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The Clippers’ Bench is Off to a Hot Start

Surprisingly, the second unit has made the difference so far.

It’s no secret that the Clippers’ depth has been the team’s weak link over the past several seasons. From the 2015 playoffs, when the team could only go 8-deep with Jamal Crawford, Austin Rivers, and Glen Davis, to last year, when nothing worked until Cole Aldrich replaced Josh Smith in the lineup. The struggle to find a real third big have failed, the struggle to find a single capable SF has fielded underwhelming results at best, and Crawford and Rivers, while both individually talented players, haven’t always meshed well as a duo.

Of the Clippers’ 7 lineups that played over 100 minutes last season, four had net ratings of +18 or more. Two others were also very good, at +7.5 and +11.2. The seventh lineup? Pablo Prigioni, Crawford, Rivers, Wesley Johnson, and Cole Aldrich, who turned in a -18.3 net rating—and that was after the bench unit upgraded from Smith to Aldrich and added Prigioni to take playmaking responsibilities away from Crawford and Rivers.

Doc Rivers has made the choice over time to not stagger with this core. While it’s definitely a questionable decision, it isn’t an insane one—the idea is that having one strong starting unit is a big enough positive that you’ll win if you can just limit how bad the bench is. This somewhat warped perspective on the issue because Doc was setting it up so that when the team loses, it was most likely going to be the bench’s fault. Staggering would in theory fix the problem of weak second units, but it would hurt your strong area—the starting lineup. I remain a strong advocate of staggering but Doc’s side of the story at least warrants explanation.

This pre-season, though, it looked like things were gonna be different. The makeup of Doc Rivers’ bench looked far less like an independent team and more like a collection of weapons to plug in with the starters. Newcomer Raymond Felton joined Rivers and Crawford as quality reserve guards who deserved playing time, and Marreese Speights seemed far more like an accent stretch big than the anchor of his own unit. Doc even admitted as much, trying out some staggering in pre-season games and openly discussing it with the press.

All was going according to plan in the Clippers’ opener. Austin Rivers came in for Luc Richard Mbah a Moute halfway through the first period. A minute later, Jamal Crawford replaced Chris Paul, and shortly after that Raymond Felton replaced J.J. Redick. This Felton-Crawford-Rivers unit played with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan for about two minutes, when Jordan was replaced by Speights, leaving Griffin on the floor with the bench. This is ultimately the point of staggering—to leave one of Paul/Griffin on the floor most of the time, if not all of the time.

When Griffin checked out near the end of the first quarter, it was presumably going to be for limited all-bench minutes before Paul’s return—after all, CP3 sat for almost 5 full minutes of game time to end the first quarter. Instead, the Clippers’ bench went on a 7-1 run in the final 1:39 of the first quarter. Then, they started the second quarter on a 9-0 run in the first three minutes before Chris Paul finally returned. Felton-Crawford-Rivers-Johnson-Speights went 16-1 in 4:39 of playing time. From there, it’s easy to see why Doc hasn’t staggered much in the early going.

Now, through 3 games and 33 minutes played, that bench unit has a net rating of +26.9, a number that is significantly higher than any of the Clippers’ high-usage lineups last year. This bench unit has been the third best lineup in the league (playing at least 33 minutes) in terms of net rating. In fact, they’re scoring 41.3 points per game, mostly coming from the three-headed monster of Crawford (13.7), Rivers (11.7) and Speights (9). The offense isn’t nearly as impressive as the defense has been, though.

There are plenty of reasons why this bench crew shouldn’t work on the floor. Speights isn’t a great interior defender, and playing him without another big man to help out is risky. The Clippers struggled to rebound last year when their second unit went small. Speights is also an incredibly high-usage player, which isn’t necessarily a problem on its own but creates issues when he’s paired with Jamal Crawford, who typically uses a lot of possessions.

It’s been surprising defensive contributions from Speights and Raymond Felton, however, that have really sparked this unit. Anyone who watches the Clippers knows that Austin Rivers is a solid and pesky defender, and Wesley Johnson’s length and awareness helps when he’s playing off the ball. But Speights and Felton aren’t supposed to be strong on that end, according to their reputations. Felton’s stellar ball denials against C.J. McCollum and Speights’ four-charge game against the Suns are pleasant surprises.

It isn’t clear how sustainable this success is, although with some individual slow starts offensively (Crawford is shooting 38.7% from the field and 11.1% from deep, Speights 31.8% and 25%, Johnson 33.3% and 28.6%), it seems like there is some room for this unit to get better, even as some other aspects drop off.

Ultimately, I think Doc Rivers will go back to staggering when this run ends, but sometimes an unexpected lineup clicks and it lasts all season long. Doc has been embracing this unusual bench grouping because it’s been working—and I’m sure that the second unit production is making him a happy man.