great attributes for a bench player, and a backup point guard is an important contributor, but if Paul re-signs with the Clippers as a free agent Bledsoe’s future with the team ultimately may depend on his ability to play significant minutes as a shooting guard.
If and when Paul re-signs, it wouldn’t make sense to pay Bledsoe a hefty sum to back him up. As reported by ESPN’s Chris Broussard, Bledsoe can earn somewhere between $7.5 million to $8.5 million per season as a free agent on the open market. With the new CBA luxury tax penalties, the Clippers couldn’t afford to commit that much money to Bledsoe unless he was playing starters’ minutes.
Everyone from Paul to Pack to Dwyane Wade has said Bledsoe is ready to start. Paul has even stated that he believes Bledsoe should have his own team and will eventually become an All-Star. That probably doesn’t happen for Bledsoe in a Clippers uniform.
The reality is that Bledsoe is going to get paid lucratively; it’s just a matter of where. It will be up to the Clippers’ front office to decide if he fits with Paul and Blake Griffin, as well as in the team’s long-term plans.
“Whatever happens happens. For right now I’m playing backup point guard for the Los Angeles Clippers,” he said. “Who knows what the future holds. I’m going to continue doing what I’m doing and try to get a win at the end of the day.”
After losing four straight games to the same team to finish their seasons, the Clippers and Spurs knew they needed to make major changes if they hoped to get to the NBA Finals.
While the Spurs focused almost solely on the defensive end, the Clippers focused on reshaping their roster around Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. They needed to get deeper, smarter and more able to bang against Memphis down low one series, and guard the perimeter against San Antonio the next.
Both plans appeared to be working heading into last week’s NBA All-Star break, with the Spurs and Clippers occupying two of the top three seeds in the West and two of the top four seeds in the NBA.
But as Spurs coach Gregg Popovoich said before the Clippers played his team Thursday night, “It doesn’t matter what the standings are. The standings are sort of fake during the year.”
After the Spurs’ 116-90 dismantling of the Clippers, maybe Los Angeles’ championship prosepcts aren’t entirely fake, but its authenticity has certainly come under heavy scrutiny.
Sure, the Clippers will win 50 games this season and win the Pacific Division, two significant firsts for a franchise that has never done either. They may even accomplish another first by advancing to the Western Conference finals if things fall right for them in the postseason. But the realistic chances of this team winning a title or even getting to the NBA Finals have taken a major blow over the past two weeks.
Not only did the Clippers lose by 26 points to the Spurs on Thursday, but two weeks ago they lost by 22 points to the Miami Heat. In both games they fell behind by at least 32 points in the second half and never led by more than three points in the first half. In fact, they never even led Thursday, as the Spurs took a 34-21 lead after the first quarter. The Clippers are also 0-2 against the Oklahoma City Thunder this season.
LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Clippers spent the majority of their offseason putting together a team that would be better suited to beating the San Antonio Spurs if they ever met in the playoffs again.
After Los Angeles was swept by the Spurs in the playoffs last season, San Antonio was in the back of the Clippers' minds as they made move after move this summer. On Thursday, none of it seemed to matter as the Clippers were thoroughly outclassed and outmatched in a 116-90 drubbing that was easily L.A.’s most embarrassing loss of the season.
Here are three takeaways from the game:
If the Clippers are going to have any success against the Spurs or have a chance of going far in the playoffs, they’re going to need their backcourt of Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups to shine. On Thursday, they were a no-show. Paul finished with four points on 1-of-4 shooting to go along with five turnovers, three assists and two rebounds. Billups wasn’t much better, as he finished with six points on 0-of-2 shooting, getting all his points from the free throw line. Neither player was able to get into any kind of a rhythm, while Paul looked rusty even after his 20-point, 15-assist MVP performance in Sunday’s NBA All-Star Game. They were outplayed by Tony Parker, who had 31 points on 12-of-16 shooting with seven assists and two rebounds.
The Clippers played poorly across the board, but their ineptitude hit its depths in the third quarter, as Los Angeles hit just five of 14 shots and didn’t hit a field goal until nearly midway through the quarter. The Clippers not only hit 35.7 percent of their shots in the quarter, but allowed the Spurs to score 34 points and hit 60 percent of their shots. Whatever halftime adjustments Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro made clearly didn’t work, or fell on deaf ears, as the Clippers quickly found themselves down by 34 points in the second half.
If this is a preview of things to come, the Clippers could be looking at another quick series against the Spurs if the two teams end up facing each other. The Clippers know Paul and Billups won’t combine for 10 points and five assists many times, and if they do, they fully expect to be on the losing end. The problem for the Clippers is this isn’t really an aberration because they were blown out by the Miami Heat recently when Paul and Billups had off nights as well. If the Clippers want to be considered one of the top teams in the NBA, they can’t get blown out and fall behind by 30 or more points in the second half to teams such as the Heat and the Spurs. The Clippers likely will recover from this loss and finish with the third seed in the West, but their confidence going into a playoff rematch against San Antonio can’t be high given how badly they looked against the Spurs on Thursday with a fully healthy roster.
