The Clippers frontcourt keeps taking hits.
The team traveled to Orlando without their two starting bigs, Ivica Zubac and Marcus Morris, and there is no update for when the pair will be able to join the team. The front office made the conscious decision to leave behind two younger bigs in Mfiondu Kabengele and Johnathan Motley, opting to prioritize medical staff in the traveling party. And now, Montrezl Harrell is stepping away from the bubble for a family matter.
That means the Clippers have three bigs left on their roster in JaMychal Green, Joakim Noah, and Patrick Patterson. Although that may be enough for a frontcourt rotation during games, that limits the team during practice, and the choice to not bring Kabengele and Motley seems a little less than ideal now.
Nevertheless, every team will have to deal with unexpected personnel situations during the restart, and the Clippers are no different. These absences will simply give the opportunity for others to step up — one player who should be able to assume a larger role is Green.
Green was the surprise star of the postseason last year for the Clippers. The decision to utilize Green exclusively as a small-ball center rather than playing him next to Harrell as the four unleashed new possibilities for the Clippers, making their offense a challenge to guard even for the Golden State Warriors. Green ended up starting the final three games at the five for L.A., and his spacing was integral for the Clippers, not to mention his overall energy level.
Green was on fire from beyond the arc at the start of the regular season, highlighted by hitting four threes on opening night against the Lakers. Doc Rivers went with Green at the five against Utah in the team’s fifth game to spread Rudy Gobert out, and he was quite complimentary of Green’s performance.
“Where he’s really effective is last night obviously we moved him to the five, and when you have a drop five like a Gobert, and you bring in a shooting five like JaMychal, it pays dividends for us for sure,” Rivers said after that Jazz game.
But playing Green at center that game was almost a one-off. The team hasn’t really gone to that well during the regular season, only playing Green at center for 92 possessions through the first 64 games, which accounts for about 4% of Green’s playing time.
There are plenty of reasons for the Clippers to go that route. They have two ace centers again in Zubac and Harrell, who have combined to miss just one game all season. Furthermore, with the amount of injuries and other absences the Clippers have sustained to their perimeter players, they needed Green at forward instead of moving him to center.
But limiting Green to power forward reduces the Clippers’ lineup flexibility, something Rivers noticed during the hiatus. He told reporters during April that the team didn’t go small often enough, even though the small lineups were lethal. He doubled down on that this week.
“We just have so many lineups that we really never — we used them, we just didn’t have enough time to work on them,” Rivers said Wednesday. “One of the things we were just talking about before is because we’re together for this long, the uniqueness of having two and three and four weeks to work on things, obviously you’ve got to have health and all your players to do that, but playing four smalls with one big, playing all five smalls. We did it during the season, we just didn’t do it a lot and we didn’t work on it at all.”
There’s an important caveat in there about being healthy and having players available to practice flexible lineups, but at this point, small lineups are just about the only thing the Clippers can practice. They can play Green at center, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George at the forward spots, and maybe Lou Williams and Patrick Beverley at the guards. Reggie Jackson could also warrant an argument in the backcourt. That’s a lineup that has spacing at every position and tenacious wing defense, a combination that would be hard to beat. It also enables Leonard and George to play at the 4, something that has only happened on 9.2% of the Clippers possessions. Those lineups are just as lethal as Rivers suggested, outscoring opponents by 10.2 points per 100 possessions.
Noah will likely be the team’s default five until the roster is whole again, because it’s the only position he can play, but the Clippers need to see what they have in Green. No one’s expecting him to completely replicate his production from last year, when a hot shooting stretch (41.3% from beyond the arc after the trade) made him the apple of every Clipper fan’s eye. But it would wise for the Clippers to at least put Green in similar situations to be comfortable. Green admitted that he has gone back and watched his clips from last year’s postseason to try to remind himself of the “feel” he had for the game then.
The Clippers won’t need to play Green at the five in the early rounds of the playoffs, provided their other bigs make it to Orlando. Their normal big lineup has enough talent to overwhelm most other opponents. But certain matchups, like the Bucks, might require a different look, and that’s where Green comes in. His ability to space the floor without compromising the team’s rebounding make him unique on this roster. The Clippers have an advantage here. They might as well use it.