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Film Room: Paul Pierce continues to not be a small ball power forward

Brought in to provide veteran stability and scoring off the bench, Paul Pierce has done everything but that for the Los Angeles Clippers thus far this season.

When it comes down to it, there are nowhere near enough adjectives in a spoken or written language known to the civilizations of this world to effectively illustrate just how disappointing Paul Pierce has been as an offseason addition for the Los Angeles Clippers. Frankly, it has been awful at times. While he has shown the ability to hit a shot every now and then, they are few and far between. The lack of defense has been to the point that a traffic cone could do the job at a higher level. While the numbers say the rebounding is adequate, it is not. Last night against the Portland Trail Blazers was another game in which Pierce displayed woefully poor play with a few sprinkles of solid play. In other words, it was frustrating. We’re going to look at some of the discouraging parts.

So far this season, the Los Angeles Clippers are sporting a -5.6 Net Rating in the 333 minutes that Paul Pierce has been on the floor. Without him, that rating has jumped up to +8.3 in 531 minutes. There is a lot of noise in the numbers, though, since Pierce primarily plays with the bench and all that hullaballoo. However, even in 35 minutes with the starters this season, the Net Rating was a paltry +0.2 and the unit was giving up 106.5 points per 100 possessions defensively. Compared with the other small forwards who have started alongside those four this season, it was far worse for Pierce to be on the floor than it was for any of them. Yes, it was even worse than Jamal Crawford playing small forward in a three-guard lineup.

On the year, Pierce is only averaging 4.8 points per game in 19.6 minutes, but you have to look beyond that. He was brought in to be a big shot taker and a big shot maker. Plus, a floor spacer. The idea was to play him as the small ball power forward due to his stretch shooting ability that could draw opposing bigs out of the paint. Unfortunately, it has not worked out as well as Doc Rivers had hoped. Pierce is only shooting 31.7 percent on the year, and just 25.5 percent from three. While that’s certainly bad, the most disappointing aspect of it is that Pierce is a pitiful 1-of-11 on corner threes this season. He shot 25-of-59 (42.4 percent) on corner threes last season, as a reference. We’re talking a steep decline here. Maybe he works it out, maybe not. The fact remains that he is shooting horribly – and that might be the best news you’ll hear regarding his game right now.

The main issues with Pierce are his rebounding and his defense. Pierce’s rebounding has taken a minor hit, dropping from an 8.7 percent True Rebounding Percentage in 2014-15 to 8.2 percent this season. When he’s on the court, the team only grabs 44.6 percent of all available rebounds. Without him, that number jumps up to 49.4 percent. Their Defensive Rating with Pierce is a porous 105.9, but it’s a quality 99.0 when he’s on the bench. This isn’t to say it’s all Pierce’s fault. The issue is that Doc Rivers continually tries to play Pierce with Crawford, and that duo does not work out at all. In fact, they’re pretty terrible. Anyways, let’s watch the footage from last night and see why Pierce at small ball four does not work right now.

The Clippers are running their final possession of the first quarter, which is a double-high screen by Josh Smith and Paul Pierce. This is pretty similar to what we see out of the trio of Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan, and Blake Griffin. It’s designed to get the roll man – i.e. the center – sprinting to the basket and drawing the defense towards him so the pop man – i.e. the power forward – has an open shot either at the arc or just below it. Austin Rivers comes off the screen, gets downhill to his left, and sizes up Ed Davis. Smith rolls to the basket, which occupies a couple defenders, and Rivers kicks the ball out to Pierce at the three-point line. Pierce has a semi-open shot to take, but decides to dribble into a stepback contested two that clanks off the iron.

Ideally, Pierce taking a stepback two isn’t that bad. However, it’s the way he went about it. In a perfect world, Pierce takes the semi-open three because it’s a quality look that he can get off before Meyers Leonard gets out to fully contest the shot. On the flip side, going for the two isn’t bad if you know you can beat the defender to the spot. Unfortunately for Pierce and the Clippers here, that isn’t possible. Pierce tries his best to get separation from Leonard, but there really was none of that happening. It’s a tough effort with the clock winding down after passing out of what is probably a better shot. When Pierce sizes up on the shot fake, Leonard is about 6 feet away from him. You can’t pass that shot up.

Roughly 90 seconds in the second quarter, we get a look at Pierce cutting off the ball. There’s a drive by Lance Stephenson into the paint off of a curl that ends with Stephenson throwing a beautiful no-look bounce pass to Pierce for a layup attempt. The issue is that Pierce seemed as if he went up for a layup in slow motion. It took him so long to do this that Ed Davis came over and rejected him with the utmost of ease. This should have been an easy two points for the Clippers, but Pierce’s inability to get off the floor and put the ball off the backboard in a timely manner did them in. This is one of the downsides to Pierce – everything he does now is pretty slow and methodical. That’s fine in some respects, but you can’t be slow in this situation.

