The idea has entered into the discussion recently, with three games left in the regular season, that Vinny Del Negro might consider resting some guys for the playoffs. It’s an unfamiliar quandary for the Clippers, but one that deserves some thought.
The first question is, what would be the goal? Inherent in the concept of resting key players is a willingness to lose basketball games. For the Clippers, that would mean a few things:
- Giving up on the 3rd seed. (They could still get it, but would be saying that it is not a priority). The Lakers, who have two games remaining (this afternoon at home against the Thunder and Thursday at Sacramento), currently lead the Clippers by a half a game. If they were to lose one of them, the Clippers could go undefeated in their last three (tonight against the Hornets, then Tuesday at Atlanta and Wednesday in New York) and seize the 3rd seed.
- Forfeiting whatever control they have over who they play in the first round. If the playoffs started today, the Grizzlies would be the 5th seed and the Nuggets are the 6th seed. Do the Clippers have any reason to be confident in playing one over the other? D.J. Foster has made the case for not wanting to face the Grizz, but Denver at full strength is certainly no pushover (and would’ve been even less of a pushover had they not traded away Nene). What complicates things is that the defending NBA Champion Mavericks sit in a virtual tie with the Nuggets for 6th. In other words, is there really an incentive to draw either of these teams in the 1st round? Especially if it comes at the cost of more strain on guys like Chris Paul and Blake Griffin?
- If for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, then the Clippers might be wise to consider the cost of voluntarily halting any momentum or cohesion they have built up during their recent streak of improved play. They remain flawed in some areas, but they have developed an ability to overcome those flaws by playing to their strengths. We talk about how a hot shooting performance from Randy Foye or Mo Williams or Caron Butler is not sustainable, but with all of them healthy, Del Negro does have a rotation of guys capable of filling in when the others aren’t getting the job done. Would resting guys, and subsequently messing with roles they have begun to establish, have an adverse effect on the rotation in the first round? Probably not, because these are professional athletes, many of whom have playoff experience. But you could also look at these last three games as an opportunity further cement whatever on-court chemistry they have built up over the last few weeks.
- Say the Clippers are OK with all of the above. They decide that the extra round of home court advantage that comes with the 3rd seed is not worth the price of possibly overextending their guys, that they find no particular advantage to playing Memphis or Dallas (or Denver), and that they are comfortable with the ability of their rotation to be in top form come Game 1 of the playoffs, regardless of who plays down the stretch. To make the strategy of resting guys work, you have to execute it. Does Chris Paul sit on the bench in one of his many exquisitely tailored suits, or does he dress and not play? Or maybe he dresses, plays his usual first quarter allotment, and then sits for the rest of the game. What about Blake Griffin? And when would this all start? Probably not tonight, because with so much up in the air, picking up a win against the Hornets would still be advisable. If Del Negro does decide to go this route for, say, the last two games, it will be interesting to see how it plays out.
There is always the opposite approach, after all, that says the Clippers could go into playoff mode early by shortening their rotation, rather than expanding it. (Side note: I, for one, am very curious to see how the minutes work out whenever this does happen. Will they go with an eight-man rotation of Paul, Foye, Williams, Young, Butler, Griffin, Jordan and Martin? Reggie Evans’ toughness and rebounding could help during the playoffs, but how many minutes will he see? Where does Bledsoe fit, if at all? Paul figures to be on the court a lot during the playoffs, and if we go by Del Negro’s substitution history, that doesn’t bode well for Bledsoe’s minutes.)
To say that these last few games could provide Del Negro the opportunity to work on things is probably dishonest, because frankly, he doesn’t seem to have many “things” to work on — the offense is driven by Chris Paul and some pick-and-roll, the defense reliant on hustle. But, in a more general sense, there is an argument to just play the guys who will be playing together in the playoffs, and let that chemistry continue to develop organically. You know, like giving the Paul-Bledsoe backcourt a shot. It’s a crazy idea, I know, but there is really very litte to lose and you might see something that could come in handy later on.