Clippers are ready to go small-ball, and it could work


Jul 21, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers players pose with jerseys at press conference at Staples Center. From left: Branden Dawson (22), DeAndre Jordan (6), Austin Rivers (25), coach Doc Rivers and Josh Smith (5), Cole Aldrich (45), Paul Pierce (34) and Wesley Johnson (33). Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

After what can only be described as a devastating loss for the Los Angeles Clippers in another dreaded attempt at defeating the second round of the playoffs, Doc Rivers knew that he had to make some changes. From completing signings to actually giving his team a bench to bringing back DeAndre Jordan when all hope seemed lost, Doc couldn’t let this summer pass without going for it. And that’s what he did. With a bold trade for Lance Stephenson and signing the man who helped down his Clippers in that second round struggle against the Houston Rockets (Josh Smith), Doc has added much needed depth and versatility to a team searching for a chance to raise their ceiling.

The Clippers have several new players who can all play at multiple positions, and with that kind of versatility comes a great deal of opportunity. Whether Doc utilizes an all-out athletic lineup with Austin Rivers, Stephenson, Wesley Johnson, Smith and Blake Griffin, or uses a complete small-ball lineup, the Clippers can attack their opponents in ways that they haven’t been able to before.

We know that Chris Paul and Griffin can do, but where has their support been? Other than J.J. Redick’s constant killer shooting and the occasional big night from Jamal Crawford, there’s been nobody in the Clippers’ near non-existent second unit to support the star players.

Until now. Because with their new signings, the Clippers can experiment. Or, to be fashionable, they can adopt a small-ball lineup at times to give Lob City a whole new look for what could be the best season in franchise history.

We won’t get ahead of ourselves, but there’s the potential for that to happen. That is, if players like Stephenson and Smith don’t dive-bomb in their new surroundings. Although, it’s unlikely that will happen with so much more talent and a great coach by their side.

Dec 19, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers talks with his team before the game against the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center. The Nuggets won 109-106. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Aside for the possibility to use various lineups and reduce the playing time of his stars, Doc can unleash one of the most athletic small-ball lineups in the league. Even when Paul is still on the floor, Doc can utilize other role players with a potential lineup featuring Stephenson at shooting guard, Paul Pierce at small forward, Smith at power forward and Griffin at center. Equally, when discussing the Clippers’ options and new signings, Doc has now eluded to his plan of using Smith at center.

In a recent interview with Dan Woike of the Orange County Register, Doc detailed his thought process behind what the Clippers have achieved in an offseason that deserves some recognition:

"“The whole goal was we needed multiple positions,” Rivers said. “I wanted the second unit to be guard-less, meaning Austin isn’t a point guard, Lance isn’t a point guard, Jamal’s not a point guard. But all of them can dribble. Josh can dribble. That was our goal. We wanted four (guys). If we could somehow come up with five in the second unit where they literally could all bring the ball up, the versatility they create for that unit … We can play a unit of Josh and Paul at four and five and Lance, Jamal and Austin.“That’s just chaotic. Who do you guard? Paul will just stand out by the 3 and dare you. Jamal can do his things. Austin and Lance are downhill players. We had a vision of how we wanted to play. That always helps when you’re building a team. We thought, this year, the pool of players you could go after was so much larger than the year before that we had a chance to accomplish our goal.”"

When reading what Doc wanted to achieve heading into the offseason, there’s no doubt that he’s been successful. It’s about time that the Clippers’ All-NBA trio had an effective supporting cast, and now they have the kind of complete team that may be able to take them past the second round that they seem so doomed to fail in.

With their revamped roster, they just need another shot to prove themselves and go to another level.

That can be accomplished with what Doc has put in place.

As the Clippers’ creative head coach said in the interview referenced above, he wanted to create a bench without limitations. He wasn’t interested in point guards, shooting guards or regular small forwards. Instead, he wanted to create a plethora of combo-players who can be incorporated among different lineups to different effect.

Doc mentioned that the Clippers “wanted four (guys)”, who could form a second unit lineup where they could all bring the ball up the court and operate fluidly together. There’s no need for a set point guard if everyone can spark the offense and control the ball. There’s no need for a 7 foot center either. When Doc said “we can play a unit of Josh and Paul at four and five”, he clearly has the idea of using Smith as a fast and explosive center.

In transition, that could be a terror for slower teams to stop. On top of that, just think how much the offense has the potential to benefit from having five shooters on the floor at times.

Don’t laugh, Smith improved to shoot 33 percent from three with the Rockets. The only problem is whether Stephenson can recover from shooting 37.6 percent last season.

Besides, Doc did say he wanted his lineups to be chaotic to handle. Hopefully they’ll only be chaotic for opponents and not the Clippers themselves.

Oct 8, 2014; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Charlotte Hornets guard Lance Stephenson (1) jumps and passes the ball back to a teammate during the second half of a game against the Philadelphia 76ers at the Wells Fargo Center. The 76ers defeated the Hornets 106-92. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

We know that Stephenson has the ability to attack the basket and set up teammates, whilst having the athleticism and strength to move to small forward as well as running the offense at times. Then, when it comes to Pierce and Smith, both can be used at either forward position, with the latter possessing the size at 6’9″, explosiveness, and defensive toughness (1.7 blocks per 36 minutes in Houston, whilst forcing opponents to shoot just 46.7 percent at the rim) to move to center. It’s something Smith has proven he can do, after spending 12 percent of his playing time with the Rockets last season at the five. Not to mention the fact that if Doc uses a lineup featuring these three, they can even operate differently during their time on the floor.

As Doc said, who guards who? What lumbering center could guard Smith on the perimeter or flying to the rim? What slow power forwards can effectively contain Pierce’s 38.9 percent three point shooting? Those kind of matchups will be tough for opposing defenses to deal with. The kinks that the Clippers will have to work out with such a small-ball based lineup is at the other end of the floor, which is where they need to take notes and inspiration from the Golden State Warriors.

Smith can’t protect the paint by himself, which is where Cole Aldrich and Jordan will have to be mixed into Doc’s second unit plan at times. Although, the bonus of having two All-NBA big men in Blake and DeAndre means the Clippers won’t need to leave everything to their backups in one go.

When looking past the trio of Paul, Griffin and Jordan, the likes of Rivers, Stephenson, Crawford and Smith can control the ball and setup teammates as well. It wouldn’t be wise to use that kind of small lineup all the time, but with a group of five players (Rivers, Crawford, Stephenson, Pierce, Smith) that can all handle the ball and shoot, the fluidity of the offense could be incredibly hard to stop.

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That being said, with so many players on the court who can dominate possession, it could be a nightmare to develop into a lineup that could work effectively without issues of “who does what”. However, chemistry is always something that can be developed. Even if it takes time, it’s by no means impossible for a leadership core consisting of Doc Rivers, Paul Pierce, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.

With so many new arrivals who have acknowledged a smaller role in order for the Clippers to win, there’s serious potential for these kind of small-ball possibilities to work.

There’s no denying that Doc got what he wanted; the depth, versatility, and small-ball potential is there. Now, the Clippers just need to see if his master plan works.

If it does, who knows who good this team can be.

Next: Why benching Paul Pierce makes sense for the Clippers