Three weeks into a season that has seen Golden State’s Kevin Durant experiment up and running, Cleveland looking better than ever and Westbrook and Harden putting up mind-boggling numbers, your LA Clippers have unexpectedly emerged as the league’s top story.
For years the conversation surrounding the Clippers has grown somewhat stale, they’ve been who they are–Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, J.J. Redick, various pieces of flotsam and Jamal Crawford–for the last three years. There hasn’t been much else to say about them other than ponder if they’ll ever make it two rounds into the playoffs completely healthy again.
And yet the Clippers 10-1 start has been so dominant they’ve become impossible to ignore. And while the starting unit seems to have achieved a new level of cohesion, it’s the bench play that has people thinking about the Clippers again. It’s a testament to the play of the starters that the bench enjoys the luxury of checking in up 20 on a semi-regular basis. But whereas in years past the likes of Josh Smith, Nate Robinson and Lance Stephenson would squander these sizable leads in breathtaking fashion, the core bench unit of Austin Rivers, Raymond Felton, Jamal Crawford, Wesley Johnson and Marreese Speights have helped build on them.
Doc Rivers has been notoriously stubborn for years about staggering his best players (namely Chris Paul and Blake Griffin), placing a higher value on keeping one of the deadliest starting lineups in the league intact for as much of the game as possible. Conversely, the Clippers have lacked a bench that didn’t start bleeding the moment three or more starters left the game since Rivers took over the team, making it impossible to commit fully to the kind of five-man hockey substitution pattern he tends to favor.
The mad scramble for short-term solutions has led the Clippers through a revolving door of decrepit stars, maligned talents and former Clipper killers. For as much as Rivers and the Clippers prioritized consistency when it came to keeping the core of the starting lineup intact, no such care has been shown to the construction of the bench.
That changed this past offseason, when the Clippers decided to re-sign Austin Rivers, Wesley Johnson and Jamal Crawford to multi-year deals. And it’s perhaps because of this that the Clippers bench is finally thriving. Rivers, Crawford and Johnson logged 679 minutes together last season to lackluster results (-5.6 net rating), but those minutes were the most three bench players have spent with each other on the court in a season in the last four years, and the benefits are finally being realized. The inclusion of newcomers Marreese Speights and Raymond Felton helps round out a Clippers bench unit that is outscoring its opponents by 14.6 points per 100 possessions, a net rating that would put them amongst the five best lineups in the league with at least 75 minutes logged.
What remains now is to see how sustainable these numbers are long term. History tells us that it’s unlikely, especially the 91.1 defensive rating. No lineup anchored by Marreese Speights and featuring Jamal Crawford will be that exceptional on defense over the course of a season. The offense, sitting right now at 105.8 points per 100 possessions, will also likely come down to earth. Austin Rivers still vehemently believes and plays like he’s much better than he is, as his 19 percent usage rate and unsightly 6.6 PER indicates. Felton’s true shooting percentage (by far the highest of his career) will likely plummet.
But there’s a sense of cohesion about the Clippers bench on both sides of the ball that’s been absent in years past, when the team continually chased veteran minimum panaceas. In Speights the Clippers have finally found a stretch five that can actually hit threes (looking at you Byron Mullens, and you Spencer Hawes, and especially you, Josh Smith) and is giving Rivers and Felton room to operate. Jamal Crawford remains as capable of scoring in isolation as he has been since time immemorial and Wesley Johnson has slowly morphed into the kind of Swiss army knife defender that the league has begun to covet in recent years.
Even if the bench regresses to merely passable on both sides of the ball, it would remain far and away the best bench unit the Clippers have had during the Doc Rivers era. And for a team with a starting lineup as good as the Clippers have, that might be all it takes to get to the next step.
The continuity of the starting lineup has stood in stark contrast to the erraticism of the bench for years. But in Rivers, Felton, Johnson, Crawford and Speights, the Clippers may have finally found another unit worth investing in.