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Five Observations from the Clippers' First 5 Games

There's been ups and downs, but here are five main trends I've followed so far.

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Through 5 games, the Clippers have a 4-1 record, good for their second-best start to a season ever (the most ever consecutive wins to open a season for the Clippers was 5).  There's been ups and downs, and certainly some good and bad starts for different pieces of the roster, but overall the big picture looks good: four wins and a tight road loss to the defending champs.  Here are five key observations I've noted through the first 5 games this season:

1. Blake Griffin has passed Chris Paul as the Clippers' best player.

Last year was the in-between season, where we questioned Blake's superiority from time to time, but Paul still carried the load.  From the moment Griffin led the Clippers to a road win in game 1 vs Houston last year while Paul was sidelined, there hasn't been much doubt.  Griffin is an early dark horse for MVP this season, averaging 28.2 points (on 59% shooting!), 9.4 rebounds and 4 assists for what has been one of the best handful of teams in the league.  Steph Curry still has the lead in the race, but Blake's right there.  The next step for Blake has to be crunch time.  It's hard for a big man to dominate late-game situations in any capacity other than defense and offensive dirty work, but Blake's skilled and versatile enough that he should be able to perform from the mid-range and off the dribble with the game on the line.  Last night, as Blake drove from the elbow and lost his dribble, I wasn't surprised or disappointed, because that's what happens every time he drives late in games.  It's time to get him comfortable in those spots.

Paul, on the other hand, has taken a step back at 30 years old.  He's the first to admit that he's not as young as he used to be, and while he's still a superstar talent, something's felt off in the early going this season.  I'm attributing a lot of it to his broken finger, and the minor groin injury he suffered last night won't help matters.  It might not be the worst idea for Doc Rivers to take advantage of his depth this season and buy Paul some more time on the bench to keep him rested and healthy for end-of-game situations and the postseason.  With Pablo Prigioni on the third string, it wouldn't be the worst thing to find the crafty pass-first vet 4-6 minutes a night, which would significantly lighten CP3's load.

2. Doc Rivers has to figure out his rotations.

This is obvious.  The Clippers have loads of talent this season, more than they've had in a long time, but this group of players HAS to be mixed right to work.  There's a lot of ball-dominant players, especially in the supporting cast (Stephenson, Rivers, Crawford, Pierce, Smith), and without lineups that make sense, there's not a lot of cohesion offensively.  Pablo Prigioni definitely seems like a guy that could help the second unit actually get into a system offensively, perhaps with Austin Rivers playing the J.J. Redick role--he can't shoot anywhere near as well as Redick, but he could come off of screens and use his quickness to get into the lane and create, making space for Smith to work on the weak side.

The all-bench lineups that Doc has been playing haven't been very good at all.  In 46 minutes this season, the Rivers-Crawford-Johnson-Pierce-Smith lineup has a net rating of -14.2, and they're only gathering 37% of available rebounds while they're on the court.  Other mixtures don't have a sufficient sample size (no other group besides the starters with different SFs has played more than 7 minutes together during the young season, which by itself shows that Doc isn't rotating his lineups very much).  We'll know a lot more after 20 games than we do after 5, but my guess would be that Doc will learn to play his stars together less and separate more.  By playing Blake and CP together less, he makes sure that he always has one superstar on the court for the offense to flow through, making for a less awkward situation, since the supporting cast will play around Chris or Blake instead of competing with each other for touches.  By playing Blake and DJ together less, Doc can make sure that he is limiting the amount of minutes where Josh Smith and a SF are the "big men", helping out the rebounding.  DJ and any of Johnson/Pierce/Smith works just fine, and Blake and Smith are a good combo as well.

You know when I like to use all-bench lineups?  When I'm playing 2k and I'm too lazy to keep track of my rotation so I just do line swaps when everyone gets tired.  You know when I don't like all-bench lineups?  When the Clippers' seven million dollars a year coach is using them in big games and during the playoffs.  Now, Doc doesn't use them out of laziness, but I don't quite get the obsession with going: "Hey, let's take ALL of our best players out at the same time and see if the other team capitalizes with a big run!".  In years past, Doc hasn't had the type of bench that plays well together and goes on runs when they come in, and he's still employed this tactic.  This year, the bench group has the potential to get there, but it's gonna need some refinement and help at times.

