Most people already know the deal with the starting lineup for the Los Angeles Clippers. It usually doesn’t matter who is playing small forward for them since the other four players are so dang good that they can mask whatever deficiencies the fifth member brings to the table. In some cases, that is true. However, in some of the other cases, that’s not quite what happens. Despite that, though, the lineup that has started the first three games of the season has been a whirlwind of domination and excellence. It might be time to fully recognize that.
Last season, the starting unit played 1217 minutes together and put up a Net Rating of +17.7. They only played 60 games together, so that comes out to 20.3 minutes per game. The year prior, there was so much roster turnover due to injuries that there were 13 different starting lineups used. The most used one, which featured Jared Dudley at small forward, played just 290 minutes together and had a +7.8 Net Rating. This season, despite only playing 58 minutes together, the starting lineup has put together an astounding Net Rating of +31.0 and has a staggeringly low 91.2 Defensive Rating. They are doing some things.
During the last two seasons, the Clippers starting lineup would oftentimes earn the team a huge lead only to see the bench unit squander it right back. A lot of the close wins the Clippers would pull out were because their starting lineup was just so good and could overcome the predicament the bench put them in. Over the last couple seasons, any time all five starters went to the bench for a rest, the team was constantly fighting an uphill battle and trying to stay afloat.
It’s always best to remember that Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan are all among the best players at their respective positions. Whether you want to call Paul and Griffin the best point guard or power forward in the league is up to you. Whether you want to call Jordan a top three center in the game is up to you, as well. That’s not what this discussion is about. It’s about how good they are as a collective unit that it makes the fifth guy deadly no matter who he is. Alongside them is J.J. Redick, one of the deadliest off-ball movers in the entire league. His ability to move and create shooting angles for himself, as well as others, is nearly second to none.
As mentioned earlier, Jared Dudley started the most games at small forward, when everyone was healthy, two seasons ago. Last season, that man was Matt Barnes. With Barnes, the team was a staggeringly dominant opponent for whoever stepped foot on the same floor as them. However, it’s been taken to a whole new level this season with the arrival of Lance Stephenson – the man Barnes was traded for. It seems as if the starting group has taken off in vastly different ways since Stephenson entered the equation.
Small sample sizes should always been acknowledged. This is one. We’re only three games into the season and the group this year has only played 58 total minutes. However, during those 58 minutes, they’ve blitzed teams repeatedly with runs of energy, defense, and systematic offense. It doesn’t hurt that Blake Griffin has been one of the top offensive players in the league during the first week of the season, either. He’s helping make up for a slow start by Chris Paul. Either way, the unit is scoring. A lot. And efficiently.
Over the first three games, they’ve used a variety of methods to bludgeon their opposition. Against the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday night, they were able to use their combination of defense, athleticism, and knowhow to get out to a quality lead time and time again when all five guys were in the game. They played a fast tempo, executed offensively, and made life a living hell on the Kings.
Against the Dallas Mavericks, it took a little bit more of a muscling effort. The pace was slower than the first game, and the game was far murkier. However, the runs that the starters made as a unit at two different periods of the game helped push the lead high enough to bring the bench in and let them take over late in the third quarter. Not everything has to be aesthetically pleasing, but as long as the job gets done in a massive manner, the appearance shouldn’t matter.
In the latest home game, a repeat meeting against the Kings, the starting group probably played their best all-around game. They were stifling defensively and combined that with a fantastic offensive effort – aided by a ton of free throws – to effectively silence whatever it was that the Kings tried to do. Your best lineup should always play the most minutes and, it’s quite clear, that the current starting unit is the team’s best group of players. They fit together quite well, even with Stephenson’s lack of a three-point shot right now.
The starting unit, as it is currently constructed, features two damn fine defenders and another above-average one on the perimeter. The two other pieces, at shooting guard and power forward, are capable team defenders and are improving as individuals. This might be the single best defensive lineup Doc Rivers has had during his time with the Clippers. And it might not even be that close. There’s also the possibility that this unit could get even better offensively.
As deadly as they are from inside the arc, there are still improvements that could be made beyond it. We all are aware at how proficient J.J. Redick is. On uncontested threes – shots taken with a defender four feet or more away – this season, Redick is 5-of-8. However, the other two perimeter threats, Paul and Stephenson, are not exactly holding up their end of the bargain. Stephenson is just 2-of-7, but Paul is an even more woeful 2-of-12. If those two start hitting more of their open looks, this could be an even deadlier unit on that end of the floor.
The revamping of the bench is one of Doc’s great projects this season, but inserting Stephenson into the starting lineup has seen an early payoff. There’s no telling if this profound level of success will continue all season long, but the early dividends show that they probably need even more minutes together. That means fewer minutes with Jamal Crawford and more minutes with Lance Stephenson. Even more minutes with Paul Pierce wouldn’t be a bad idea.
When the team has kept the same core four starters and put Pierce into the lineup, they’ve had a Net Rating of +22.8 in only 11 minutes. Their Offensive Rating is 105.4 and their Defensive Rating, somehow, is a mind-bogglingly low 82.6. When they take out Stephenson in favor of Crawford, their Net Rating crashes to -13.5. Their Offensive Rating is still a great 120.9, but their 134.4 Defensive Rating is utterly disgraceful. Granted, that’s only in 7 minutes. Once again, these are small sample sizes we are dealing with.
Small sample sizes or not, it appears like the Clippers are poised for even more success with their starting lineup this season than they had in the prior two years under Doc Rivers. Hopefully, and we stress that word, Doc figures out that they need to play even more minutes together in order to get more acclimated. Their minutes are going up each game, but they could hover around that 25-30 minutes per game mark. You can even mix and match to keep at least one starter on the floor at all times just to prevent any massive dip in play. For now, the unit is exceedingly superb. We’ll see if this trend continues.