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Clip Chat: Resolving the Rotation

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This week in Clip Chat Lucas Hann and I have a long overdue discussion, giving you 2400 words about what to do with the Clippers's rotation.

Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

Ishii: There's been a lot said this season about the Clippers's lack of success, with much of the blame being apportioned to their coach Doc Rivers. While he has always been respected as a players' coach with some ATO chops, Doc has never been the strongest in-game strategist, as well as general manager in his short tenure. This season it's been Clipper fans' favorite past time to second guess Doc Rivers's rotations, even sparking you to write a piece asking when fans stopped trusting Rivers.

While I get some of the frustration from fans, I largely think all of the criticism of Doc being ineffective, and even the main problem in need of ousting, have been overblown. None of that is to shield Doc from any type of criticism, more just me acknowledging that coaching is really freaking hard, that's why there are so few truly elite coaches in NBA history. To try and demonstrate how difficult figuring out the Clipper rotations actually are, I wanted to get your take on what you think the rotations should look like, including realistic improvements you think Doc would make or things you think he should be doing more.

Hann: I've been telling people for a while now that the solution to the Clippers' rotational problems aren't as obvious as they seem.  Everyone who pops up in my comments, twitter mentions, or e-mail inbox has a take on how clearly obvious the solutions are to fix the Clippers' rotation--and pretty much everyone has a different solution.  All that tells me is that it's not as obvious as people tend to think.  Now, as you say, it's not to make Doc immune from criticism or to defend certain undeniably poor decisions (namely playing Jamal or Pierce when the opponent is hacking, or playing Crawford and Pierce together ever). The issue is that you really can't play more than 10 in the NBA.  The minutes for guys 11+ have to come from somewhere, and if they come from your best players then you're hurting the team, and if they come from your backups then nobody at the bottom of the rotation ever gets a chance to get in rhythm.

Ishii: In looking at this roster literally all 13 active players have shown enough to deserve some type of role on this team, and could be deserving of playing time in some capacity. There's no way to sustain a rotation of 13 players for a season unless you're going full Spurs. There just aren't enough minutes to go around, someone has to be left out. But each a legitimate argument can be made for each player to be getting minutes in some role, what that role consists of can be fought over by fans. As a coach that must be like a 13x13 Rubix cube trying to figure out exactly which combinations work the best to try and win games now, but also to keep an eye on player growth for the future and playoffs. It's no wonder Doc hasn't been able to figure out what exactly this team is yet and how best to utilize all of his new pieces.

But what would you do? With the Clippers 13 deep, kinda, how do you manage that rotation?

Hann: There's a couple solutions for Doc. He has to keep on doing his best to determine which 10 he'll play going forward, and he can make that job a little easier if he can find the right 2-for-1 trade, where he can give up two of the 13 rotation-caliber guys for one more complete role player (hopefully someone who can play well enough on both ends to start at SF).  Now, that means my solution involves making a hypothetical trade for a target player that I can't find when I look around the league, which means it's not a very good solution.  So, while I think such a trade would be highly beneficial, it doesn't help Doc set his lineup in the next couple of weeks, or in the playoffs if a deal doesn't go down.

I'm presently operating under a few assumptions, because I have to in order to work through this problem.  If one of these things change, then the whole plan falls apart, but as of now it's looking like:

1) Josh Smith is done.  I'll gladly eat crow if he's not (and he could even start in Charlotte on the second game of a back-to-back for all I know), but I'm assuming that Doc has moved on, and Josh (paired with one of the bigger contracts that can bring back a salary--Austin, Lance, or Jamal) will be one of the two role players going out in any 2-for-1 trade.

2) Luc Richard Mbah a Moute is a stopgap.  Doc is waiting for Lance or Wes to get better within the team defensive schemes, and if one of them can pull it off then he'll become the starter.  If not, Pierce will probably take over come playoff time, which leads us to the last assumption:

3) Paul Pierce is going to be a serviceable player.  He's looked like it the last few games, but a few games doesn't always mean much.  Let's at least assume that these sparks will be enough to keep Doc's hopes up and keep PP in the rotation, even if he regresses.

Ishii: I think all of those assumptions are probably valid, though I'm a little more questionable about #2. Doc loved Tony Allen and I think there is a sensible argument to be made that the first unit benefits from a defensive first small forward. But the problem is in the playoffs it becomes incredibly hard to play defense only guys, and Luc is going to have to start showing more of an offensive game if he wants to stay on the court or he'll get the Bogut on Tony Allen treatment. Hell in the playoffs last year teams didn't even respect Matt Barnes. Luc's future is probably this season's Dahntay Jones: break glass open in the playoffs if you need a stop.

Hann: If we're going to go with those assumption, this means that for now, the starting lineup will likely stay at Paul-Redick-Mbah a Moute-Pierce-Jordan for the time being, and then end up at Paul-Redick-Stephenson/Johnson-Griffin-Jordan long-term.  That means that the bench lineup will be Prigioni-Crawford-Rivers-Johnson-Aldrich now, and the long-term bench look is where the problems start.  Essentially, of the 13, three guys have to get cut out.  We're assuming that one is Smith, and another is Mbah a Moute, which leaves one final DNP-CD to hand out, and between the 7 candidates, there's a lot of ways to go.

Cole Aldrich is almost certainly safe, if only because he's the only player of the 7 who is bigger than a combo forward.  Wes Johnson should be safe too, since he's played so well, but Doc's been quick to pull his minutes thus far.  In my mind, he should safely keep his role as a wing who has been scoring and shooting well.  Paul Pierce, between the assumption that he's back and Doc's relationship with him, has got to be safe.  While there's arguments to be made against those guys as well, I feel as though their contributions and the positions they play give them an advantage.

