Fall officially begins in a week, bringing with it (as always) a few reliable constants — the leaves changing color, pumpkin spice returning to stores nationwide, and people talking about how deep the Clippers are this year.
Once again, a new slew of additions joins the pool of former hopefuls, players who were supposed to put the Clips over the top but never panned out: Lance Stephenson, Josh Smith, Spencer Hawes, Jordan Farmar, Jared Dudley, Byron Mu– okay, forget that last one. The point still stands, though; we expected the Clippers to have great bench play going into both of the last two seasons, and both years the second unit came nowhere near meeting expectations.
With 15 guaranteed contracts currently on the roster, the Clippers seem locked into this group headed into the year, barring an 11th-hour-change-of-heart from Paul Pierce. Just how deep do they go right now? What'll be the pecking order among the incoming veterans? We can kill two birds with one Stone, and answer both questions by ranking all the current players from 1-15.
This'll be the first installment in a three-part series running this week. Today, we'll be sussing out the back end of the roster, ranking players #15-#11. It includes players who might never see meaningful minutes this year, and ones that might end up being crucial postseason contributors.
15. Diamond Stone
If Stone sees the floor this year for meaningful minutes, it'll have meant that something's gone horribly wrong. He's the sixth-best big man on a title-contending team, with a coach who's known for letting rookies ride the pine, in a league that's playing fewer and fewer bigs and going small small often. He's a bad defender, even by rookie standards, and everything he does on offense Marreese Speights does better.
Expect Stone to rack up the frequent flyer miles this year, traveling back and forth between Los Angeles and whichever D-League teams pick him up on assignment. Don't expect him to be anything more than a bird-killer in the future.
14. Paul Pierce
I actually think Pierce will bounce back this year, if only ever so slightly. It won't be enough to change his position on this list, though.
Here's some of the Clippers' most-used lineups last year (not including Blake or bench-only lineups). Notice anything?
Any of the groups that played with Pierce got better whenever he was swapped out for another wing. It's hard to understate just how bad he was last year. The indelible Pierce moment last year was him getting beaten out for an offensive rebound and putback by his man.
Bellyache all you want about Josh Smith and Lance Stephenson, but the real reason the Clippers bench improved so much midseason is because Pierce was moved to the starting lineup, where he could be hidden and covered for to some extent by better teammates. He was without a doubt the worst rotation player on the team.
This is the kind of thing that doesn't always jump out immediately in things such as on-off metrics, because it lacks context — after Christmas, Pierce almost exclusively played with the starting lineup, boosting his differential and obscuring his actual value.
But before he replaced Blake Griffin in the starting lineup, the numbers tell a very different story. He had by far the worst on-court net rating (-10.4) and the best off-court net rating (+8.1) of any player on the team. The Clippers were a jaw-dropping 18.5 points/100 possessions better with him on the bench than on the floor — even more impressive when you consider that over this stretch, they were only +2.4 as a team.
Doc's refusal to bench Pierce was infuriating, especially in the playoffs, where Doc went 11 deep and sat Wesley Johnson for key stretches in order to get Pierce time, costing them dearly in crucial Games 3 and 4. Thankfully, everything Doc has said this summer points to Pierce falling out of the rotation this season. In his appearance on Adrian Wojnarowski's podcast, he almost sounded like he'd be happier if Pierce retired.
I'm not sure if the Clippers made any move or internal improvement this summer that will have a bigger positive impact than Doc benching Pierce. It doesn't matter where he ends up on these rankings, so long as Doc finally wises up and doesn't have him in his top 10 either.
13. Brice Johnson
A lot of what's been said about Diamond Stone applies to Brice Johnson as well. Rookie bigs are rarely, if ever good defenders, and Brice wasn't projected to be great on that end to begin with. He was drafted as a safety blanket preparing for the worst in free agency, but then the Clippers front office went out and got both Speights and Brandon Bass on minimum contracts, turning Brice into yet another punchline to jokes about Doc Rivers and rookies, or Doc Rivers and draft picks, or GM D– anyways, let him do some time in the D-League and then give him some garbage time run to see what he can do.
Brice is better than Paul Pierce, but there's a big gap between him and the top 12 on this roster.
12. Alan Anderson
Anderson's season never really got off the ground last year, derailed by ankle and hamstring ailments. If he's healthy, he could move up this list and carve himself a place in the rotation. He's a solid enough defender, if a bit undersized at the 3, and a fairly average three-point shooter, a jack-of-all-trades sort who makes teams better when he's on the floor by doing the little things. The 41-41 Wizards were 7-4 when he was in the rotation, and he led the entire team in on-court net rating (+5.7) — although there's a lot of randomness in that small of a sample size, and a lot of confounding factors in play.
He'll be turning 34 before the season starts, so expecting him to return to the level he was at in his last healthy season in Brooklyn in 2015 might be a tall order, even though he's playing on a much better team. While he might be able to carve a out a role for himself in the rotation, I'm not sure there's much he does that LRMAM and WeJo don't already do better.
11. Raymond Felton
The Clippers have 11 players right now who all deserve consistent rotation minutes, all bets are off right now as to who ends up the odd man out. There's a lingering worry that Wes Johnson will get undeservingly shafted like he did last year behind Pierce, but his contact might keep him safe this time around. It'll come down to Speights, Felton, and Brandon Bass. Felton-Rivers-Crawford-Johnson-Speights, Felton-Rivers-Crawford-Johnson-Bass, and Rivers-Crawford-Johnson-Bass-Speights are all intriguing second units, but I expect Doc to veer towards the three-guard lineups that he appears to be quite fond of.
I've been a big Felton fan for years, but I have to admit I wasn't completely thrilled by the news of the signing. As I said at the time:
As good of a backup point guard as the Clippers could reasonably get at the minimum. Fans will grow to love him, but his presence doesn't really complement the Rivers/Crawford backcourt that well. He hasn't traditionally been a pure pass-first point and his outside shot is highly questionable at best.
Felton is fearless driving into the paint (as seen in his 21-point outing against the Clippers in April) and is no stranger to the high lob pass off a pick-and-roll. And he's a massive improvement over Pablo Prigioni, who was beloved but highly overrated by Clippers fans last year. Prigioni was not-so-secretly the worst player on this team other than Pierce; his unwillingness to shoot limited his offensive viability while his age and size was a detriment defensively. While Felton is no spring chicken himself, he's significantly more spry and should improve a bench that's been mediocre on offense the last few years. I can't speak so confidently about the defense, although he's not quite as bad as his days with FARTDOG might suggest.
Ultimately, the fate of this year's bench lies more with the two new bigs... who we'll rate and dissect in the next installment.