It’s no surprise that the Clippers have struggled with injuries this season. Besides Blake Griffin (23), DeAndre Jordan (24) and Eric Bledsoe (23), the Clippers aren’t exactly a young team. Still, they have arguably the deepest roster in the league, so if any team is capable of withstanding a myriad of injuries, it’s this group. With that said, keep an eye on the status of Paul’s knee -- if he’s banged up even a little bit, the Clippers are extremely vulnerable.
The Clippers have a relatively easy schedule down the stretch, playing 15 of their final 26 games at home, where L.A. is 21-5. They face San Antonio twice, Oklahoma City once, Memphis twice, Indiana twice and New York once, but besides those eight games, the rest of their schedule is more or less against subpar teams (they have 13 games against teams currently under .500). Expect the Clippers to head into the playoffs with considerable momentum.
Even when they reeled off their 17-game win streak earlier this season, the Clippers couldn’t separate themselves from the Spurs and Thunder. After suffering a setback with Paul out of the lineup, the Clippers (39-17) find themselves closer to the fourth-place Memphis Grizzlies (34-18) than they do to the first-place Spurs (42-12). Their cupcake schedule will give them some breathing room over the Grizzlies and Denver Nuggets, but do the Clippers have enough in the tank to make a run at a top-two seed? It could determine whether they advance to the conference finals or not.
A point of contention this season has been the topic of who should close games. Vinny Del Negro has publicly stated he prefers the hot hand, but for the most part, the Clippers finish games with Griffin, Paul and Barnes, and then either Crawford or Billups at shooting guard and Odom or Jordan at center. The lineups with Crawford and either big man have crushed opponents, while Billups’ sample size is too small to yet reach a clear analysis of it. Either way, it’ll be interesting to see which lineup gets the nod in crunch time of a vital playoff game.
CP3 for MVP
If not for LeBron James and Kevin Durant’s otherworldly dominance, Paul would likely be the leading MVP candidate. Look no further than his performance at the All-Star Game in Houston to see his control over a glorified pickup game with the game’s best players. The Clippers’ record speaks for itself -- they’re 33-11 with Paul and 6-6 without him. To say they look lost offensively without him would be an understatement. If Paul can lead a late Clipper rally and the team grabs a top-two seed, he’ll have a shot at crashing the presumed two-man party for MVP.
Griffin’s second half improvement
Last season, Griffin’s shooting percentage in the 16-23 feet range improved to 39 percent after the All-Star break. Over the past 20 games, Griffin’s points, rebounds, assists and field goal percentage have dramatically risen, so there’s reason to think he may continue to improve after the All-Star break. In particular, his passing has been impressive of late -- he’s at nearly five assists a night over that stretch.
In most of the Clippers’ losses to lottery bound teams, the central theme has been their inability to defend 3-pointers. According to Grantland’s Zach Lowe (http://www.grantland.com/blog/the-triangle/post/_/id/42920/unit-watch-the-heats-problem-on-defense), only two teams have made the conference finals between 1998-99 and 2010-11 while allowing above-average 3-point attempts and an above-average 3-point shooting percentage. The Clippers do both, ranking 24th in opponent 3-point attempts and 25th in opponent 3-point percentage. The Spurs and Thunder are among the best 3-point shooting teams in the league, so the Clippers will be in serious trouble if they can’t shore up this defensive flaw come playoff time.
Small forward rotation
The emergence of a healthy Grant Hill has brought about an interesting question: How will the wing minutes be dispersed as the rotations tighten? Recently, Del Negro has deployed either Hill or Barnes at power forward to create a smaller, faster second-unit lineup and assure ample minutes for his three small forwards. But when the playoffs roll around, there won’t be as many minutes available. Playing time will likely fluctuate on a game-by-game basis, but there will be instances when someone who is accustomed to playing is relegated to the bench.
A Tribe Called Bench
Which “Tribe Called Bench” will we get for the rest of the season? After captivating the league for almost half the season, things have cooled down substantially. Replacing Ronny Turiaf with Ryan Hollins hasn’t been beneficial; the original bench lineup has a +11.3 net rating with Turiaf, and a -1.1 net rating with Hollins. The new small ball lineup (Odom, Hill, Barnes, Crawford, Bledsoe) has been even worse, posting an anemic -13.0 net rating. It remains to be seen if the group can regain its mojo. But if the Clippers keep winning, does it matter?
Stats for this piece are from ESPN.com, HoopData.com and NBA.com.
LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Clippers knew things would not be easy without Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups.
The beauty of a backcourt like that is the ability of Billups, a five-time All-Star and former NBA Finals MVP, to simply slide over and play point guard if anything happened to Paul. Of course, when both Paul and Billups are out things get a little trickier. Suddenly, Eric Bledsoe is the starting point guard and the Clippers have to lean on Jamal Crawford or Grant Hill to bring the ball up the court with the second unit.
That led to four straight losses for the Clippers, who were tied for the best record in the NBA at the midway point of the season (32-9) before their losing streak.
The Clippers finally put an end to the streak Sunday night with a 96-83 win over the Portland Trail Blazers. With Oklahoma City's loss earlier in the day, the Clippers are just 1.5 games behind the Thunder.
Here are three takeaways from the game:
Blake Griffin has certainly stepped up in the absence of Paul. One night after posting 24 points and 10 assists at Portland, Griffin responded with 23 points and nine assists against the Blazers in L.A. Griffin finished just one assist shy of becoming the first power forward to post back-to-back 20-point and 10-assist games since Chris Webber in 2005, according to Basketball Reference. Griffin has also improved his free-throw shooting, hitting 9 of 11 over the last two games. Griffin has had to become more of a leader in the absence of Paul, a role he's not particularly comfortable with but one that has slowly grown on him over the past week.
The Clippers' bench has usually been able to rely on a big scoring night from either Crawford or Matt Barnes. On a night when the Clippers led by as many as 19 points in the fourth quarter, they just needed solid nights from their two best bench players. Crawford finished with nine points and five assists while Barnes had seven points and four rebounds. The key was the Clippers were able to get contributions from Lamar Odom (eight points, 13 rebounds), Grant Hill (six points, two assists) and Ronny Turiaf (six points, two rebounds).
As much as the Clippers miss Paul and Billups, it doesn't look as if they will be getting either one back soon. Paul is certainly expected back before Billups, but Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro did not have a timetable for either player's return when asked pregame. That means that Bledsoe must continue to develop as a starting point guard and Willie Green must continue to give them more than he previously had as a starter. On Sunday, Bledsoe finished with 10 points, five rebounds and five assists while Green had seven points, one rebound and no assists. The Clippers will obviously need more from them on a consistent basis without Paul and Billups but as long as Griffin is averaging around 23 points and nine assists, the Clippers should be fine.
PG: Chris Paul
Season averages (39 GP): 16.6 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 9.7 APG, 2.6 SPG, 26.1 PER
Don’t let his numbers fool you: Paul is playing at an MVP-caliber level. Besides LeBron James and Kevin Durant, no player has a better statistical résumé. Paul is third in PER and second in win shares per 48 minutes, and he has guided the Clippers to a top-five rating on offense and defense. The only qualms would be that he has struggled with his 3-point shot (33.3 percent) and is sometimes too passive early in games, but it’s tough to chide one of the three best players in basketball.
SG: Willie Green
Season averages (40 GP): 6.5 PPG, 39.6 3PT%, 11.4 PER
Green’s role has fluctuated throughout the season, but his consistency has not. He has stayed within his offensive limitations, serving as a reliable spot-up 3-point shooter. His defense has been poor -- opposing shooting guards register a 58.2 eFG% and 16.9 PER against him -- but that’s somewhat negated by his playing only 18.2 minutes per game. When Chauncey Billups returns, Green will go back to the bench and play limited minutes.
SF: Caron Butler
Season averages (41 GP): 9.7 PPG, 38.6 3PT%, 11.7 PER
After serving as a key contributor last season, Butler has become a complementary player on a deep roster. That’s not to say he hasn’t been effective -- he’s transformed his game and has become the Clippers’ much-needed floor spacer (40.7 percent on spot-up 3-pointers), as evidenced by his 33-point and 29-point performances this season. He’s lost a few steps defensively (340th in defensive points per play), which has allowed Matt Barnes to soak up a lot of Butler's minutes.
PF: Blake Griffin
Season averages (43 GP): 18.3 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 3.4 APG, 1.5 SPG, 22.8 PER
All the offseason talk was about Griffin’s improved jump shot, and it has improved, but his passing skills are rarely discussed. Among power forwards, he’s third in assists per game, 10th in assist rate, and third in assists leading to 3-pointers (the most valuable assist). Most importantly, he has improved tremendously on defense, allowing the 18th-fewest points per play. Add in his new post game, and Griffin has become a near-complete player.
C: DeAndre Jordan
Season averages (43 GP): 8.8 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 1.5 BPG, 59.6 FG%, 16.6 PER
While Jordan has become more efficient offensively (career-high 13.0 points per 36 minutes), his free throw shooting (42.0 percent) and rebounding (16.6 rebounding percentage) have regressed and limited his playing time. The threat of him scoring, especially at the rim (fifth in dunks), is valuable and gives Paul and Griffin proper space to operate. Coach Vinny Del Negro clearly favors Odom in crunch time, though, which is a disconcerting sign for Jordan’s playoff role.