Ishii: I agree about Aldrich and Johnson. Wes has probably been the Clippers best and most consistent bench player this season. His shooting has been a remarkable surprise and watching him shushh the Laker crowd on Christmas was awesome. I'll gladly eat crow on Aldrich for saying he shouldn't play earlier in the season. He's been much better than what I anticipated in his few short stints and he helps to balance and structure the bench unit with not only rebounding, but in offensive system. With Aldrich out there the game plan is simple, spread pick and roll with shooters all around. His passing to the weak side helps makes that possible. If only he could dunk.

Hann: Now, we tackle the guard question.  Pablo PrigioniAustin RiversJamal Crawford, and Lance Stephenson are the 4 guys in question.  Right now, only one of these 4 has to be cut out of the rotation because Blake Griffin is injured, and long-term, I'm assuming only one will have to be once Mbah a Moute is replaced as a starter.  If Lance becomes the starting SF, then it's pick 2 of the 3 others.  If it's Wes, then it's pick 3 of these 4.  Let's run through a quick analysis of the 4:

Prigioni: He's the purest point guard of the bunch, and he's been a big part of the recent bench unit that's actually played like a basketball team and had some success.  Prigs has bad shooting numbers on the year, but the sample size is tiny compared to his career splits so I wouldn't put too much faith into those numbers.  Defensively he's crafty and smart but it can't always make up for his 38-year old lateral movement.  He also has great chemistry with Cole Aldrich, and benching either one of the two would likely harm the production and fit of the other.

Rivers: He's the best defender of the bunch, and he's the coach's son, which makes things awkward.  His shot has gone from bad to abysmal recently, and it's killing his offensive game, and unless it gets better it could kill the whole unit's offense.  However, his energy and defensive intensity make it hard to keep him off the floor.

Crawford: The only consistent dual-threat on the pick-and-roll, Crawford is a top-100 all-time scorer and defenses continue to respect him, even though he's inefficient.  He can be a solid defender when engaged, and he fits well with the starters when they need an extra hand late in games, but for the most part his defense leaves a lot to be desired, as he doesn't do well on the ball and often loses his man off the ball.  Don't underrate his ability to go off for a huge scoring night--sometimes slamming the door shut in a blowout, sometimes building a lead in a close game, sometimes pulling the Clippers back into striking distance when they're down.

Stephenson: Lance absolutely has the highest upside to make a huge contribution to this team of the non Core 4 players, but he's been inconsistent so far.  We've seen flashes of the guy who locks up on defense, pushes the tempo on offense, and finds others.  We've also seen nights where the defensive energy isn't there, and the offensive pushes turn into turnovers and missed shots.  Right now, it's understandable that Doc's chosen him to be on the outside looking in, but do you really want a guy with this much upside to sit on the bench instead of getting chances to figure it out?

Ishii: I agree with all of that. The problem is they are all so flawed in so many different ways that it's hard to make sense of who to pick from that group to play with each other. Each combinations has it's own unique pluses and minuses.

Hann: The truth is that I'm not sure that there are right or wrong answers with this bunch.  Playing Prigioni and Crawford together hurts defensively.  Playing Prigioni and Rivers doesn't give you a scorer.  Playing Rivers and Crawford hurts the second-unit offense since neither is a great creator.  And Lance can do all three of those things, but he hasn't shown that he can do them every night.  Right now, I think I can get behind Doc's decision: he's going away from Stephenson's inconsistency and rolling with the other 3.  But, when Griffin is healthy, Pierce will replace Johnson as the backup 4, and I believe that Wes Johnson should play at the backup 3 over any of these guys.  So, who else gets benched?  I'm tentatively looking at Pablo as the one guy who I am certain that I want to play, and I look forward to seeing more of him in the coming weeks to test that.  Then, even though I think Jamal is the second-best option on the list, I feel like it's best to go away from Pablo-Jamal-Pierce defensive lineups and roll with Rivers at SG instead.

It's not an easy decision to make, and I could just as easily go with any other combination, or decide that Crawford's spacing and helpfulness when playing with the starters are worth the worse bench defense--but this is my gut feeling right now.

Ishii: I think if Pablo is going to play, which he should based on his chemistry with Aldrich, then that means Lance should be starting. Pablo takes away a lot of the strengths Lance would bring to the bench, pushing the ball at every chance trying to thrive in transition. Pablo allows you to play a controlled offense, so I think putting Wes with that unit as a shooter makes the most sense.

I love Austin's defense, but to me I think he's the odd man out right now. If I'm imagining how I want the bench to play with Aldrich, it's like the Dallas team from the beginning of last season, pick and roll after pick and roll with shooters lined everywhere. I trust Jamal more as a pick and roll operative and as a shooter than I do Austin. But dang having a defense of Pablo, Jamal, and Pierce is a little worrying. Maybe Austin should be in there. Honestly maybe the answer is just Doc doesn't have a settled rotation with those guards and allows flexibility to be situation with his substitutions. I know that it's hard to build chemistry and rhythm with parts constantly moving, but that could end up being the best solution for this group of players.

We're at about 2300 words, and have yet to find an answer, and we haven't even begun to talk about minutes distributions and staggering, or who should be cut from the rotations in the playoffs when coaches typically only use about 8 guys. I hope this helps to show exactly how hard of a job Doc Rivers has and that there isn't any simple solutions to the dilemma of the Clippers's rotations. That being said, what do you think the Clippers and Doc Rivers should do with their rotations? Let us know in the comments below.