Los Angeles Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro always talks about the process when he’s talking about the growth of his team and its journey through the season.
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.