Last year, the Clippers had quite a busy off-season.
By opening night, eight new Clippers were on the team's 15-man roster, and seven of them--all but second round draft pick Branden Dawson--would play major minutes. One mid-season acquisition, Jeff Green, was also a major piece. All in all, newcomers played 7,790 minutes last season. The year before? Just 3,442--less than half.
Lance Stephenson, Jeff Green, Wesley Johnson, and Luc Mbah a Moute shared time at small forward and backup power forward over the course of the season, and a rotating cast of unassimilated options wasn't the most stable arrangement.
Cole Aldrich was a spectacular backup center, but it took the Clippers until mid-December to turn away from Josh Smith in the rotation and give Cole a shot. With a team that already had defined roles, the Clippers could have had 27 more games of their best players on the floor--and 27 less games of blown leads by a bench unit missing a true anchor. How many more games would have been saved if the Clippers had known what they had? They wouldn't have spent as much time on the Lance Stephenson experiment, and they wouldn't have taken to long to give Luc Mbah a Moute run.
Next season, it will be different. So far, the Clippers' entire roster is made up of returners and draft picks. They have just one open roster spot left that will likely go to their first new free agent--a veteran big man. That's not quite as hard to assimilate as half of your roster.
Here's what a preliminary rotation looks like:
Point Guard: Chris Paul--32, Austin Rivers--16
Shooting Guard: J.J. Redick--28, Jamal Crawford--16, Austin Rivers--4
Small Forward: Luc Richard Mbah a Moute--20, Wesley Johnson--20, Jamal Crawford--8
Power Forward: Blake Griffin--34, Brice Johnson--14
Center: DeAndre Jordan--34, ???--14
That's not bad. Everywhere you look in that rotation except for the backup big men, you know exactly what you have, and that's incredibly valuable. It doesn't hurt that both Mbah a Moute and Johnson both played significant minutes at power forward last season, meaning that the Clippers will have different options for familiar lineups in their second unit.
But for the Clippers, this continuity is more than a boon or a nice advantage. It's a necessity. Last season, this team won 53 games and finished fourth in the Western Conference. Typically, we've seen the Clippers fill their off-season with several gambles or flashy moves in an attempt to drastically upgrade the roster: first, Jamal Crawford, then players like Spencer Hawes and Lance Stephenson. Until this year's signing of Wesley Johnson, the Matt Barnes/Darren Collison split was the most modest usage of the mid-level exception that Doc Rivers has opted for. Even Collison was the type of player that's been present throughout the last few years: veterans taking paycuts to gamble on themselves for one year, and then bolting for more money the following summer. Collison left, as have players like Cole Aldrich and even Danny Granger. Others have come to make a last-ditch effort to revive their career, such as Byron Mullens, Antawn Jamison, Glen Davis, and Hedo Turkoglu. Even though it didn't work out for those guys, it was the same type of signing.
Next season will be the first time in the Doc Rivers era that the Clippers will return such a large portion of their rotation. There isn't the same potential upside of a September signing like Matt Barnes becoming a three-year starter or a minimum-salaried third-stringer like Cole Aldrich becoming one of the best backup centers in the league. The Clippers' supporting cast and depth will be almost all known quantities and developmental youth. Instead of hoping that a long shot like Josh Smith has a great year, the Clippers will be hoping that another year in the system and another training camp together helps the existing core mesh and improve internally.
In many ways, this conservative approach is as much of a risk as a more daring one. If the Clippers disappoint, it could be said that they didn't even make an effort to acquire a small forward with the potential to serve as an upgrade and a fit, that they didn't make a move to fix the broken reserve backcourt pairing of Rivers and Crawford, that they found no suitable option for reserve big men. Instead, being content to run it back with average or sub-par solutions to these issues is sure to be a contentious issue in the fanbase.
In the moment, however, this path makes as much sense as any. It would have been next to impossible for the Clippers to add quality outside help in the absurdly bloated market that we've seen this summer, meaning that any high-upside gambles they could have made would have been the incredibly risky moves we've seen before: a comeback from a serious injury, a resurgence after a horrible year, a last-ditch effort by an aging journeyman.
Health, growth, and continuity. That's the mantra this season.