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The Clippers second unit: What a glorious mess it could be

The Clippers are on the verge of signing Josh Smith, which would give them one of the most talented — and potentially most frustrating — benches in the league next season.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

With the impending signing of Josh Smith to a minimum deal, the Clippers seem to be cornering the market on talented but ultra-low efficiency players for their second unit. These guys all have talent — enough to be lottery picks, win Sixth Man of the Year, start for the best defensive team in the league, etc. etc. — but my sweet FSM can they take some bad shots.

Let's update our depth chart first:

Point Guard Chris Paul Austin Rivers
Shooting Guard J.J. Redick Lance Stephenson Jamal Crawford C.J. Wilcox
Small Forward Paul Pierce Wesley Johnson Branden Dawson Jordan Hamilton
Power Forward Blake Griffin Josh Smith Glen Davis
Center DeAndre Jordan Cole Aldrich

Now, there's one thing that needs to be said about this. One could make the argument that Josh Smith is really a small forward and that Austin Rivers is really a shooting guard. In other words, nine of the Clippers 13 signed players are wings. Doc Rivers REALLY didn't like being thin at the three last season, and he has done something about it!

This is not happening in a vacuum, and in fact it makes a ton of sense. The Golden State Warriors just won a title with a team that featured lots and lots of 6'8 dudes (and Stephen Curry). Versatility and basketball skill is the flavor of the month in the NBA, but it's probably not just a flash in the pan. Having guys that can play multiple positions gives Rivers a lot of options, and almost every Clipper reserve can play at least two spots.

Of course a skill you would look for in the new NBA is the ability to shoot the ball, and on that front, some of the newest Clippers come up a bit short.

It's fun to think about what the Clippers second unit might look like. There's nothing that says that Doc can't keep a starter or two out there, but history tells us that during the regular season at least he'll play five reserves together for significant stretches. How might that work?


Poor Cole Aldrich had better hit the offensive glass hard, because he is NOT seeing the ball any other way in this lineup. Rivers, Crawford, and Stephenson all prefer to have the ball in their hands on offense, and while shot creation is an important skill in the NBA, it's also important to be able to make some shots.

The league-wide average for effective field goal percentage last season was .496; Smith (.451), Rivers (.449), Crawford (.448), and Stephenson (.393 — yikes!) were all well below that average. You can hope that Stephenson's season in Charlotte was an outlier, or that Rivers can maintain the significantly better percentages he put up in half a season with the Clippers, but those are still a LOT of misses in one group. It's not unusual for a second unit to have a high-volume, low-efficiency shooter like Jamal for instant offense — but it could be difficult to watch so many low-efficiency guys at once.

But as a change of pace, this unit could be fun. Rivers, Stephenson and Smith are all long, they are young, and if they can play with energy they could wreak some havoc.

If you play Blake Griffin as a small ball five with this group, it gets very interesting. You would want them to run the offense through Blake to get some better shots, and it's not clear whether the others could thrive playing off the ball. But they're going to have to figure it out, because there's just the one ball.

The Smith signing could have some ripple effects as well. First of all, if it wasn't already clear, Jamal Crawford will probably be traded. Smith doesn't overlap with Crawford positionally, but he's a career 15 point per game scorer; Jamal has one function on the team, to score points off the bench. They just signed another guy who can do that. Combined with the fact that Stephenson plays Jamal's positions and is almost as ball-dominant, it's just tough to see where Crawford fits in. I still think it's possible that the Clippers will wait until the trade deadline, but there's very little chance that Crawford is on the team in the postseason.

Smith's presence also raises questions about Glen Davis. I've always thought that Davis would be back, if only because he's essentially the last useful player the Clippers can pay more than the minimum. But a lot of his minutes were just given to Smith. I still think Davis will be back — if they give him a decent contract they can then use it in a trade, if nothing else — but I'm less certain of it.

A lineup without Crawford might look like:


That's a young lineup that could work hard and make some stuff happen. Or it could be a disaster with no clue where to go for good shots. They'd be wise to look for steals and try to run as much as possible, because they might find half court buckets tough to come by.

When I reflect on how bad the Clippers bench was last season, more than anything I'm struck by how it's often impossible to know how a second unit is going to perform. Should Farmar-Crawford-Roberts-Davis-Hawes not have been OK? Stripped of the mega-talents that differentiate themselves and dominate the league, second units become more about playing style and chemistry. The Tribe Called Bench team of three years ago didn't look particularly good on paper, but Matt Barnes, Lamar Odom and Ryan Hollins (or Ronny Turiaf, take your pick) played great D, Crawford made shots, and Eric Bledsoe was a star in waiting. If Stephenson-Smith-et al. can find a similar synergy, they could be very good.

It's important to remember that the non-starters on a roster have another function: replacing injured starters. In that regard, these signings are almost all terrific. These players give the Clippers some injury insurance to continue to win a lot of games, even if a key starter misses some time.

Finding a way to keep them happy and productive as a second unit will be a challenge for Doc Rivers. It could be very entertaining or very painful to watch.