On the ensuing possession, we see some of Pierce’s limitations as a small ball four when it comes to rebounding. Pierce initially is on Al-Farouq Aminu here, but the Blazers run a simple rub screen to force a switch. Pierce dives under the screen while Josh Smith doesn’t jump up to contest the shot attempt. Fortunately, Aminu misses it. However, that’s when the problem begins. Ed Davis simply bullies Pierce underneath the basket and tips out the offensive rebound to his own team. If you’re the small ball four, you have to rebound or at least keep your man occupied. Neither happened.

The issue here isn’t Pierce’s defense or his inability to box out, as he very clearly boxes out Davis on this play. The problem, however, is that Pierce simply isn’t strong enough or long enough to deter Davis from getting to the rebound. Davis flat out pushed Pierce from the left elbow to the restricted area in a matter of mere moments because Pierce just can’t stop anyone on the glass. In the grand scheme of things, this isn’t a lack of fundamentals or awareness, but rather a lack of size, strength, and will. This is the problem with Pierce at power forward against accomplished rebounders.

A little less than a minute later, the Blazers attack Pierce in the switch game on the pick-and-roll. Pierce was guarding C.J. McCollum before Mason Plumlee came over and set a screen that forced Pierce to switch. Plumlee immediately seals Pierce off and gets deep into the paint before receiving an entry pass. He receives the pass, goes straight up, and misses. However, Pierce feebly attempts to swat the rebound away rather than go up for it himself, and it allows Plumlee to regather the ball and go back up to draw a foul. The play ends with Plumlee getting two looks at the basket, drawing a foul on the second one, and Pierce looking inept on the glass.

There isn’t much Pierce can do with the bigger Plumlee here, but what he should have done is not given such a weak effort on the dang rebound. It’s pathetic. At some point, Pierce has to actually want to rebound. His numbers might say he’s okay, but he’s a small ball four and more is expected of him at this point in time. No one expects him to maintain position and stop Plumlee from scoring every time, but not allowing yourself to get beat for the rebound is a must – especially when you had way better position to begin with. The swipe at the ball is disgraceful, and he should probably be ashamed about it. This was bad.

Later in the game as the Clippers are nursing an 11-point lead, we see another one of Pierce’s famous rebounding mistakes. Pierce is guarding Gerald Henderson and leaves him to get into rebounding position, which is 100 percent the right move here. The wrong move is that he lets Ed Davis beat him to the rebound for a putback. One might blame DeAndre Jordan for this since Davis is able to squeeze right by him, but Jordan assumes Pierce has position to get this rebound. Unfortunately, you know what they say about assuming. Davis squirms past Jordan, knifes next to Pierce, and outjumps him for the putback.

You can blame Jordan all you want on this play, but this is terrible form and awareness by Pierce. He does the right thing by leaving Henderson alone, but does the wrong thing by staying on one side of the rim as the ball goes up on the shot attempt. He should have slid over to the center of the restricted area so he had a better rebounding angle on a potential miss. Staying on the left side enabled Davis to split the defenders for the rebounding chance. Jordan should have absolutely done better, but this one is on Pierce for not adjusting to the play properly.

The lineup data says that Pierce at small ball four is actually working, as the all-bench unit is just -0.2 in Net Rating. However, that lineup features Austin Rivers, Jamal Crawford, Lance Stephenson, and Josh Smith alongside him. Three of those four are solid-to-great defenders, which is why their 93.7 Defensive Rating isn’t that shocking. The issue is that group only rebounds 61.9 percent of the misses by the opposition. That’s a deplorably low number. A lot of that has to do with Pierce at power forward. The inability to box guys out and/or keep them at bay long enough for gang rebounding to take over is a huge problem. Truthfully, a lot of what’s taking place is the fault of Doc Rivers. He should know better.

Opponents are shooting 47.7 percent against Paul Pierce this season, a mark that is 3.0 percent better than what they normally shoot on the year. Astoundingly, those players are shooting 75.0 percent on shots coming within 6 feet of the hoop against him. No matter how you slice it, Pierce’s defense has been horrible, his rebounding has been deplorable, and his offense has been putrid. It’s not even a stretch to say that Pierce has most likely been the worst rotation player this season for the Los Angeles Clippers. Truthfully, it’d be pretty darn accurate. Hopefully, for the sake of him and the team, he turns things around and starts contributing in positive ways going forward. It’s hard to see it happening at this point, but the possibility still sits out there on the edge of the horizon. If he can hit a few big shots and come up with a few big rebounds then perhaps people will remember why he was brought here. Until then, Paul Pierce has been anything but productive.