This summer has been marked by less roster turnover than usual for the Clippers, a departure from previous offseasons. Could the focus on roster continuity reap benefits for them this season?
Here’s a chart from Bleacher Report’s Adam Fromal, showing the clear link between continuity and team success.
Of course, roster continuity isn’t the be-all, end-all of team construction. Correlation doesn’t always imply causation — teams aren’t good because they stay together, they stay together because they’re good. Bad teams shuffle their rosters and change things up in order to improve. There’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy in play here. However, there is additional value that comes in keeping a good team together. Time breeds familiarity and a kind of chemistry that usually can’t be obtained otherwise.
You can see its effect with the Clippers’ core group — in the military precision of J.J. Redick curling around Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan screens for handoffs or passes from Chris Paul, in the machine-like efficiency of Paul-Griffin pick-and-rolls, and in the thunderous alley-oops to DeAndre Jordan. Over the years, these actions have become sharper and sharper, drilled into their memories by hundreds and thousands of reps in practice and in games.
That being said, that group was always fantastic on offense, from their very first game. The real value of continuity might be found on the other end of the court. The best defenses are teams that have played together for a long time, allowing them to build a sort of “institutional knowledge” that teams with players less familiar with one another are unable to replicate. As Kirk Goldsberry muses, “Perhaps one of the most underrated components of defensive success in the NBA is having a group of guys who are familiar with both the system and each other.”
The Clippers have mostly kept the same core the past few years, but the rest of the roster has constantly been churning turnover. Compare them to some other selected teams from the last few years — unlike Oklahoma City, San Antonio, and Golden State (the last two seasons), they haven’t maintained as much continuity around their core.
Another, similar, way to measure continuity is by calculating the percentage of minutes played last season by players who remain on the roster this season. This is slightly different than Basketball-Reference’s method, but it allows us to include next season in our dataset.
Through this approach, we see that this year’s Clippers will have the most continuity of any team in the Chris Paul era, returning 81% of last year’s minutes. More importantly than the percentage of minutes is the number of players — the Clippers have nine returning players (six included in the chart, plus Wesley Johnson, Luc Mbah a Moute, and Paul Pierce), all of whom played over 1000 minutes last year. The Clippers returned nine players in 2015 as well, but only five played over 1000 minutes the previous season.
Compared to most years, the Clippers didn’t lose a lot of minutes either. Although they lost Jeff Green and Cole Aldrich, neither played 1000 minutes last season. In each of the previous four seasons, the Clippers lost at least two players who had played 1000 minutes the previous season. The last two seasons, they lost a player who had played 2000 minutes the previous season (Darren Collison and Matt Barnes, respectively).
Slow starts have plagued the Clippers the last two seasons, and a lack of continuity may have played some part in that. They’ll be integrating new pieces this year too (including Marreese Speights and Raymond Felton), but the overall turnover has been reduced compared to past years.
Compared to other Western playoff contenders, only the Jazz and Blazers return more of last year’s minutes than the Clippers do. However, the percentage of minutes played this year by players on last year’s teams will probably be lower for those two teams, due to higher-profile free agent signings (Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli for Portland; George Hill, Joe Johnson, and Boris Diaw for Utah). For once, the Clippers have more continuity and less upheaval than almost any of their fellow contenders.
Could increased continuity help them finally come out of the gates faster this year? It’ll likely be necessary if they want to overtake San Antonio for the second seed and an easier path to the Western Conference Finals.