After a spate of offseason signings, GM Doc Rivers (and actual general manager, Dave Wohl) can take a bow for the time being. It's up to Coach Doc Rivers to make all the talent fit together and find the best lineup combinations for this team.
In theory, the Clippers have as many as twelve players who are capable of playing rotation minutes. All of them will likely see the floor at various points this season, between injuries and possible lineup changes. But when healthy, it's debatable what the team's second-string lineup should look like. Could the Clippers play smallball, with three or four guards on the floor? Or could they opt for a more traditional look with two big men playing together?
What began as idle summer speculation turned into potential reality in the last few weeks, as Dan Woike reporting that the team actually was considering starting Wes Johnson over Paul Pierce. And it's becoming more and more likely that a player who's never been on a winning team in his career might suddenly find himself starting for a championship contender.
Just had a long sit down w Doc Rivers. He's still undecided, but seems to be leaning to starting Wes Johnson.— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) September 23, 2015
It's easy to see the arguments for Johnson starting — he fits the mold of the low-usage, floor-spacing athletic defender the Clippers want as their fifth starter. Whether he can actually play up to the necessary level is yet to be determined, but you can understand why Doc's considering this.
This would seemingly leave the bench with only three players guaranteed to be in the rotation on opening night — Pierce, Lance Stephenson, and Josh Smith, leaving two spots up for grabs. In a recent interview with Woike, Doc shared some of his vision for this bench unit, and hinting at who he's currently leaning towards playing:
Smith was a crucial part of Rivers’ vision for the Clippers’ bench, a group that needed to improve if the team was going to remain competitive at the top of the Western Conference.
Joining fellow newcomers Lance Stephenson and Paul Pierce, and holdovers Austin Rivers and Jamal Crawford, Smith gives the Clippers a versatility they’ve lacked.
"The whole goal was we needed multiple positions," Rivers said. "I wanted the second unit to be guard-less, meaning Austin isn’t a point guard, Lance isn’t a point guard, Jamal’s not a point guard. But all of them can dribble. Josh can dribble. That was our goal. We wanted four (guys). If we could somehow come up with five in the second unit where they literally could all bring the ball up, the versatility they create for that unit ... We can play a unit of Josh and Paul at four and five and Lance, Jamal and Austin.
"That’s just chaotic. Who do you guard? Paul will just stand out by the 3 and dare you. Jamal can do his things. Austin and Lance are downhill players. We had a vision of how we wanted to play. That always helps when you’re building a team. We thought, this year, the pool of players you could go after was so much larger than the year before that we had a chance to accomplish our goal."
There's a few things to unpack here. The biggest takeaway is that Doc would like to play a smallball bench unit, with Smith at center and Pierce in the stretch forward role he's excelled at in the past few years. Rather than play Pablo Prigioni at point guard or embrace size with Cole Aldrich, the tentative plan seems to be rolling with Rivers, Crawford, and Stephenson in the backcourt.
Playing five players who can all handle and pass the ball looks appealing on paper, but it's no guarantee it'll work on the court. Although there aren't too many dominant interior bench bigs to worry about, there should be serious concern about playing Crawford and Pierce together at that end of the floor (not to mention that the other three players have all shown focus issues there too in the past).
On offense, it could work, provided there's a commitment to moving the ball and playing within a team framework. When Doc says, "Jamal can do his things. Austin and Lance are downhill players," you have to hope he won't let them devolve into taking turns on offense.
The good news is that it's still very early and the Clippers actually have other options here if they want to change things up, unlike most of the past two seasons. It doesn't sound like anything's set in stone quite yet, and we might see a variety of looks during preseason.