3. Jamal Crawford is hurting this team more than he's helping it.

This is the "duh" part of the article.  Jamal Crawford, at 35 years old, is having his worst season since his rookie year, shooting 37% from the field and 19% from deep.  The three point shot will come up as the season progresses, but I'm not convinced that the field goal percentage will.  In the last four seasons with the Clippers, check out Jamal's progression regression:

Season Games MPG FG% 3PT % PPG
12-13 76 29.3 43.8 37.6 16.5
13-14 69 30.3 41.6 36.1 18.6
14-15 64 26.6 39.6 32.7 15.8
15-16 5 21.6 37.0 18.8 11.0

Now, I know it's early in the year, but I'm looking at more than the percentages from 5 games, I'm looking at his steady decline over his tenure with the Clippers.  I've never liked his shot selection from an aesthetic standpoint, but in year 1, and somewhat year 2, there was no denying how effective he was (though his %s on good shots when he played with the starters dragged up dismal numbers from when he took his patented pull-ups with the subs).  It's time to consider that Jamal is 35 years old, and he's played over 1,000 career regular season games at over 30 minutes a pop, and his legs are a lot closer to Paul Pierce's than Austin Rivers'.  We should be expecting a year-to-year decline from someone at his age with his mileage, and the proper way to account for it would be to refine shot selection and reduce role.  Jamal seems incapable of doing that thus far, and this team has bigger aspirations than to be the hill a instant offense sixth man's career dies on.

In the past, the Clippers have needed Jamal to create offense for the second unit.  Now, with a pass-first PG (Prigioni) waiting in the wings and ball-dominant offensive players alongside him (Rivers, Pierce, Smith), it's time for Jamal to either take a reduced role as a sniper or take a seat.

4. Lance Stephenson is going to have a bounce-back year.

It's been a quiet start for Lance, and that's all good news for those of us who were hopeful that he'd have a resurgence.  He's engaged defensively, and he's supplemental offensively, which is exactly what the Clippers need.  Stephenson is 11-27 from the field thus far--not great, but better than last year.  And while it's a small sample size, he's connected on 4 of 9 from deep, a good start for a guy who made 18 of 105 last season in Charlotte.  He's played within himself, and when he gets a touch late in the shot clock or as a pressure release valve when the defense plays off of him to cover the Clippers' main stars, he's been able to make plays going toward the basket, either finishing or dumping off with some pretty spectacular assists.

Doc is being almost painfully cautious with Lance's rehabilitation.  Clippers fans have been crying for Lance to get more minutes, which I don't think is something that many people expected to be hearing this early in the year.  The Clippers could use Lance's help a little more all-around, but so far, so good.  His offensive rating is 117, his defensive rating is 92.  That's damn good.  Lance has the benefit of being in a spot where almost any wing player could succeed: the 5th cog in the best starting lineup in the league.  What we're seeing so far is some early signs that he'll be more than a filler or a stopgap.  Lance has said to give him 20 games before he's really comfortable with these starters and playing his game again, and the early results have been encouraging enough that I'm excited to see him at that benchmark.  Hopefully at that point he'll be ready for an uptick in minutes and a chance to close games with the starting unit.

5. For better or worse, the Clippers are embracing small ball.

In every sense of the phrase, the Clippers have been going small for large amounts of time this season.  Between three-guard lineups and one-big or no-big lineups (I consider Josh Smith more of a hybrid, leaving Griffin and Jordan as the sole true big men that the Clippers are giving minutes to), the Clippers have played small pretty much all year.  They're starting Lance Stephenson at SF, and while he's certainly capable there, his primary position would be considered SG.  They're using Josh Smith as the primary backup C, and Welsey Johnson and Paul Pierce are masquerading as the backup PFs in a super-small second unit that's seen 46 minutes already.

The Clippers aren't a small team.  They can go big in a hurry, with a lineup of Austin Rivers-Lance Stephenson-Wesley Johnson-Blake Griffin-DeAndre Jordan.  Their normal starting lineup is pretty traditional.  But when the subs come in, Doc starts to mix up the game with a smaller, faster team.  Paul Pierce and Jamal Crawford don't really fit that identity as well as Austin Rivers, Wesley Johnson, and Josh Smith, which is why that unit has struggled.  There's issues to work out with smallball lineups and with the team's second unit, but one thing looks certain, and it's that Doc is committed to making these combinations of players work, which means the Clippers are embracing their undersized bench and plugging ahead.