When Doc Rivers first came to the Los Angeles Clippers, he immediately decreed that DeAndre Jordan was more than just an athletic rim protector, but instead part of the team's "Big 3" alongside Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Few of us believed it at the time, but Doc and DeAndre have spent the last two seasons proving it, and evidently at least the Dallas Mavericks were convinced.
Rivers also pulled the trigger on a deal that brought J.J. Redick to the team. Yes, it was at the expense of a budding star in Eric Bledsoe, but Rivers felt like the role was better for Redick, and indeed he was correct; Redick is a perfect fit for what the Clippers want to do and essentially gives the team a "Big Four."
The team has been elite in the last two seasons in the NBA by every measure aside from depth of playoff run — a metric that is insanely skewed by the imbalance between the conferences. Think of it this way: the Indiana Pacers went to back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals, followed this season by the Atlanta Hawks, while the Clippers were losing in the second round. But the Pacers and Hawks weren't playing the same opposition as the Clippers.
So what do you do with your roster when your core is elite, but you haven't been able to get over the top? You keep the core and do your best to improve the complementary pieces. When the team is already paying the luxury tax and has to keep the core together, it can make it difficult to make the necessary upgrades, but you have to try.
With the addition of Pablo Prigioni, the Clippers have now added seven new faces (half of the roster) since the end of last season, with an eighth change since the beginning of last season. The only players who haven't turned over in the past six months? Paul, Griffin, Jordan, Redick, Jamal Crawford (don't be surprised if he's gone soon) and C.J. Wilcox, a 2014 first round draft pick.
|NOV 13||JAN 14
||FEB 14||NOV 14||FEB 15||NOV 15|
The chart above shows the changes in the roster in the past two seasons, starting with the lineup from opening day of Rivers first season as Clippers' coach. Names new to the roster are bold. Note that I'm not listing every transaction here: no Stephen Jackson, no Lester Hudson, etc. These are the players who played more than spot minutes and stuck on the roster for at least a few months.
I'm also focusing on a roster of 14, as most of the time teams like to keep the 15th spot open and that 15th name is rarely important at any rate. Prigioni was the 14th guaranteed contract for the Clippers, which does not bode well for the likelihood that Glen Davis or Jordan Hamilton will be around come November, though it is of course still possible.
These changes are not one for one. I've tried where possible to show like players in roster spots, so for instance Darren Collison was replaced by Jordan Farmar who was replaced by Austin Rivers as the team's backup point guard. But it's not always possible, especially given the trend towards small ball that I'll discuss in a moment.
The emphasis here is on the thorough transformation of the supporting cast around the Clippers' "Big Four."
In the first game Doc Rivers coached with the Clippers, Jared Dudley was his starting small forward and the bench consisted of Crawford, Collison, Matt Barnes, Ryan Hollins, Reggie Bullock, Antawn Jamison, Willie Green and Byron Mullens, joined in January by Hedo Turkoglu.
Among those ten names, only Crawford remains. Compare the rest to the current group of Paul Pierce, Lance Stephenson, Josh Smith, Austin Rivers, Wesley Johnson, Cole Aldrich, Prigioni, Wilcox and Branden Dawson. There's really no comparison. Collison, Barnes and Dudley were the only players from the 2013 supporting cast deserving of rotation spots in the NBA — you could toss in Hollins for some spot minutes, but look no further than what has happened to those players since leaving the Clippers. In the current group, Stevenson, Smith, Pierce and Johnson have been starters all or most of their careers while Rivers, Aldrich and Prigioni are all solid pros. Wilcox and Dawson don't figure to get a lot of run on this team, but both are young pros who are worth trying to develop.
Say what you will about Rivers the GM, but he has not been afraid to make changes nor has he compounded his mistakes with obstinence. Both Dudley and Hawes were well-regarded acquisitions at the time and Doc seemed genuinely excited about them — Dudley was the starter for his first half season in L.A. Both were however disappointments, failing in particular to make shots the way they were supposed to, and both were dumped unceremoniously in the off-season to try something different.
The changes also show a clear effort on Rivers' part to get smaller. He seemed fixated on shooting for his first 18 months in charge, in particular with finding a "stretch big" to play next to Griffin or Jordan. Mullens and Hawes were busts, and now it seems that rather than continuing to search for a seven footer who can shoot, he will be content to play a 6'8 or 6'9 guy in that spot — the obvious hope being that he'll gain in basketball skills what he gives up in size. The roster in January 2014 had five players 6'10 or bigger — Griffin, Jordan, Hollins, Mullens and Turkoglu. As of now, there are three, with just Aldrich supplementing the indispensable Griffin and Jordan. The roster is chock-full of wings and combo players, giving Rivers an almost unlimited number of combinations he can try when he's resting what again figures to be one of the best starting groups in the league.
Is Stephenson a risk? Is Pierce at the end of his career? Is Smith a questionable decision-maker? The answer to all of those questions is of course yes, but working with limited trade assets, the mini-mid-level exception and minimum deals, the players you get are necessarily going to have asterisks. Warts and all, this group is still head and shoulders above the supporting cast from November 2013.
It remains to be seen how this group will mesh on the court. There will be challenges finding the right fit, and the group lacks elite shooting. They do not however lack play makers, where Stephenson and Smith are among the best creators at their size in the league. If Doc can get them to move and share the ball, they have the potential to carve up opposing second units. On paper it is without question the strongest supporting cast Rivers has put around his elite core.