The Los Angeles Clippers completely overhauled their supporting roster over the off-season, signing seven new players (not including rookie second round pick Branden Dawson). With four of five starters and sixth man Jamal Crawford more or less etched in stone, there were still going to be lots of minutes to spread between the new-comers: Lance Stephenson, Josh Smith, Paul Pierce, Wesley Johnson, Cole Aldridge, Pablo Prigioni and Luc Richard Mbah-a-Moute.
Mbah-a-Moute wasn't even supposed to be on the team of course. He was signed at the start of camp after his contract with Sacramento fell through, and he had to beat out veteran Chuck Hayes for the 15th spot.
The marquee signings were Pierce (a future Hall-of-Famer at the end of his career), Stephenson (just a year removed from a key starting role on an Eastern Conference power) and Smith (a player who had signed a $14M contract just two years earlier). The others seemed like nice enough additions, better than your typical 12th-15th man, but not guys who were expected to make major contributions.
In the first 15 games of the season, Clippers coach Doc Rivers experimented with his rotations, but Smith and Stephenson featured heavily based almost entirely on their reputations. The simple fact is that Stephenson had been among the worst players in the NBA last season in Charlotte and it was looking increasingly as if his one good season in Indiana was the outlier and not the norm. Meanwhile, Smith had always been a maddening player but it took a very bold Stan Van Gundy to finally point out that the emperor had no clothes, that while he looked very much like a basketball player, he was not a very good one. Van Gundy waived Smith in Detroit, eating many millions in salary to be rid of him, and the Pistons almost immediately became a better team.
Guess what? In Los Angeles the Clippers opened the season 7-8, a dreadful start for a team with very high expectations. And more or less at the very moment that Rivers removed Stephenson and Smith from the lineup, the results got significantly better.
Remember Mbah-a-Moute? The guy who barely made the team? Sixteen games into the season, LRMaM had played 61 minutes, most of them in garbage time and the team was a disappointing 8-8. Rivers then put LRMaM into the starting lineup, and the Clippers are 18-6 since.
In addition to LRMaM as starter, Rivers has also found regular rotation minutes for Prigioni and Aldrich at this point, with Stephenson and Smith being relegated to the very end of the bench. Smith had already fallen out of the rotation when Blake Griffin was injured -- Rivers tried Smith as the starter in the first game without Griffin, gave him five minutes, and he wasn't heard from again for a couple of weeks. If Dawson weren't in the D-League currently, one wonders if Smith would have played even with Griffin and DeAndre Jordan out the last two games.
Rivers is getting some credit currently for finding a group that is playing well, but isn't the question, "What took so long?" Why did it take a month to realize that Stephenson and Smith weren't working? To at least try something else?
Rivers is certainly not the only NBA coach who has been seduced by a guy who LOOKS like an NBA player. Length is catnip to coaches, and both Stephenson and Smith have that. Both also have the ability to do spectacular things, but you'd think that a coach, who has to watch all of the other bonehead stuff in between every day, would be immune to that sort of thing. LRMaM's highlight reel will never be as long as Josh Smith's -- but Luc won't make the 20-something mistakes each game either.
There might even be a little ageism and racism going on here. Aldrich is white. Prigioni is white and old. Neither particularly fits the artist sketch of an NBA player.
But it turns out, there's a difference between looking like a good basketball player and actually being a good basketball player.
LRMaM, Prigioni and Aldrich don't do anything spectacular; but they rarely make mistakes. They understand the game, they position themselves well, they move the ball, and they always play within themselves. They are the anti-Smith and Stephenson.
The Clippers' recent 10-game winning streak certainly had at least as much to do with a string of poor and injury riddled opponents as it did with Luc Richard Mbah-a-Moute, Pablo Prigioni and Cole Aldrich, but there's also little doubt that the team, especially the second unit, has been significantly better since they started getting regular minutes. When Rivers stopped chasing a dream of a prototypical NBA ideal (and more specifically, the dream of stretch fours and playmakers at every position) and instead played a couple of guys who happened to be very good at old-fashioned pick and roll basketball, the team almost immediately righted itself. Go figure.
Wes Johnson is another interesting case in point. He's another guy who "looks" better than he actually plays. He was a lottery pick because he looks like the prototypical NBA small forward and has great shooting mechanics. But the ball doesn't go in the basket nearly enough, and Wes was never cut out to be the star that "fourth pick in the draft" demands. Wes has become a useful NBA player as he has embraced a role and accepted that he is not a star. Johnson is still a key part of the Clippers rotation because he understands his role.
To their credit, Stephenson and Smith have been good teammates since losing minutes, and Smith was ready and played hard when called on in the absence of Griffin and Jordan the last couple of games. Both Stephenson and Smith will almost certainly be important at some point this season and a team could do much worse than to have two such talented players buried so deep on the bench.
But one wonders how many potentially good NBA players never got a real chance in the league simply because they didn't look the part. Clipper fans can only be thankful that Luc and Pablo and Cole got their chance this season.