Let's talk about the Clippers' bench. So far this season, they've done a great Jekyll and Hyde impression; last night against the Mavericks and previously against the Warriors we've seen the best and worst case scenarios for the suicide squad -- surrendering leads in the first half and winning them back in the second.
We know a couple things about the reserves. The first comes largely from Doc, in that he will likely continue to play an all bench 5-man unit far large portions of the game. Throughout this season the second most used lineup is the hockey lineup of Smith, Rivers, Pierce, Jamal, and Johnson. Even though there's been plenty written about the efficacy of staggering lineups, Doc just loves bench units and all signs point to Doc continuing this strategy into the future. The second thing we know is that this unit is going to take time to gel and grow together. There are a lot of new faces and different roles for established players, and getting used to all of that can take time; much of the beginning of the season may look like growing pains. And the third thing we know about the subs is how Doc wants them to play. As composed, Doc has talked a lot about the freedom and speed he wants the reserves to play with. Austin, Wes, and Smith are athletes and the bench has the ability to constantly push the ball up the court with every player being capable of bringing it up. You can often see Doc yelling at the players to push push push from the sidelines. And the last thing we know about the bench are their very noticeable flaws: they can't defend well, they can't grab rebounds consistently, and they can't score with any amount of regularity.
In considering all of these different factors, I think the best, and easiest solution for all of these problems is rather simple: Play Slowly. Like really slowly. I want the Clipper reserves to be the complete opposite of the 7-seconds or less Suns. I want them imitating snails out there on the court; snails that ground and pound. I think slowing down their pace of play will really help to fix their three biggest problems.
The benefits that slowing the game down would have toward defense are rather simplistic: the fewer chances you give the opposing team to score, the less points will be given up. Currently the bench unit's defensive rating is about 102, about 6.5 points worse than the starting unit. With Jamal and a 72 year old Paul Pierce on the floor, it's not a surprise the bench isn't shutting anyone down, even with Austin and Smith being plus defenders. Thus, if those five were to play slower, limiting the number of possessions that are being used by their opponents while the starters are resting, they would be less likely to surrender leads created by the starters. If you can't trust your defense to stop teams with much reliability, then you need to find another way to stem the bleeding. Pushing the pace will only help to proliferate the problem by having extra possessions where more points are scored. The second unit should be less concerned with extending a lead than with keeping a lead by playing great defense.
On the defensive glass, the Clippers have struggled by going small. Pierce and Smith are both currently playing up a position, and the result has been real problems closing out possessions by clearing the defensive glass. Slowing the game down could only help the Clippers' rebounding problems. By having this epithet that they always should be looking to run, Clipper players are often tempted to shirk their rebounding and boxing out responsibilities because they are looking for a quick leak out to fast break. If the bench were to simply throw away the notion of pace and trying to manufacture transition opportunities all the time, then they could focus on doing one thing at the end of possessions, boxing out and grabbing the rebound. Not allowing second chance points would also do a lot for their defensive efforts.
This is where it gets a little bit tricky. By slowing down the pace and getting rid of most transition baskets, in a lot of ways the Clippers are losing easy points and will probably have a much harder time scoring. The reserves already can struggle to run any type of offensive system, and taking away the simplest shots could cause everything to implode into an ugly chuck/brick fest. However, the counter argument is that imposing this type of playing style, slow and methodical, may force the second unit to actually start running a system, as they won't be able to use fast break baskets as a crutch any longer. There are fewer offensive possessions to go around, so each becomes more valuable and much worse if wasted. Plus, arguably the best offensive player on the second unit may be Paul Pierce, and it seems like slowing the game down for him to get set and be able to work would probably be better than always running. I'm a believer these five could run a coherent and effective offense if made to, and I think Jamal has done a much better job and playing within himself the last three games. Austin is showing flashes and Wes seems reliable from deep, so the only thing left is for Josh Smith not to look like Biyombo around the basket. Either way, even if the offense suffers from slowing the game down, the starters have been the #1 offense in basketball the last two years, and can more than make up for it. Not surrendering points and the lead is much more important than scoring them while Blake, DJ, J.J., and Paul rest.
Admittedly, this may be a bit of a reaction to last year's horrid bench, and I'm setting the bar pretty low for what I expect from the reserves: just please don't give up the lead that the starters often build. The bench can play average and have a net rating of 0, just don't suck and dig a hole for Chris Paul and Blake Griffin to have to climb out of every game. I think slowing down the pace would help with a lot of this, and create an average floor for this unit. But, there is always the potential that as the season progresses, what we've seen in second halves become the norm, and the bench actually is able to utilize all the talent gathered. If the suicide squad can play swarming active defense while pushing the pace and running down team's throats, that's a terrific ceiling and will hopefully allow the starters to have a lot of rest. But before we get ahead of ourselves talking about future possibilities, let's slow it down and focus on the reality now.