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Three Games In: Still Thinking about the Crawford Conundrum

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Week One is in the books, and the Clippers, like the contenders that they are, muscled their way to three victories over two mid-level opponents. Now it's one more solid test before a significant early season showdown on Wednesday (at GSW), and two games after that (HOU and MEM at home) that should say a lot about the team's standing and chances.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

We know a lot more about the Clippers than we did a week ago, but perhaps the main thing we learned is that we still don't really know anything.  Right?

The Bench Mob Fallacy. I'm feeling a growing peevishness about the Clippers' rotation, but I'm going to try to work through it here and put things under the heading of a work in progress.   I'm glad that Doc Rivers is in charge and that he's patient, has vast experience, and is pretty good with these things, because the whole world of the Clippers new roster and how it should be used is wildly confusing.  The main lesson from Week One, I believe, is that it's going to take time to work out this very complicated equation.  We also know that the rotation is going to shrink down to its real essentials during the playoffs, so what we see during the long and winding regular season is a prelude and tryout for that distillation.  It would be better, probably, if the Clippers had a crystal clear pecking order and everybody was a known entity, and the regular season was an extended exercise in playing the same way 82 straight times, more or less, but that's not how it's going to work with this team.  Stuff happens, for one.  And when they didn't have enough complementary parts last year they went out and got  a bunch of new ones, and now it's a matter of trying to figure out how the whole thing can fit together.

It was only during the highest anticipatory manic flights of Club O that anybody thought that all of the new pieces would blend seamlessly and start a march to absolute domination.  Everybody knew that some of the new guys would work out better than others.  But damn--this is going to be rough.  The main thing, however, that we already know now is that you can't throw a newly-constituted second team out on the floor and they will just pick up where one of the very best starting lineups in the NBA leaves off.  And having Paul Pierce as part of that second team adds an interesting element, but it doesn't heal too many ills, of which there are many.  Instead what we've seen so far, and what many of us expected, is an odd overlap of talents that can be effective on occasion, but just as often the second unit is a lost cause, giving up leads and creating the same problems as last year's group.  In the end, the whole is regularly less than the sum of the parts, and this is what I'm calling the Bench Mob Fallacy.  All of the new players on the roster present intriguing and exciting options, but the line change approach really doesn't look like it's going to be effective, and the sooner it's scrapped and adjusted, the better.

Offense vs. Defense and the Crawford Conundrum. As the new roster was being assembled, a lot of us expected that the odd man out was going to be Jamal Crawford.  And I have always been a big Crawford fan and supporter--until now.  There were a number of reasons to be skeptical about his role and his future.  First of all, he seemed more and more expendable as he became the subject of all sorts of trade ideas while a new crop of wing players was brought in.  When the Clippers continued to hang on to him, for a minute I thought he had some value as a 3rd string PG, but then Prigioni was signed--a great addition to the roster.  Crawford was the primary bench weapon on the team last year, and they became over-reliant on his unique abilities, but he was a significant element in their playoff meltdown and failure to advance.  Virtually all of the new additions to the roster, along with the role Austin Rivers managed to establish, are distinguished by their ability to defend (leaving out Prigioni--who is a pest, and his crafty defensive needling played a role in defeating the Clippers in the playoffs).  If the Clippers hope to change the identity of their bench and second unit, an obvious place to start is replacing Jamal Crawford.

But that's easier said than done.  Crawford's scoring and shot-making provides a lift and seemingly continues the offensive pressure and onslaught that the Clipper starters put on their opponents--except when it doesn't.  While many of the new guys are unknown quantities, the bench scoring that Crawford provides, while it's up and down, is relatively reliable, and it's exciting.  It has to be really hard to dramatically reduce the role of a high-scoring 6th man--it would be easier to trade him for a different player, it seems, than to leave his potential microwave offense sitting on the bench.  The problem is that Crawford's contribution is showy--momentum and points, when his shots go in--but his defensive shortcomings all too often allow opponents to regain their offensive footing.  It's an interesting exercise, it seems, to think about an approach where Crawford, a bit like Paul Pierce, is held in reserve and rested through the regular season, saved for specific situations.  Maybe even let Pierce and Crawford alternate minute allotments on back-to-back games.  That's all a nice way of saying that it's worth exploring what the Clippers would look like if Crawford was to sit out for a while.  Crawford has a real value, but what does the Clipper second team look like if he's not a primary element?

