Bench's new identity poses challenges

September, 4, 2013
9/04/13
7:25
PM PT
Though last week's signing of Antawn Jamison didn't move the needle in comparison with their other summer transactions, the addition signified the culmination of the Los Angeles Clippers' offseason.

With training camp only a few weeks away and 14 players now under contract -- one fewer than the league's maximum -- the current Clippers' roster is probably the one that will open the season on Oct. 29 against the Los Angeles Lakers.

[+] EnlargeAntawn Jamison
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty ImagesAntawn Jamison should give the Clippers a solid offense-minded option, but the team might be trading off its defensive presence.
Despite Jamison's coming off of an underwhelming season with the Lakers last season in which his role fluctuated, his signing by the Clippers makes sense.

The Clippers needed another big man to solidify their frontcourt rotation, and Jamison was arguably the most talented player available. Also, Chris Paul has yet to play with an offense-minded big man aside from Blake Griffin throughout his tenure with the Clippers, and Jamison's floor-spacing abilities should provide Paul with a handful of new offensive wrinkles.

But the significance of the signing isn't Jamison's potential fit so much as that the move indicates an ideological shift in the design of the Clippers' bench from last season to this season.

Last season, the Clippers' primary bench lineup -- Eric Bledsoe, Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, Lamar Odom and Ronny Turiaf -- was one of the best defensive units in the NBA, giving up only 89.8 points per 100 possessions -- a figure that would lead the league by over six points per possession if maintained over the course of the season.

The group lacked offensive creativity, though, as Crawford, and occasionally Bledsoe, were the only players who could consistently create their own shots. As a result, the lineup had difficulty scoring, averaging just 100.8 points per 100 possessions, an output that tied the Cleveland Cavaliers for 23rd-best in the league.

Given the individual brilliance of Paul and Griffin, and the overall success of the starting lineup offensively (112 points per 100 possessions), the bench's limited offensive impact was negated until the Memphis Grizzlies exposed the weakness in the postseason. Still, the bench posted a better net rating (+11 points per 100 possessions) than the starters (+8.5 points per 100 possessions), which illustrates just how dominant they were defensively.

Heading into the offseason, it was clear the Clippers' bench could use some offensive firepower, and the team sought to address that concern with a slew of bargain pickups. But after gleaning the composition of this season's roster, it's apparent the bench's makeover has, for better or worse, formed a different identity entirely.

Gone are Bledsoe (101 defensive rating last season), Odom (99) and Turiaf (103). In their place are newcomers Darren Collison (109), Jamison (108) and Byron Mullens (110). While the new additions are upgrades on offense, especially from beyond the arc, they provide little help on the boards and on the defensive end.

So, with defensive improvement atop the Clippers' priority list this season, what does a rebuilt bench lacking discernible defensive pieces mean?

Well, the challenge of building an elite defense is that much more difficult for coach Doc Rivers, who is already tasked with implementing his strong-side defensive system and maximizing the defensive potential of Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Rivers will have to get creative when managing the rotation, and more important, refrain from using bench-heavy lineups for more than a few minutes per game because of the unit's defensive shortcomings.

The strategy is in stark contrast with last season's squad, as former Clippers head coach Vinny Del Negro preferred a platoon-style rotation in which the starters and bench rarely played together, only doing so at the end of halves and games when he wanted his best lineup on the court. Otherwise, at least four players from either unit were usually on the court for the rest of the game (eight of the Clippers' 10 most-used lineups featured either four starters or four bench players).

Most coaches don't isolate their starters and bench players as much as Del Negro did last season, though, and Rivers notoriously used strict rotations during his halcyon days in Boston.

Adjusting to a short rotation shouldn’t be an issue for him, but it might be for certain players expecting more playing time. As such, the question remains of whether can Rivers push the right buttons, keep everyone content with their role and minutes, and ultimately find a rotation that minimizes the defensive weaknesses of certain players.

Who knows, perhaps the bench can form a potent offensive lineup centered on its spot-up shooting (Jamison, Mullens, Reggie Bullock), off-ball movement (Barnes) and shot creation (Crawford, Collison), and is able to play together after all. With Bledsoe and Odom gone, the lineup lacks natural playmaking, but Collison and Crawford should be able to offset that under Rivers' guidance.

At the same time, it would be difficult to classify any bench player as above average besides Barnes, and that can present major problems.

Crawford and Jamison, in particular, have proven to be defensive liabilities and will be on short leashes if they can't adhere to Rivers' philosophy. Mullens is still an unproven commodity, but it's discouraging that the Charlotte Bobcats didn't strongly pursue him in free agency. Ryan Hollins is familiar with Rivers' system, but he has a tendency to be overaggressive and foul too much. And while Collison has shown flashes of defensive competence, he's far from the defender Bledsoe was.

While the Clippers have as much depth on paper as any other contender, the defensive limitations of their bench will likely prevent them from utilizing that depth as effectively as they did last season. The Clippers tried to solve the issue by expressing interest in both Odom and Ivan Johnson, but both inquiries were fruitless.

This doesn't mean the Clippers can't upgrade their bench via trade or a midseason free agency pickup. And, of course, there's also the possibility that Collison and Mullens silence their doubters, Jamison has a bounce-back season, and Crawford and Barnes continue to be as efficient as they were last season, making any concern over the bench for naught.

But in all likelihood, the Clippers sacrificed their defensive identity for slight offensive gains, which is a tradeoff that normally doesn't prove beneficial. The bench may still find ways to be successful, complementing the starters in different lineup combinations; it just won't be as one cohesive unit.

Rivers' greatest challenge next season has and always will be whether he can turn an average group of defenders into a championship-level defense. With a revamped bench that clearly lacks defensive tools, his job should be slightly more difficult next season.

Stats used in this story are from ESPN.com, NBA.com/Stats, Basketball-Reference.com and ShamSports.com.

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