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Clippers and the Quest for Versatility

As stressed during Media Day, the Los Angeles Clippers are going to try to throw versatile lineups out on the floor. Can the insistence on such lineups bring forth good things for the team this season?

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Multi-positional. It was one of the overarching themes of the day. As the Media Day thread was updated with various tweets from Los Angeles Clippers’ beat writers and bloggers, one of the main talking points was Doc Rivers’ insistence on “versatile” and “multi-positional” players. After all, those are the types of players who seem like they’re having success right now in the NBA – i.e. players who can play multiple positions without any significant drop-off, therefore empowering the team to be more creative. Rivers believes that the team finally has the type of players to make that sort of thing work. Are they just blowing smoke or is this now a real thing for the team?

As Austin Rivers eloquently stated, “sometimes you have to minus to plus.” We still have no idea what he truly meant there, but perhaps we can use it to describe the growth of the bench. The team did get rid of players who either woefully underperformed or just did not fit the grand scheme of things. Gone are Glen Davis, Ekpe Udoh, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Hedo Turkoglu, Jared Cunningham, Dahntay Jones, Jordan Farmar, Spencer Hawes, Nate Robinson, Jordan Hamilton, and Lester Hudson. Each one of them, at one point or another, were seen as a bench player last season. Every single one of those guys are gone; not one remains. The roster turnover on the bench has been nothing short of extraordinary. And, to his credit, Doc Rivers has filled the bench with guys that he deems to be versatile.

Rather than bringing in players who don’t figure to play at all or who only can play in one setting, the Clippers have found a way to upgrade the bench with uber-athletic and talented players. They were able to swing a deal with the Charlotte Hornets and acquired guard-forward Lance Stephenson in exchange for starting small forward Matt Barnes and the disappointing Hawes. Stephenson has had his troubles, namely being arguably the worst player to play major minutes last season, but he brings the youth, athleticism, and – wait for it – versatility that the Clippers sorely need from their bench. While losing Barnes is a tough blow, adding Stephenson is a huge upgrade. It gives the team another capable ball-handler and creator off the bench, all while adding defense and tenacity. Some might question Stephenson’s methods, but you can’t question his passion. As he stated today, “I just want to win.”

They were able to re-sign Austin Rivers and he looks as if he’s going to be more comfortable going into Year 2 with the team. He’s worked with Sam Cassell this offseason on his mid-range game and has talked numerous times about improving his consistency shooting the ball. Jamal Crawford is also back with the team, but he’s always surrounded by the unenviable task of answering questions about whether or not he’ll be traded. He talked about how got used to trade rumors when he played in New York, but, either way, it’s not fair to him to have that cloud constantly hanging over his head. As for his role on the Clippers, he’s still the combo guard ball-handler who can either frustrate you or make you go wild with glee. Rivers and Crawford are the only two holdovers from the bench that was there at the end of the playoffs.

On the surface, the team seems to be going to level of versatility that was needed for a while.

Joining them in camp, beyond just Stephenson, are Cole Aldrich, Paul Pierce, Wesley Johnson, Josh Smith, Branden Dawson, Pablo Prigioni, C.J. Wilcox, Chuck Hayes, Nikoloz Tskitishvili, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. The latter three will be fighting for the team’s 15th and final roster spot. The other 14 spots are already sewn up for the most part. But the real story here is the depth of the bench with versatile and multi-positional players. Crawford, Rivers, and Stephenson can all play both guard spots. Crawford has spent some time at small forward, but that’s only in a pinch when the team goes super small. This year, if the team opts to go small, Stephenson will be thrust into the small forward role since he can guard some bigger players.

Even going further, Pierce and Johnson are capable of playing minutes at both forward spots for stretches of time. While Pierce’s defensive chops aren’t exactly up to snuff anymore, you can get by with him at either forward spot if he’s surrounded by guys like Stephenson and Smith. Speaking of Smith, his added value of being able to play both big man spots is a huge bonus. Last year, the team was stuck with Hawes or Davis having to do that job. Neither did it well. Davis was too small to be a rim protector and Hawes was too stone-footed to defend in space. This left the Clippers clamoring for help and it arrived in the form of Josh Smith, the man who effectively ended the team’s season just a few months ago. Smith is athletic enough to play the four and defensive enough to play the five. He’s a hybrid defender, much like Stephenson, and that helps the overall team aspect.

To a lesser degree, if he ever sees minutes, Dawson could do similar things defensively as Smith and Stephenson. While not tall, he is athletic and plays defense like his hair is on fire. Prigioni is a capable backup point guard for a few minutes a night, but the fact he can play there is fine because of guys like Rivers and Crawford – players who can man either guard spot. Wilcox is somewhat versatile in that he can play shooting guard in traditional lineups or small forward if the team opts to go small. He likely still won’t see considerable minutes, but having someone capable of doing the job is half the battle.

The team has still yet to name a starter at small forward, but it’s a three-way battle between Johnson, Pierce, and Stephenson. The idea behind playing Johnson there is that it’ll help keep the chemistry between the starters relatively steady since Pierce is likely to get days off on back-to-backs. Plus, like former starter Matt Barnes, Johnson is an athletic and lanky small forward who can at least compete defensively and all that’s required of him offensively is to stand in the corner and expect a pass when left wide open. Either way, no matter who the starter is the team will have plenty of options off the bench to switch things up and give teams a different look on any given night.

The roster turnover on the bench has been nothing short of extraordinary.

No matter who starts alongside them, the starting unit will be good because they feature a top trio in basketball – Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan – and a damn good complimentary piece in J.J. Redick. It allows the Clippers to be flexible in their lineups with the starters, as well. Griffin and Jordan can play even when teams go smaller. Griffin shot 70.1 percent last year inside of 8 feet when matched up against a smaller opponent. Teams will be paying for going small against the Clippers if the team throws the ball into him. Especially if the team is able to get into pick-and-roll sets with Griffin and Jordan. When a team has two players shooting above 70 percent against smaller opponents inside, it creates a situation where teams think twice before going small.

The Clippers can play with a big lineup and they can play with a small lineup. They can play with a hybrid lineup this year and they can play with a traditional lineup. The ability to do all sorts of amazing things with the lineup is evident in this 2015-16 Clippers squad. They can use Josh Smith as a three, four, or five. While playing the three is probably frowned upon, if they wanted to do it to counteract someone like Kevin Durant or LeBron James then it’d make some sense. Or, then again, that could be what they also have Lance Stephenson for. Nevertheless, the options are endless for the team.

Doc Rivers did a wonderful job this offseason attempting to turn the bench around. On paper, he has done it. On the court is another question. There is still a lot of ironing out to happen. It won’t come together seamlessly, but the pieces are there for the Clippers to wreak havoc on opponents who might not have the means to matchup with them. The San Antonio Spurs will attempt to probably play big a lot this season. The Clippers have the ability, due to personnel, to matchup with them. The Golden State Warriors like to play big and small. Los Angeles, for now, seems like they have the means to do the same. Other teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets will also try to go big and small throughout the year. Like with the others, the Clippers can match them. On the surface, the team seems to be going to level of versatility that was needed for a while. Whether or not it pays off will be anyone’s guess. For right now, though, things do look bright. But, as always, check back in six months.