An Alternative Rotation. It's looking like Paul Pierce is the first player off the bench, which is obviously a really solid addition to the Clipper rotation.  That sits down Lance Stephenson.  It also gives J.J. Redick additional minutes, which is good.  That's all fine, but the question is what happens next.  Perhaps this is an opportune moment to mention a rotation issue that SP and others brought up last year, that already unfortunately appears to be a continuing element of Clipper basketball--does it make any sense at all to play DeAndre Jordan in the last few minutes of the first or third quarter?  If you're trying to keep one of your starters or Big Three on the floor as much as possible, shouldn't Jordan come out first, avoiding hack-the-DJ, and letting Griffin and Paul stick around?  And aren't you wasting viable and valuable DJ minutes by not starting him at the beginning of the second and the fourth?  Just saying--and we've said it before.

So that would add Josh Smith to the lineup.  We've already seen in three games that Smith is rebounding, playing defense and blocking shots.  Shooting, not so much--but that could be improved by getting some more minutes with Griffin and Paul.  There's more to be said about Josh Smith, and some one else can look to see if the Griffin-Smith-Pierce-Redick-Paul lineup has logged any minutes yet.  I think not.  We're now well past the moment where Crawford comes in for JJ Redick, but let's leave him on the bench this one time.  Austin Rivers--already drawing kudos and establishing himself as one of the Clippers best defenders--is next up, and rather than replacing Chris Paul let's see what happens if he comes in for Redick.  Many citizens are vehement Crawford skeptics, and a lot of you have played this game many times.  Griffin and Paul are still on the floor, and the Clipper defense is arguably almost as good as it is with the starters, and the offense should still be effective.  The load on Smith and Rivers is reduced because of Griffin, Pierce and Paul.

But let's get those stars out of there, give those guys a rest!  Lots of choices here, showing the flexibility of the roster. It's not just the addition of Pierce and Smith, but also the emergence of Rivers as a viable rotation piece. My sense is that putting Rivers ahead of Crawford in the rotation would help the Clippers sustain the defensive advantage that the starters routinely create.  Let's assume that Chris Paul is the next man out, and Baby Doc's ability to replace CP at PG, his standard role, gives the Clippers all sorts of flexibility.  I'm a WeJo guy, ready and eager to follow the Lance-WeJo debate all season (and happy to have Lance be the obvious winner); I just happen to like the cut of WeJo's jib. Since we're sitting out Jamal, the lineup is now Griffin-Smith-WeJo-Pierce-Rivers.  Again, have we seen it?  Is it not a strong defensive lineup?  I don't want to forget that Aldrich and Prigioni are also good options, not to mention LRMM.  Also worth noting that Doc Rivers seems to like to play Griffin through most of the 1st quarter, down to the final minute.

And that helps with an earlier premise here--starting DeAndre Jordan at the beginning of the second quarter.  This is a wide open hack-the-DJ free zone, and it offers the bonus of giving the Clippers a much strong defensive and rebounding presence.   Taking out Griffin and leaving DJ on the bench creates the Smith-Pierce-WeJo frontline that we have seen play with Rivers and Crawford--that's the Bench Mob that seems like it's not going to cut it.

Like I said, it's hard not to use Jamal Crawford when he's sitting there and available and his role has been so clear for so long.  Even just waiting until the beginning of the 2nd quarter to bring him in, perhaps bringing him in at the same time as DJ, might make a big difference.

In the end, this is just an exercise, doing the math to see how the options break down in a scenario that's unlikely to happen anytime soon.  Instead the Clippers will play through in a predictable manner, keeping up the steady trial and error process and letting the sample size grow.  It should be said, however, that Doc Rivers (unlike MDSr) doesn't hold onto dysfunctional ideas or players for very long, and with so many new guys the levels of experimentation are very high.  He already made the switch of putting LS in the starting lineup instead of WeJo.  My own view is that this was done as much to boost Stephenson's confidence and support system, giving him a chance to get off to a good start and assert his value, as it was because he would improve the starting lineup.  It's actually a win-win, putting a more dynamic player on the floor with the starters, and improving the second unit by removing him from its complexity and confusion.  But it still might turn out to be a short term experiment.  As Doc Rivers runs through the changes and options available to him, it's probably going to take a long time before he gets around to the idea of bringing Austin Rivers in at SG ahead of Crawford, and reducing Crawford's role considerably and holding him in reserve.

But the improved defensive focus that such a move might bring could be critical for the Clippers if they want to keep up with the big dogs of the Western Conference.  We'll check back in a week from now, next Monday night after the Clippers play Memphis, game #7.  We'll know more then than we do now.