When the Los Angeles Clippers take the court in their pre-season opener against the Golden State Warriors tonight at STAPLES Center, there will be at least one significant difference between the two teams: the Warriors, as is customary for teams early in the pre-season, will have several players in uniform who have no chance of actually making the regular season roster. The Clippers on the other hand will open the pre-season with only 16 players total, one over the regular season maximum: they have 14 players with guaranteed contracts and two players (EuroLeague Aussie Joe Ingles and 2012 first round pick Jared Cunningham) with a legitimate chance to grab the final spot on the roster.
I don't believe I've ever before seen a team head into the pre-season with as few as 16 players. Even the mighty San Antonio Spurs, with fully 14 players returning from a team that won the NBA title last season and rookie first round pick Kyle Anderson carrying a guaranteed contract, have 19 players on their pre-season roster.
So why do the Spurs bother to invite the likes of Josh Davis to camp when he has essentially no chance of making the regular season roster? It's hard to say. Guaranteed contracts don't actually guarantee roster spots of course -- they only guarantee money. Some teams are willing to waive guaranteed players as a means of improving the roster, but for those 14th and 15th guys, players who won't even be in uniform if the entire roster is healthy, it doesn't make a lot of sense to eat a contract.
NBA teams still invite extra bodies to training camp as a general rule. One reason is for future reference -- even if there's no room on the roster now, that doesn't mean there won't be some later due to injury issues or other unforeseen circumstances, and it may be worth knowing if a player is going to fit at some point. Courtney Fortson parlayed a decent showing in training camp into a 10 day contract later in the season with the Clippers back in 2012. Those 46 minutes with the Clippers led to 49 minutes with the Rockets, and while he didn't stick in the NBA, he got a shot, he had that proverbial cup of coffee, and that's a lot more than most guys can say. Or maybe teams invite extra bodies to camp as a favor to agents; they get some of the lower rung guys a bit more exposure, a bit more work, and the agents will look more favorably on the team regarding their other clients. I don't know.
The idea that you invite extra bodies to camp to have them for drills and practice time makes no sense -- why give practice reps to a guy who has no shot at making the roster? So unless you're going into camp with seven guys injured, and you need the extra bodies just to run a full practice, I'm not buying that as a valid reason.
At any rate, Doc Rivers has chosen to go the other route. When the Clippers suit up against the Warriors tonight, there won't be anyone out there who doesn't belong on an NBA court. Aaron Craft of the Warriors, as much as we all loved the guy's spirit and hustle at Ohio State, is not an NBA level athlete and has zero chance in the Assoc. (Sorry Aaron.) But Cunningham has logged 100 NBA minutes and is still only 23; Ingles could continue making a great living in Europe where he has been a star on some of the best teams, but he chose to take his chances with the Clippers. That clearly means that he and his agent believe he can make this roster. He might not -- but he's got a legitimate chance.
All of this feeds into my larger point -- Rivers has his entire starting lineup, and nine roster players returning to his team this season. It's not 14 like the Spurs -- but it's a major difference over last season when he entered the season with two new starters, not to mention the simple fact that he was coaching them for the first time. The first day of training camp last season was like teaching English as a Second Language for Rivers, as the players had to learn an entirely new offensive and defensive vocabulary. This season, nine of his most important players are already fluent.
After an 82 game regular season, two playoff series and the entire Donald Sterling soap opera, most people have forgotten the story line regarding the Clippers for the first month of last season. Do you remember? I'll give you some time.
Time's up. It was the truly dreadful defense the team played.. The Clippers were scoring at will, but were giving back almost everything that they took. A dozen games into his first season as head coach, Rivers' team was 29th in the league in defensive efficiency -- they finished in the top 10, and if you take out the terrible start, they were closer to a top five defense. That bad start was a direct result of the rough transition to a new defensive system -- and that is simply not going to be the case this season, when all the starters and all but two of the likely rotation players are veterans of said system.
Does continuity matter? In a word, yes. Players become accustomed to one another; players know what coaches expect; teams mesh better the longer they've been together. Doc's 2008 Boston Celtics won an NBA title with three new starters, but that is clearly an exception (an exception borne of a massively talented roster). If you look through the history of NBA champs, the vast majority of them featured a core group of players and a coach that had been together for some time.
How much time is enough? It's hard to say, but it is not hard to say that the Clippers will benefit from continuity this year over last year.
At the end of the day, Doc didn't invite a bunch of waiver wire fodder to his training camp for one simple reason -- he knows what he has. And he likes what he has. Maybe Cunningham or Ingles will make the team, maybe the Clippers will go into the season with an open roster spot. But even if Doc still has a few questions, he has many more answers this season.