A funny thing happened when Chris Paul got injured. The Los Angeles Clippers bench, which was the envy of the entire NBA in terms of depth and productivity during the first half of the season, gradually became completely ineffective. Obviously the loss of a superstar of Paul's magnitude (and he is, after all, widely considered third in the MVP race this season behind LeBron James and Kevin Durant) is going to impact any team adversely in myriad ways. But if the Clippers are really so deep, shouldn't the bench have been able to remain somewhat effective even without Paul? After all, it's not as if Paul was playing with the second unit.
The Clippers have played a dozen games since Paul was first injured. He actually started in two of those games, but was clearly limited in those appearances. The team is 6-6 in the 12 games since the injury, 5-5 in the ten without Paul, and 2-5 in their last seven without him.
There was a brief honeymoon period when he first went down. Perhaps similar to what is happening in Boston right now as the Celtics have won four straight without Rajon Rondo, everyone on the team stepped up in the immediate aftermath of Paul's injury and the Clippers went out and won three straight road games, including an impressive drubbing of the Grizzlies in Memphis. But reality set in somewhere in the third game without CP3, and the team has really been out of sorts ever since.
The obvious explanation as to why the bench has suffered in particular is the domino effect of moving Eric Bledsoe into the starting lineup. Bledsoe has come back to earth a bit in his role as a starter, but he remains the Clippers' third most productive player when measured by PER. PER is an imperfect metric to be sure, but it's useful to illustrate the impact on both the starters and the reserves of losing Paul. Paul has a PER or 26.1 on the season. With him out of the lineup, Bledsoe steps into the starter's role where his own PER of 18.7 is a downgrade of more than seven points. But following the ripple into the second unit, Grant Hill (who made his season debut in the game in which Paul was hurt and has yet to find much of a groove this season) has essentially taken Bledsoe's spot in the second unit. Hill's PER (based on a very small sample size it should be noted) is a team-worst 6.2 -- over 12 points worse than Bledsoe's.
So without Paul the starting team suffers, and the second team suffers even more in the absence of Bledsoe. The problem is of course exacerbated by the ongoing absence of Chauncy Billups who has played just three games this season. In Paul and Billups the Clippers have a couple of point guards with 11 All Star selections between them. But Bledsoe is the only other point guard on the roster, and with him running the first team, the reserves are forced to play point guard by committee, sharing the playmaking responsibility between Hill and Jamal Crawford and Lamar Odom.
Coach Vinny Del Negro has steadfastly played a full five man second unit this season, and when Bledsoe-Crawford-Barnes-Odom-Turiaf were terrorizing the rest of the league's backups, he looked like a genius. That five man unit remains one of the most productive in the NBA not just among reserves but among all five man units this season.
Since Paul's injury which happened to coincide with Hill's return, the second unit Del Negro has played has mostly been Hill-Crawford-Barnes-Odom-Turiaf. In those first few games, they did great -- they were +19 in a little over 30 minutes on the floor against Memphis, Houston and Minnesota in mid January.
Since then, it's been an unmitigated disaster. It is the team's usual pattern to begin the second quarter of each game with the second unit on the court. In the last eight games, of which the Clippers have lost six, they've been outscored, sometimes very, very badly, to begin the second quarter each time. It hasn't always been the Hill-Crawford-Barnes-Odom-Turiaf unit -- Barnes was suspended for the Toronto fiasco, Paul played against the Warriors while Hill did not, and Turiaf didn't appear in the first half of the Blazers game in L.A. -- but it's always been bad, particularly so with that unit.
- 1/26 @POR - minus 11 in first 5:27 of 2nd (including a 13-3 run);
- 1/22 OKC - minus 7 in first 4:22 of 2nd (launching a 13-2 run);
- 2/3 @BOS - minus 6 in first 4:31 of 2nd (launching a 12-2 run);
- 1/30 @MIN - minus 6 in first 3:34 of 2nd (launching an 8-0 run);
- 1/24 @PHO - minus 2 in first 3:26 of 2nd (starting with a 7-0 run).
The Clippers managed to win just one of those five games, and while they would likely have lost to the Thunder anyway, it's reasonable to say that the terrible play of the second unit in the second quarter was a major contributor to losses in Portland, Phoenix and Boston.
Strangely, even in the most recent game where the old Bledsoe-Crawford-Barnes-Odom-Turiaf unit was in tact, the bench was badly outplayed. When Paul limped through the Warriors game in Oakland, the standard second team that has been so good all year was minus 10 in the second quarter and minus eight in the fourth, posting a disastrous minus 18 in just over seven minutes on the court. The Clippers lost by seven. Ouch.
Is there a solution? Sure, the Clippers need for Chris Paul's knee to feel better so he can start playing again. The entire team is out of sorts without him right now. Green and Barnes are in shooting slumps, Crawford is trying to do too much, Odom seems to lack purpose. But even when Paul returns, the question remains of how best to use Hill. We've seen precious little of the Bledsoe-Crawford-Barnes-Hill-Odom unit that presumably will be the second team when everyone is healthy, but the Clippers had something that was working with Turiaf, and it's reasonable to question whether they should tinker with success. And though I'm a big fan of Grant Hill, it's also reasonable to question whether he can still contribute at a high level at the age of 40.
Until Paul is back though, the other potential solution is for VDN to move away from the five man reserve unit and toward a mix and match lineup that is more standard among NBA coaches. In fact that is what happened in Boston where after a dreadful second quarter, VDN left Hill and Turiaf on the bench in the second half and used an eight man rotation. It almost worked, as the Clippers eventually cut a 19 point deficit down to just two. It may be time, at least until Paul returns, to ask some players to increase their minutes and to shorten up the rotation -- because the bench that was a major strength of the Clippers in the first half of the season has turned into a liability.