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Dilemma: Staggering the Clippers’ Stars

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Throughout the Doc Rivers Era in Los Angeles, Clipper fans have become accustomed to a familiar substitution pattern: like clockwork, the star-studded starting lineup substitutes out entirely for the not-so-star-studded bench lineup. Are the Clippers the only ones doing this? And more importantly, does it win games?

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Sacramento Kings Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

Setting the Stage

First, some background: If you follow our official Twitter account, you might have noticed that we quite literally beg Doc Rivers to stagger the starters more. That is, to pull some starters early, so that they can be brought back in early, thus ensuring that at ALL times during the game, at least one Clippers starter is on the court. The Clippers don't do this much, and so we often see stretches where the Clippers bench unit is playing against one or more opposing starters. Most of our writers share this sentiment, but none of us have been part of an NBA coaching staff or were former NBA players (that I'm aware of, though Raffo and Zhiv are pretty mysterious), so our opinions should be taken with a grain of salt. Generally, our thought process is that there's a huge disparity between the differential statistics for the Clippers starters versus the Clippers bench, and that disparity could be addressed by mixing up the lineups.

For some reference, here is the statistical +/- differential when the 5-man squads are on the court (a.k.a. what I'm referring to as "differential statistics") for the Clippers' starting and bench units, from basketball-reference.com:

  • Starters (Paul, Redick, Mbah a Moute, Griffin, Jordan) 699 minutes: Per game, they're +12 points, +7% from the field, +2% from three, +12 free throw attempts, +2 rebounds, +5 assists, +3 steals, +2 blocks, and -4 fouls.
  • Bench (Felton, Rivers, Crawford, Johnson, Speights) 251 minutes: Per game, they're about even with points, -1% from the field, -8% from three, -3 free throw attempts, -5 rebounds, -1 assist, +2 steals, +1 blocks, and +2 fouls.

Yeah, side-by-side it doesn't look so great. And for further comparison, here are the Cavs and Warriors starters:

  • Cavs (Irving, Smith, James, Love, T.Thompson) 319 minutes: Per game, they're +9 points, about even from the field, +10% from three, +4 free throw attempts, -1 rebound, -2 assists, +0.5 steals, +0.2 blocks, and -3 fouls.
  • Warriors (Curry, K.Thompson, Durant, Dr.Green, Pachulia) 532 minutes: Per game, they're +24 points, +8% from the field, +11% from three, +4 free throw attempts, +4 rebounds, +13 assists, +2 steals, +2 blocks, -2 fouls.

Not that different from the Clippers' starters, as expected. So what about their bench squads? Well, the Warriors' most frequently played lineup that doesn't include any starters has only played 29 minutes and is their 14th most-used lineup. And the Cavs don't even have a lineup that doesn't include one of their Big 3 (much less any of the other starters). Heck, looking at some other elite teams, the Spurs' full-bench lineup has only played 73 minutes and the Rockets are like the Cavs, always keeping a starter on the floor. The Clippers, meanwhile, have given the second most minutes of any lineup to their all-bench unit. Injuries, of course, certainly played a hand in that, but it's still a startling difference.

Now, I want to reiterate: all of this isn't to say that the Clippers are making a mistake by playing their bench such heavy minutes. How should I know? I'm just painting the picture here, and showing that the Clippers seem to be something of an oddity in the league right now. The real question is whether there's any merit to this strategy of going "full bench" for large portions of the game, and if it's just an oddity within this small group of elite teams I'm focusing on.

Substitution Patterns

While searching for an answer, my thoughts went immediately went to substitution patterns. I'd seen some great graphics on Twitter that showed substitution patterns of teams, so I went hunting in Reddit and stumbled upon a fantastic analysis tool created by Alex Wainger: http://alexwainger.github.io/NBASubstitutionPatterns/ (Seriously, check it out. It's awesome. And Alex is awesome for letting me use this in my article. You rock, dude.)

Using this tool, one can see the substitution patterns for each team, going back to the 2012-13 season. For the Clippers, every single year has an ongoing trend: Chris, Blake, DJ, and JJ all sub in and out together. Compared to the Warriors and Cavs, it paints (quite literally) a completely different picture:

As you can see, nobody goes as deep or gives as many minutes to bench players as consistently as the Clippers do. A big reason is likely related to the Clippers' health, and their desire not to repeat last year's injury-fest in the playoffs. They want to be healthy at the most important time, and who can blame them?

So if injury concerns and health in the playoffs is a key factor here, then it's worth looking at the substitution patterns of some of the league's best teams over the past few years. For the sake of keeping this from getting too cluttered, let's just keep this focused on the top 3 teams, plus the Clippers, from each of those years.

