Though the Clippers had yet to fill out their frontcourt at that time, Rivers admitted that frontcourt depth might be a weakness this season. Instead of dwelling on the issue, though, he proposed a solution.
“I think what we have to do is create two teams,” Rivers said. “We have to create a big team, which we have, and I think our big team is as good as any big team in the league. And then we also have to create a small lineup that is effective and that you can use every night as well.
“So that’s what I’m looking for more than adding extra bigs.”
Since the time of Rivers’ comments, the Clippers have re-signed Ryan Hollins and added Antawn Jamison and Byron Mullens. All three big men will factor into the rotation in some fashion, but none provide the necessary two-way production to log considerable backup minutes on a championship contender.
While Rivers’ strategy isn’t exactly groundbreaking, it opens up new territory in the Chris Paul era.
The Clippers have rarely played small ball over the last two seasons -- of their 20 most-used lineups last season, only two featured a wing player; Matt Barnes, shifting over to power forward alongside a traditional big man (Griffin in one lineup, and Lamar Odom in the other). They tinkered with Paul and Eric Bledsoe together, and occasionally used Jamal Crawford at small forward, but former head coach Vinny Del Negro’s clear preference was conventional lineups with one point guard, two wings and two big men.
Rivers has a different approach. The NBA landscape is dramatically shifting towards better spacing and 3-point shooting, and small ball is an attractive option for teams that value those principles but lack ideal frontcourt depth.
Here is a breakdown of the Clippers’ small-ball options:
The “power” forward
There is no strict blueprint for small ball, but the recent phenomenon that has swept the league generally features long wing players sliding over to power forward.
Matt Barnes and Jared Dudley both fit the bill, as each has played significant minutes at the four with previous teams -- Barnes with Golden State, Phoenix and Orlando, and Dudley with Charlotte and Phoenix.
Barnes is the better rebounder and finisher, and plays more physically on defense, but the two lineups that frequently used him at power forward last season struggled to score, averaging just 89 and 87 points per 100 possessions, respectively. The lineup, with Griffin at center, was also a disaster defensively, allowing 113 points per 100 possessions.
Dudley is an intriguing option; he enjoyed his two best shooting seasons while playing in small-ball lineups next to Steve Nash, and was highly effective as a power forward in 2010-11 (20.6 PER). His style of play isn’t conducive to banging inside, but his 3-point shooting gives the Clippers an element of spacing they’ve lacked in the frontcourt.
These two are arguably the most important pieces in making the Clippers’ small-ball lineup work, as they’ll have to consistently display the ability to defend bigger players and elite scorers.
Despite the loss of Bledsoe, whose unorthodox game is tailor-made for small ball, Rivers has a slew of options to experiment with in his new backcourt.
A Paul-Redick pairing is ideal, as it presents the optimal blend of shooting, passing and defense that a smaller lineup needs, especially since Redick moves so well without the ball.
However, given the Clippers’ perimeter depth, Rivers may prefer his small-ball lineup to be comprised of more bench pieces. Crawford could easily be inserted for Redick, giving the lineup a little more offensive punch (surprisingly, the tandem of Crawford and Paul was the Clippers’ second-best duo among those that played 600 minutes last season).
Another option Rivers likely will explore is a three-guard lineup with Redick at small forward -- a role he played in spurts in Orlando and Milwaukee -- alongside Crawford and Paul. Although the lineup is a major liability defensively, it would provide Paul with two competent ball-handlers to play off of, freeing him up to roam off the ball and spot up as a decoy.
Rivers frequently used two-point guard lineups in Boston, and could do so again with Paul and backup Darren Collison. The two played together in New Orleans, and would give smaller, less-athletic backcourts fits if they can recreate their synergy.
The lone big man
Perhaps the biggest unknown in the Clippers’ small-ball equation is the sole big man who will be left to protect the rim and clean the glass. Griffin will get the nod if Rivers can help develop him into a better backline defender, but Jordan possesses the most potential.
According to 82games.com, Griffin’s PER at center has been nearly identical to his PER at power forward over the course of his career (For example: Griffin registered a 22.2 PER at center last season, and a 24.1 PER at power forward). His effective field goal percentage remains virtually unchanged at both positions, and he actually gets to the free throw line more and grabs more rebounds as a center.
Griffin’s defensive awareness has improved each season so far, and there is reason to believe that trend would continue under the tutelage of Rivers.
Jordan would provide much needed length and rim protection, but his notorious free-throw shooting woes and limited shooting range could hinder the offense’s flow and spacing. With Griffin on the bench, however, Jordan’s rebounding percentage increases from 17.7 to 21.1 percent, and the Clippers’ defensive rating improves from 104.2 to 102.9, meaning there’s a glimmer of hope if he can take the requisite development steps.
Mullens is also a wildcard option if he can keep his shot selection in check (i.e. no more fadeaway 20-foot jumpers), grasp Rivers’ defensive system and slightly bump up his below-average rebounding numbers.
The ideal lineup
Looking back at last season’s lineup data, one unit stands out as a potential foundation for Rivers’ small-ball lineup this season: Griffin-Barnes-Crawford-Bledsoe-Paul.
The lineup, which only registered 22 minutes together, averaged 135 points per 100 possessions, but also gave up 119 points per 100 possessions -- ridiculously high numbers on both ends of the floor, and a hint of the highs and lows a Paul-and-Griffin-led small-ball lineup.
It’s difficult to glean much, if anything, from such a small a sample size, but three or four of the players -- depending on Crawford’s role -- will be heavily used in this season’s small-ball attack, so the exercise isn’t for naught.
In theory, the most balanced and talented lineup possible is Griffin-Dudley-Barnes-Redick-Paul.
The unit merges the Clippers’ three best wing defenders (Barnes, Dudley and Redick), as well as their two best spot-up shooters (Redick and Dudley), with the team’s offensive centerpieces (Paul and Griffin). The combination of multiple high-level shooters, ball-handlers and playmakers would make the lineup one of the toughest covers in the league.
The only fundamental risk is trusting Griffin to quarterback the lineup’s defense, which is one of the recurring themes of the season. Even if he shows significant improvement, Rivers might have to make the offense-for-defense tradeoff and experiment with Jordan in Griffin’s place.
Stats used in this piece are from NBA.com/Stats, 82games.com and HoopData.com.