A year ago, the Clippers were big. They started the same two powerful inside players, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, that they do now, but the reinforcements from the bench were big too--the third big was Spencer Hawes, a big 7' center, and the fourth big was Glen "Big Baby" Davis. This year, things are a little different when the max contracts head to the bench at the end of the first quarter.
Enter Josh Smith-probably the best fit at 3rd big that the Clippers have had since Doc Rivers took over (while Smith is a good player, it's not saying much--aside from the cast I described above, the only other competition is Byron Mullens, Antawn Jamison, and Ryan Hollins). Here's what I said about Josh Smith in my column yesterday where I graded the Clippers' role players following the season opener:
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.
I also added a disclaimer, though:
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.
The Clippers have a ton of options when they rotate their subs around. There's so much versatility on this roster, with players who can play multiple positions with diverse and complementary skill sets. But Doc has to recognize those skill sets and put together lineups that make sense.
When Smith plays with the starters, he's a great complement to both Griffin and Jordan, as I described above. However, there's been some speed bumps in building a second unit, where Doc Rivers is clearly favoring Wesley Johnson over Cole Aldrich, making the Clippers SUPER small to start the second and fourth quarters. Super small can be fun, and it's the style that won Golden State a championship last June, but against certain teams it can put you at a huge disadvantage.
Sometimes, you can get away without size on the bench, because most backup NBA big men aren't very good. They're small-ball hybrids, or they're stretch bigs, or they're simply bad. When Charlie Villanueva is anchoring the Mavs second unit, Josh Smith can anchor the Clippers'. There's no issue having Pierce-Johnson-Smith as the defensive frontcourt trio in that situation, and offensively Wesley Johnson helps to space the floor, giving Paul Pierce room to work his old man game in the post.
However, when the true big men on the opposition are more skilled than the Clippers' subs AND legitimate post players, there's gonna be trouble. When the Kings went with their starters early in the 4th quarter Wednesday to try and get back into the game, the Clippers had no big body to bang with Cousins down low, and Doc didn't budge--he kept Cole Aldrich, his only option with size--on the bench. As a result, the Kings went on a run (and even took the lead at one point) before the Clippers' starters returned and steadied the game.
Maybe that's where the first two games went different: in the first one, a dominant big man was able to abuse the bench lineup and spark a comeback, and in the second one, the not-as-good smallball second unit of the Mavericks couldn't do much against the Clippers.
Ultimately, I think that Doc is going to have to learn to play Cole Aldrich at times. It won't be every night, but in situations like Wednesday's opener, when the Clippers needed a big body with 6 fresh fouls to match up with Cousins down low, he could have been very useful going all-out for 3 or 4 solid minutes to open the fourth quarter. In other situations (maybe most times), the small-ball lineup should be fine. Unless there's a big man that the Clippers are being forced to match up with, Doc is going to play his game and trust the talent on the second unit to give the team a leg up. It's just good to not forget that a solidly built 7' NBA veteran is on the bench, ready to body someone.