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Clippings: The evolution of the small lineup

The Clippers want to be versatile, and that means succeeding whether they’re playing big or small.

Utah Jazz v LA Clippers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

At the start of the season, Ty Lue and the Clippers only went small out of desperation. All of their bigs were healthy while they dealt with intermittent absences on the perimeter, so small lineups would get the rotation out of whack. Lue wanted the Clippers to have the option to play small, but they didn’t have the bodies or the practice time.

Now that the team’s perimeter players are once again available, small lineups have become more routine for the Clippers. They closed against the Jazz and the Nets with the small lineup and have sprinkled it in elsewhere, like in Minnesota. Even as the Clippers had some difficulty early on playing small, Lue recognized the long game, saying after the first Brooklyn game, “It’s a lineup that we gotta get used to playing with, get accustomed to it.”

The Clippers have now used a small lineup — essentially defined as Marcus Morris Sr. at center — for 221 possessions so far, per Cleaning the Glass, which accounts for about 7.5 percent of the team’s possessions excluding garbage time. During those minutes, the Clippers have outscored their opposition by 12.4 points per 100 possessions. That is almost double the team’s overall point differential.

The best iteration of the small lineup has the starters with Morris in place of Serge Ibaka. Lou Williams can take Patrick Beverley’s spot if need be, but Beverley gives the Clippers more defensive versatility. That’s what Lue is looking for with that group.

“I think it helps defensively as well, being able to switch 1 through 5 with that unit on the floor,” Lue said after the win over Utah, “and then it also opens up the floor for our drivers like PG and Kawhi to get downhill, and then we got spacing all the way around.”

Although Lue brought up defense first, the offense is what has carried that lineup. They’re scoring 133 points per 100 possessions, which makes up for the fact that they’re not defending all that well. The small Clippers foul too frequently, and they can’t rebound the ball to save their lives. In these units, the Clippers rebound only 22.1 percent of their misses while allowing opponents to collect 31.2 percent of their offensive boards. The cleanest example of that was DeAndre Jordan following up Kyrie Irving’s missed 3-pointer for the game-winner Sunday.

Rest assured Lue will continue to give the small lineups opportunities to play together to work out the kinks before the playoffs. The Clippers are stocked with above-average rebounders, so that’s a weakness they should be able to address moving forward.

As Beverley has said, “We might be small in size, but we’re not small in heart, for sure.”

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