Killer Lineup: The Clips' tribe called bench

January, 9, 2013
1/09/13
10:53
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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Los Angeles Clippers
Eric Bledsoe | Jamal Crawford | Matt Barnes | Ronny Turiaf | Lamar Odom
Minutes Played: 230
Offensive Rating: 102.9 points per 100 possessions
Defensive Rating: 87.2 points per 100 possessions

How it works offensively
Like a 10-cylinder sports car -- not always the most practical vehicle, but an explosive one that can burn up the track at warp speed and is a whole lot of fun.

It didn't take long for Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro to carve out large portions of the second and fourth quarters for this lineup composed entirely of reserves, and it immediately paid dividends. The second unit took on the nickname "A Tribe Called Bench," and it wasn’t long before you could hear “Scenario” during timeouts at Staples Center.

Tribe's overall offensive numbers aren't anything impressive. This unit actually scores 4.6 points fewer per 100 possessions than the Clippers as a whole, and much of that production comes in transition, where the lineup is racking up 27 fast-break points per 48 minutes.

This lineup was built to run. Bledsoe has lethal speed and can ignite an instant break off a live-ball turnover. Long after Crawford retires, we’ll still be talking about his handle, a weapon he uses to shred backpedaling defenders in transition. There isn’t a big man whose skill set is better equipped for the open court than Odom’s. A fast break is a dance number and Barnes understands the choreography and can run the floor as well as anyone in the game. Finally, Turiaf can throw an outlet pass, run and finish.

This group doesn’t excel in the half court, which shouldn’t come as a surprise since structure isn’t something that maximizes the strengths of either Bledsoe or Crawford. Bledsoe marshals a majority of half-court possessions, but a fair number of them originate with -- and terminate at -- Crawford. Regardless of who’s at the controls, most of the sets rely on penetration by either guard, off which Barnes, Odom, Turiaf or the other guard cuts baseline, dives from the weakside perimeter or flashes to the middle of the floor.

Bledsoe has improved considerably as a playmaker, but he’s still not fluent in the art of running an offense. (Apart from Andre Miller, Pablo Prigioni and a handful of others, few NBA backups are.) When Bledsoe has the ball against a set defense, the Clippers might run a double ball-screen for Bledsoe with Odom and Turiaf at the top of the floor, or an angle pick-and-roll with Odom.

Working with Barnes and Odom has been a quality education for Bledsoe, who in his first two seasons at the point rarely scanned the court for opportunities that might be materializing off the ball. Now he knows that Barnes is always reading the floor, finding angles and timing cuts that make him a smart target. Bledsoe has also learned that Odom can do plenty with the ball if Bledsoe can find him off the initial pick.

Crawford prefers to work alone on an island against his defender, and he gets plenty of opportunities to isolate, a role he’s thrived in with the Clippers. One-on-one basketball is a passion of Crawford’s and even though it doesn’t always make for the most efficient brand of offense, it’s hard not to enjoy watching Crawford whittle down defenders to little nubs off the dribble.

Odom has gradually worked his way into shape and can be found nightly in the high post slinging passes to cutters underneath the hoop and working the glass. He has logged the Clippers’ best overall on-off rating over the past 20 games. Barnes plays within himself as an offensive player and Turiaf does work in the trenches.

How it works defensively
The Clippers have jumped from 18th in defensive efficiency in 2011-12 to third overall this season -- and this unit is responsible for the largest share of that statistical improvement.

How ruthless is "A Tribe Called Bench"? They surrender only 87.2 points per 100 possessions. As a frame of reference, no other unit among the NBA’s Top 50 most commonly used lineups came in below 90.0. Opponents posted an effective field goal percentage of 41.6 percent (only one other unit in the Top 50 held the opposition below 45 percent), and that doesn’t even account for the fact 20 percent of opponents’ possessions end in turnovers.

The second unit isn’t running a system so much as a fire drill, and it all starts on the ball with Bledsoe, who barrels through or over every high pick. The ball rarely gets to where it wants to go because point guards simply can’t shake Bledsoe’s pressure. A simple entry pass into the high post becomes an adventure because Bledsoe can jump 20 feet in the air standing still. Bledsoe pushes every penetrating point guard toward the sideline, which allows the rest of the defense to tilt the floor.

This isn’t the coordinated encroachment you see in Boston or Chicago, where two backside defenders are explicitly responsible for zoning up the weak side of the floor. What the Clippers’ backups do is more improvisational -- and they can afford to be because rarely do teammates have to bail out Bledsoe after a blow-by, and this freedom gives them the luxury to cause trouble. In addition, Bledsoe's ball pressure means Odom and Turiaf don't have to front so aggressively in the post, which allows them more flexibility to make defensive reads, something both guys do well.

But just because the scheme isn’t scripted doesn’t mean the defense is sloppy. Barnes is careful, and you’ll rarely see him blitz an offensive player without first taking inventory of the floor. Once the ball pressure has disrupted the offense, Barnes will quickly survey the mess and figure out where he needs to go next and move there quickly. When guarding a big man on the weak side, Odom and Turiaf react similarly. Odom has a long leash to roam because the Clippers don’t lose much if he gets caught defending a guard after a blitz or has to cover for Bledsoe, who has decided to jump the passing lane.

What occurs as a result of these impromptu double-teams and relentless pressure is sheer chaos. You can see Bledsoe perform one of his best tricks when a point guard dumps the ball into a teammate at the elbow. As he clears to the weak side of the floor, the guard will then try to rub Bledsoe off the recipient of the pass. Rather than follow his man to the far corner, Bledsoe will instead stop to harass the guy with the ball, going for a strip or simply working with Turiaf or Odom to smother the player into submission.

Even when offenses recover from moments like these, the possession has essentially fallen apart. With the shot clock ticking down, the offense out of position and the defense smelling blood in the water, "A Tribe Called Bench" will double down and tighten the vise.

These guerrilla tactics don’t come without risk -- and it’s not unusual to see an offense whip the ball over a double-team to an open shooter -- but the collective speed, length and instincts of this unit make gambling worthwhile. Elite teams bet on their strengths, and most nights the members "A Tribe Called Bench" are going home winners.

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