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Grading the Clippers' Role Players' Debut Performances

After last night's close win in Sacramento, let's take a look at how the newest role players did.

One of these Clippers backup guards played well last night.  The other did not.
One of these Clippers backup guards played well last night. The other did not.
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Phew.  The Clippers pulled out a win against the Kings last night, 111-104.  The MVP of the game was a no-brainer, as Blake Griffin scored on 14 of his 20 shot attempts and put up a total of 33 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 assists in his opener, the most points scored by a Clipper on opening night since Sam Cassel in 2005.

But we all know about how great Blake was. Let's take a quick look at how the new additions and returning role players did last night, and how the unit fared as a whole:

  • Lance Stephenson: B. I'm giving Lance a B for last night, which basically means he played well.  He avoided making major offensive mistakes (like when he'd cut the wrong direction in the pre-season) and he was engaged on defense.  He picked his spots offensively, finishing with 7 points on 3-5 shooting.  What was surprising to me is that Lance only played 19 minutes.  I wouldn't be surprised if he becomes a key player for the team this season, so I'm going to expect him to average more minutes than that, especially at Paul Pierce's expense.
  • Paul Pierce: B+. Pierce avoids an A here because he didn't quite "go off" like he will in his best games, but he comes away with a solid grade for a solid performance: 4-8 from the field, 12 points and an unexpected 7 rebounds.  Paul is supposed to be the calming presence for the second unit, and while we saw that last night, we didn't see it when the backups needed him most, as Sacramento went on a furious run to start the 4th quarter.  However, he gets some extra points for what was in my mind the biggest play of the game: a three pointer to break Sacramento's run and put the Clippers back in the lead with about 6 minutes left.  From then on I knew the Clippers' starting unit (sans Stephenson, plus Pierce) would carry it home.
  • Josh Smith: C+. Smith really should get a F for offense and a A for defense, seeing as how he couldn't catch or hold on to the ball (5 turnovers, 0-2 shooting), but was huge for the Clippers' weakside and transition defense (4 blocks, 6 rebounds) in his 16 minutes of play.  One reason why I think Smith is the perfect "small-ball" 3rd big for the Clippers is because he brings a combination of versatile perimeter skills and defensive rim protection, meaning he can complement both Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, something that Spencer Hawes could never really do.  We'll have plenty of frustrating Josh Smith turnovers and missed shots off of bad decisions this season, but last night the miscues didn't come from poor decision making, just bad hands and a slippery basketball.  I'm not worried about the turnovers long-term, and I'm excited about the defense long-term.  (One side note on the defense: Smith was abused early in the 4th by Cousins, when he played C alongside Pierce/Johnson at the forwards.  He really doesn't have the size to be a primary post defender, so he needs Griffin or Jordan in there with him.  Cole Aldrich is the only other alternative on the Clippers' bench.)
  • Cole Aldrich: INCOMPLETE. It would have been nice to see Cole in a limited role, maybe 6-8 minutes, on a night when Josh Smith and DeAndre Jordan were both in foul trouble.  Instead, he got 3 seconds that I don't even remember happening.  He's clearly the odd man out on the second unit, since most teams don't have quality big men on the bench and Doc has shown he would rather go skilled and versatile than big, but Cole definitely brings a contrasting impact to anything else the Clippers have on the bench with his big body, and hopefully next time a starting big man from another team is abusing the Clippers' undersized bench lineup, Doc will give Aldrich a shot to help the team out.
  • Wesley Johnson: C+. With Lance, the positives were that he didn't do much and just took care of business defensively while being quiet on offense.  Wesley was quiet on offense and nonexistent on defense.  He hit his only three, which is nice, but whenever Johnson and Smith were the team's two big men, the Clippers suffered from the lack of size.  Wes was himself last night: fine.  But the Clippers are probably going to need something else at that spot, and it'll probably have to be someone bigger.
  • Austin Rivers: D. Now I like Austin, but let's be honest: he's not really a point guard.  When he started for Chris Paul in the playoffs last year, Blake Griffin played PG, and now that he's charged with being the lead guard for the bench unit, we're seeing why that was the case.  Austin is a fine young player who's somewhat inefficient on offense, but he's athletic, aggressive defensively, and he plays hard.  Notably, needing a stop late in the game, Austin was Doc's choice to replace Pierce on defense, not Lance, Josh, or Wes.  Whether that is the best choice long-term is questionable, but Austin did get a steal on that play.  Offensively I didn't like the decision making on some of his shots, even ones that were semi-open but came early in the clock without any passes.  He would really benefit from minutes alongside CP3 of Pablo Prigioni, two steadier PGs.
  • Jamal Crawford: B+. Jamal had a good individual offensive night, making 5-9 from the field for 11 points.  He missed one WIIIIIIIDEEEEEE open three from the corner that had everyone cringing, but despite that he managed an efficient offensive performance without being too memorably awful defensively.  The issue is that I'm not sure that Jamal makes his teammates better on either end of the floor, since he doesn't do much to make the offense run well outside of creating for himself, and he's at best a non-factor defensively.  The one guy who can help on offense, Prigioni, needs extra help on defense, which Jamal can't provide, which puts Doc Rivers in a tough spot when deciding who to play.  I'm not convinced that benching Jamal and playing Pablo with Austin is the right answer either.
  • Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Pablo Prigioni did not play
My guess is that this isn't the final bench rotation we'll see this season, especially if we end up getting Paul Pierce rest games as the year goes on.  I only wish that Doc Rivers would go away from first unit-second unit subbing, mixing Paul, Griffin, and Jordan in more with the subs to help out the second unit's issues with offensive cohesiveness and defensive size.  Then, he could give smaller roles to Pablo Prigioni and Cole Aldrich.  For example, if both Paul and Griffin are out of the game, the second unit should probably look like Prigioni-Rivers-Pierce-Smith-Aldrich, so that the team can actually run an offense and defend against size.

Doc Rivers will get another crack at getting the rotation right tonight, and these role players will get another crack at proving themselves (specifically Smith and Rivers, who were less-than-stellar last night).  Hopefully this team will evolve to the point where there are no long lapses with certain lineups on the floor.