The first 17 games of the season have been a work-in-progress for Doc Rivers and the Clippers. The roster clearly has plenty of talent, but finding the right lineup combinations has been a major challenge. Following 13 underwhelming games with Lance Stephenson and Paul Pierce starting at small forward, Wesley Johnson was finally given the starting nod for a couple of games last week. He was up-and-down in that role, but Doc decided to bench him and start Luc Mbah a Moute Sunday against Minnesota instead. Johnson wound up playing just four minutes, while Luc racked up 23. Mbah a Moute will also start Monday's game against Portland.
Another position of concern for the Clips to this point has been backup point guard. It'd be nice if Chris Paul were able to play 48 minutes every night, but, sadly, he's human. The idea coming into the season was that Austin Rivers would assume the role, and he's done an okay job in certain areas. He's emerged as one of the club's most reliable wing defenders, which is obviously a welcome sight when you're rolling him out alongside defensive sieves like Pierce and Jamal Crawford.
His offense, though, has been quite a bit worse. Rivers wasn't a good shooter in any of his previous three NBA seasons, and that hasn't changed. He's hitting just over 23% of his three-point attempts while taking 2.8 of them per game, good for the fifth-most attempts on the team. He's clearly athletic enough to get to the rim, but he too often settles for jumpers. Despite being a poor shooter, though, Rivers just doesn't like to pass, either. Take a look at his shot chart to this point (via NBA.com):
The good part about the chart is that most of his overall shots are coming at the rim. The Clippers don't have many guys on the roster that will attack the bucket as willingly as Rivers will. That's something they desperately need, especially without Paul or Griffin out there. The bad part is...just about everything else.
A common complaint when it comes to the Clipper bench so far this season is that they play lots of isolation offense. Things have looked a bit better over the last couple of games, but there's still a distinct discrepancy in the way the starters play together when compared with the reserves. The ball has a way of zipping around the court when the starters are in, but sticks when the bench comes in. Part of that can possibly be attributed to unfamiliarity. This is almost a completely new group of bench players that aren't quite accustomed to playing together yet. However, the bench is also largely comprised of me-first types that don't have a great history of being facilitators.
Austin Rivers has an assist rate of just 8% this season, which ranks ninth on the team. Paul Pierce (8.8%) ranks seventh, Lance Stephenson (12.1%) is sixth, and Jamal Crawford (13.1%) ranks fifth. Again, Austin hates to pass. He's quite clearly a shooting guard, not a point guard. He's miscast in that role. Both Jamal and Lance are skilled passers, but Jamal is much more interested in shooting. Stephenson is coming off back-to-back excellent games, so here's hoping he can keep that up. He's still not tasked with doing a ton of ball-handling, though.
Some fans have been clamoring for more minutes for Pablo Prigioni, but Pablo's brief stints to this point have been disastrous. It's a fairly small sample size, but in his 58 minutes on the floor this season, the Clippers have an offensive rating of 86.2 (per Basketball Reference), which is very, very bad. Without him, LAC offensive rating is 108.2, which is stellar. The fact remains that Prigioni is a 38-year-old point guard that is downright afraid to shoot and can't stop anyone on defense. He was never going to have a major role on this team, nor should he.
Austin belongs in the rotation, but he's best used as a defender/slasher type rather than a guy tasked with trying to run the offense. Crawford has drawn the ire of many for his relatively weak start, but the Clippers flat-out need his scoring ability at times throughout the game. Stephenson looks like a guy that is finally starting to get acclimated to his new team.
The only player currently in the rotation that really seems to need his minutes slashed is Paul Pierce. We all know why he's here. He's here to bring a veteran presence to the locker room and contribute a bit once the playoffs roll around. There's no real advantage to be gained by playing him 20+ minutes a night in November, especially considering how poorly he's played so far. Let him practice, get into better shape, and come back ready in April.
There's a chance LAC could look outside the organization for a serviceable backup, but they don't really have many appealing trade assets. It is worth mentioning that Sam Amico of Fox Sports Ohio tweeted this out on Monday, though:
Clippers making some exploratory calls, seeing what may be available. Little early for trade chatter but they're not happy. #nba— Sam Amico (@AmicoHoops) November 30, 2015
The Clippers' best point guard is Chris Paul, and their second-best point guard, quite frankly, is Blake Griffin. Doc has been better about staggering minutes among the starters lately, but he's still asking for trouble by deploying the five-man reserve units at times during games. Griffin sports a gaudy assist rate of 25.5% so far this season, which is third among all forwards in the league behind only LeBron James and Draymond Green. Running the offense through Griffin is hardly a new concept, and he clearly has a knack for making the right decision with the ball.
Ideally, the Clippers would play zero meaningful minutes without at least one of Paul or Griffin on the floor. Typically, Paul will come out of the game about midway through the first, while Griffin will sometimes play the entire opening frame. Neither will be on the floor to start the second quarter, which opens the door for potential chaos. As long as both Griffin and CP3 are playing somewhere between 32 and 34 minutes a night (as they are now), it shouldn't be a problem to ensure that at least one of them is always out there.
Would this help solve the Clippers' lack of ball movement with backup-heavy lineups? Without actually seeing it in action, it's tough to say. Doc said after the win over Denver that he plans on continuing to tinker with the rotation, so we can hope that this is something he'll eventually try. Give us more Point Griffin!