G: Jamal Crawford
Season averages (41 GP): 16.6 PPG, 2.4 APG, 88.6 FT%, 16.7 PER
Crawford was scorching hot to start the season, averaging 20.7 points through the first nine games. He has cooled off since then but remains the go-to option on a second unit that lacks shot creators. If not for Barnes’ versatility, Crawford would be the front-runner for Sixth Man of the Year. He’s established himself as the third option in crunch time and, more importantly, has been a willing passer and off-ball player (career-high 54 percent of shots assisted on).
G: Eric Bledsoe
Season averages (43 GP): 8.7 PPG, 1.5 SPG, 38.9 3PT%, 19.2 PER
The bench’s energizer bunny has had an up-and-down season, which isn’t unusual for a third-year point guard. Still, there’s no denying Bledsoe’s potential as a starter and future All Star. He’s displayed a new sense of pace and control (career-low turnover percentage) that, coupled with his stout defensive abilities (2.9 steals and 1.3 blocks per 36 minutes), has GMs drooling to acquire him. His block of Dwyane Wade remains the top Clippers highlight this season.
F/G: Matt Barnes
Season averages (42 GP): 11.2 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 1.2 SPG, 0.9 BPG, 17.7 PER
The surprise player of the Clippers’ season has done everything they expected Grant Hill to do and more. Barnes is shooting at a career-high level (35.7 percent on 3-pointers), defends the opponent’s top scorer each night, and is as active off the ball as any player in the league. There’s no better bargain in the NBA than his minimum-salary contract. Barnes’ perimeter defense may be the greatest factor in determining how far L.A. advances in the postseason.
F/C: Lamar Odom
Season averages (43 GP): 3.7 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 0.9 BPG, 10.5 PER
At the beginning of the season, we weren’t sure whether Odom could run up and down the court for 10 minutes, let alone produce. Fast-forward three months, and he’s become the player the Clippers envisioned over the offseason. His rebounding rate (10th defensively, 18th overall) is outstanding, and there’s never been any doubt that Odom is among the game’s best passing big men. Moving forward, he needs to shoot better (38.1 FG%) to justify an uptick in minutes.
F: Grant Hill:
Season averages (6 GP): 4.3 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 0.7 SPG, 9.6 PER
His Clippers debut took a lot longer than expected, but it appears he was worth the wait. Though his jumper has been rusty (13 percent from 16-23 feet), he’s finished around the rim efficiently (75 percent) and moved well off the ball. The Clippers’ new bench unit features Hill at power forward, yet he’s defended everyone from Russell Westbrook to Emeka Okafor. His defensive versatility allows the Clippers to switch any screen under the sun.
F/C: Ronny Turiaf
Season averages (41 GP): 2.2 PPG, 0.7 BPG, 56.1 FG%, 10.5 PER
Known for his infectious attitude, Turiaf does more than simply cheer from the bench (team-high 92.9 defensive rating). Along with Odom, Turiaf has manned the backline of the bench’s stellar defense and has protected the rim in ways L.A. sorely lacked last season (2.0 blocks per 36 minutes). With Hill back, it’s likely Turiaf will lose his rotation spot, but he’s nice insurance if Jordan or Griffin gets into foul trouble.
C: Ryan Hollins
Season averages (30 GP): 2.4 PPG, 0.5 BPG, 59.5 FG%, 9.1 PER
Hollins is the only healthy player consistently racking up DNP-CDs, which is the downside of having such a deep roster. Like Turiaf, though, Hollins was signed as an insurance policy, not as a rotation player. In limited minutes, Hollins has done what he always does -- score at the rim, block shots (2.0 per 36 minutes), barely rebound (12.1 rebound percentage) and foul a lot (career-high 8.5 per 36 minutes).
G: Chauncey Billups
Season averages (3 GP): 7.3 PPG, 2.3 APG, 0.7 SPG, 12.5 PER
The Clippers are such a deep team that most people forget Billups has missed all but three games. Though there is only a small sample size to go on, the results are encouraging: The Clippers are a much better with Billups on the floor (+16.9 net rating). When he eventually suits up, L.A. can expect an increase in 3-point shooting and sound decision-making (9.6 turnovers per-48 minutes) as well as another clutch scorer to alleviate the pressure on Paul.
F: Trey Thompkins:
Season averages (0 GP): N/A
Thompkins didn’t play much last season, and with a slew of big men already ahead of him on the depth chart and no set timetable for his return, it appears that he won't see any floor time this season either.
Stats used from ESPN.com, NBA.com, MySynergySports.com and 82games.com.