2013

In 2012-13, the Clippers (still under Vinny Del Negro) were already going "full bench" for large periods of the 2nd and 4th quarters. Meanwhile the James-Wade-Bosh Era Miami Heat would rest Wade/Bosh early, leaning on LeBron through the entire 1st/3rd quarters, then bring in Wade/Bosh back early in the 2nd/4th quarters, so there was never a lapse in star-power. Textbook staggering. The Spurs overlapped a lot of bench time with starter time, and with a lot of variability and very little predictability with lineups. On the surface, the Thunder seem to have been most similar to the Clippers, but if you look closely Durant always came back very early in the 2nd/4th quarters, minimizing the time without star-power (Editor’s Note: Durant could do this because he was young and his body could take a lot of minutes, but then again, Blake and DJ were pups back then too).

2014

While injuries to Redick and Paul muddied the waters a bit, this was the Clippers' most stagger-heavy year, and Doc's first year with the team. Unfortunately, the staggering was with starter Jared Dudley (and later Matt Barnes), rather than with Griffin, Jordan, or Paul. This was also the "Tribe Called Bench" year, so there wasn't much complaining about going "full bench." Looking at the other teams, the Heat once again staggered Wade and James very clearly in the 2nd/4th quarters. The Spurs did go bench-heavy in the 2nd quarter this year, but the end of the game went back to the unpredictable Popovich lineups that are so difficult to plan for defensively. And for the Thunder, this was the year Westbrook got hurt, so staggering wasn't as easy. But with the emergence of Reggie Jackson, he took on Westbrook's role in the stagger, to a certain extent.

2015

In Doc's second year, he went "full bench" just as much, but wasn't consistent with who he chose due to their unreliability. And any of Doc's rare staggers were never with Blake Griffin or Chris Paul; they were with Barnes, Redick, or Jordan. Clearly Doc wanted his All Stars fresh for the end of each half, but staggering the non-All-Star-starters kind of defeats the purpose of staggering in the first place. All three of the Warriors, Hawks, and Rockets seemed to have similar substitution patterns, staggering exit times of key starters in the 1st/3rd quarters, to allow them to come back early in the 2nd/4th quarters.

2016

Last year, again the rotation was altered due to Blake Griffin's injury/suspension, but Doc continued the "full bench" lineups regardless. The Warriors continued to stagger starters in their historic 73-win season, but this time stretched Curry/Green's 1st/3rd quarter minutes to coincide with Barnes/Thompson's 2nd/4th quarter early returns, allowing them to cut "full bench" time down nearly in half to 42 total minutes. The Spurs seemed to have less staggering last year, relying more heavily on the bench. But this was largely due to significantly decreased minutes for Tim Duncan in his final season in the NBA, and significant bench roles for talented bench players Patty Mills, David West, and Boris Diaw. The Cavs staggered James/Irving/Love in the exact same pattern as James' Miami Heat, replacing Wade/Bosh with Irving/Love.

The Stagger Dilemma

If you're hoping for a definitive answer to the question of "Should the Clippers stagger?" you're not going to get one. But this brief study in the substitution patterns of various elite teams has led me to a few insights:

  1. The Clippers' substitution pattern is clearly not the norm among elite teams. The other teams all seem to stagger, at least to some extent, and when healthy the Clippers clearly do not.
  2. When player rotations are staggered, the players who come out early in the 1st/3rd quarters and come back early in the 2nd/4th quarters typically have to play long stretches at once where they're often the focal point of a defense. This can be exhausting for players.
  3. There may be an impact on substitution patterns by certain players, not just coaches. It's probably not a coincidence both of LeBron's teams shared the same substitution patterns, or that Paul/Griffin's Clippers teams have always had the same pattern despite a major coaching change.

So, when thinking about whether the Clippers should stagger, we should also consider that we've seen both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin gassed at the end of a game, and considerably less effective as a result. Taking into account the three points above, the Clippers' substitution patterns may be by design, and might even be something the players have specifically requested. I mean, no one knows how the players will react to a substitution rotation change better than the players themselves.

Final Thoughts

History shows that the teams that win a lot of games and ultimately the NBA championship have talent, and that they do what they can to try and keep that talent on the floor as long and as long as possible. Perhaps the Clippers can buck that trend—they've already shown that their starting group is one of the best in the NBA, and that barring injury (and the 2015 -collapse-that-shall-not-be-named) the Clippers have been able to compete with and beat the best in the postseason. Plus, the playoffs are a different animal together, with extra days of rest between games and less severe travel schedules. "Full bench" sequences will likely diminish (at least a bit), with that extra rest. And at points during the year we've seen various members of the bench have huge month-long stretches of pure excellence. So if the team can be the best version of itself come playoff time, we'll be in for a treat, regardless of whether Doc Rivers staggers or not.