It was evident last season. It was evident during the playoffs. It was evident during the offseason. The Los Angeles Clippers have a very solid roster at every position other than small forward, and nothing they've done recently to try to address the issue has panned out — at all.
They traded for Jared Dudley last offseason — that didn't work. They drafted Reggie Bullock last June — that hasn't worked so far. They signed Chris Douglas-Roberts, they signed Joe Ingles. None of those players has made a positive impact.
After five games of poor to terrible play from a collection of threes, Coach Doc Rivers had seen enough. In just the sixth game of the season, he started Jamal Crawford — a combo guard, if you want to put a label on him — at small forward.
It's not news that Rivers considers Crawford part of his best five man unit. At the end of a game Crawford is invariably on the floor. He might be with Matt Barnes or he might be with J.J. Redick, but he's there. And we certainly knew we'd see plenty of small ball lineups this season given the situation and Rivers' established penchant for going small.
Having said all that, I was quite surprised — shocked even — to see Crawford in the starting lineup just six games into the season, with Matt Barnes coming off the bench. It's an incredibly early admission on Doc's part that the motley crew of small forwards he has accumulated recently is not worth much at all. It's a fairly common mistake in the NBA, but the simple fact is that two (or three or four) mediocre players do not add up to one good one.
But once we get past the idea of Crawford (the reigning Sixth Man Award winner and one of the quintessential NBA sixth men of the recent years) as a starter, the move makes a lot of sense. I've long suspected that eventually Doc would give up on the likes of CDR and Bullock and go with a short wing rotation of Redick, Crawford and Barnes as long as those three were available. Those three can certainly play the 32 minutes per game necessary to cover the available minutes on the wing.
The obvious problem is on defense, where neither Crawford nor Redick will ever be mistaken for a wing stopper. And it remains to be seen whether Rivers will be willing to try this starting five against every matchup. Crawford on Nicolas Batum is one level of problem. Crawford on Kawhi Leonard Monday night? Leonard will have a field day. And there are much worse matchups on the horizon.
Still, at least Crawford will create issues for opponents on the other end. CDR opened the season with ten straight misses before making a meaningless layup in garbage time against the Warriors — which would be fine if he were able to actually defend anybody, which he is not. Is he a better defender than Crawford? Sure. Is the difference enough to justify having an offensive cipher on the floor? No way.
What's really interesting is what has happened with Bullock. Unlike Douglas-Roberts or even Barnes, when Bullock got his chance to play (he was a DNP in the first three games of the season) he succeeded at the most visible thing he was asked to do — he made threes. Bullock has made five three pointers in seven attempts, a welcome development on a team that desperately needs shooters to spread the defense for the likes of Blake Griffin and Chris Paul. What more could Doc Rivers ask for from the second year pro? Well, a lot actually. Like not being completely lost in every other aspect of the game. After making five threes in 30 minutes of action over the course of two games, it's telling that Bullock went right back to the end of the bench on Saturday afternoon.
Will a wing rotation of Redick, Crawford and Barnes be enough? It will obviously be the weak link in the Clippers' chain this season, but that's as may be. After all, every team has weaknesses, and some aspect of the team has to be the weak link. Bear in mind also that injuries will force Douglas-Roberts or Bullock onto the floor at some point, and they'll need to do something positive when that happens. I suppose that as an emergency small forward, CDR is acceptable. He just shouldn't be a rotation player on a championship team.
And then there's the possibility of going big. Unlike the wing and in stark contrast to last season, the Clippers' front court rotation suddenly looks quite robust. Glen "Big Baby" Davis saw his first game action on Saturday. Spencer Hawes needs minutes (although he is dealing with a foot injury at present). Hedo Turkoglu has been great in limited minutes. (I watched Turkoglu shooting threes during pregame warmups on Saturday and I literally did not see him miss. The guy is shooting the ball better than he ever has right now.) With Phoenix, a team that starts the 6'9 Marcus Morris at the three, coming to town next Saturday, why not play Griffin and Turkoglu together, with Griffin playing the three on defense and Hedo stretching the floor on offense?
There's another thing we've known for awhile now: the Clippers will keep trying to upgrade at the three. They'll almost certainly make a move at the trade deadline or on the buyout market to add another player, hopefully one who can defend the wing and make some threes. But until that time, Rivers is going to have to find ways to keep his best players on the floor. That means no CDR and no Bullock, and it means being creative with traditional positions. All of which means that Jamal Crawford is your new starting small forward.