Who should Clippers start? Paul Pierce vs. Wesley Johnson


The Los Angeles Clippers’ roster is as deep as it has ever been, at least on paper. However, the depth of the roster has made it difficult for Doc Rivers to determine the starting small forward.

First of all, it seems Rivers has already ruled out Lance Stepehnson, according to a June report from Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times:

“Clippers Coach Doc Rivers outlined his preliminary plan for new acquisition Lance Stephenson on Tuesday afternoon during an interview with Fred Roggin on the Beast 980 AM, saying he envisioned using Stephenson more as a utility player than a starting small forward.”

Stephenson being eliminated, at least as of now, means the battle is between the 17-year veteran Paul Pierce and the former Los Angeles Laker Wesley Johnson.

One can make a quality case for each player to be named the Clippers’ starting small forward.

Feb 6, 2015; Orlando, FL, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward Wesley Johnson (11) reacts after making a basket against the Orlando Magic during the second half at Amway Center. Orlando Magic defeated the Los Angeles Lakers 103-97. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Wesley Johnson

After spending two years across the hall with the Lakers, Johnson signed with the Clippers for one year at the veteran’s minimum. The decision was easy, according to Rowan Kavner of Clippers.com.

"“When I initially signed, I was just – get a chance to win, I think that was my mindset. I want a chance to win. My track record through my career is I’ve been on teams, unfortunately, that have been bad. So fortunately, I’m on the other side and looking forward to the season, looking forward to expectations that we have, like to win a championship.”"

Not only will Johnson have a chance to win, but he might be the favorite to start at small forward. Grantland’s Zach Lowe sat down with Doc Rivers recently and while he remains undecided, he did acknowledge he is leaning towards starting Johnson:

First of all, if Johnson does start, it likely means Rivers will be planning on reducing Pierce’s minutes and giving him a good amount of games off to stay healthy for important late season games and the playoffs.

However, Johnson is a good fit for what the lineup needs. Let’s compare him to Matt Barnes from last season, since that is who he would be replacing in the starting lineup.

The Clippers starting lineup with Barnes led the league in plus-minus, according to NBA.com. While Barnes was not much of an offensive force last season, he did shoot 36.2 percent from three last season and only used 14.7 percent of the team’s possessions. His defense was hit or miss, but he was able to jump passing lanes and pressure the ball decently well.

Johnson is a similar player, only seven years younger and more athletic.

Wesley Johnson Shot Chart via Austin Clemens

Last season, Johnson shot a comparable 35.1 percent from three, excelling from the left corner, as the chart above shows. Typically, J.J. Redick mans that corner of the floor, so while Johnson has proven he can hit the left corner and above the break three, he will have to transition to the other side of the floor in the Clippers’ top-rated offense.

Furthermore, Johnson was assisted on 73.8 percent of his field goals last season and only used 16.4 percent of the Lakers’ possessions while on the floor. Expect those numbers to drop a bit with the Clippers, but it seems plausible that his shooting percentages should rise considering the talent on the floor.

Finally, Johnson’s length at small forward is something the team has been lacking for what seems like eons. Standing 6’7″ with a 7’1″ wingspan, the Clippers finally have the length to defend the likes of Rudy Gay, Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant.

Jan 28, 2015; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Washington Wizards forward Paul Pierce (34) reacts against the Phoenix Suns at US Airways Center. The Suns defeated the Wizards 106-98. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Paul Pierce

When Pierce was signed, many expected him to start at small forward and solve many of the team’s reoccurring problems at the position. Whether he starts or not, Pierce will be a valuable asset for a team trying to make their first conference finals appearance in franchise history.

Still, Pierce can bring a lot to the starting five. First, his ability to make shots, especially difficult ones late in the clock, from the perimeter and top of the key could add another dimension to an already elite offense.

Playing with John Wall, Bradley Beal and the rest of the Washington Wizards last season, Pierce looked fantastic. He shot 38.9 percent from three and was deadly off ball rotations. Still, Pierce’s bread and butter is the isolation play elbow extended or the top of the key. His playoff heroics over the years have usually stemmed from his ability to create from that spot or a ball reversal for a straightaway three.

Obviously, if Pierce lands the starting spot, he will see less time in his hot spot area in the middle of the floor, because it is occupied by Chris Paul and Blake Griffin’s ball-screen action. However, Pierce was able to adapt to a new role last season with the Wizards and will have to do the same with the Clippers.

Paul Pierce Shot Chart via Austin Clemens

The shot chart above identifies where Pierce was in the Wizards’ offense. He was accustomed to sliding down the right side of the floor, mainly because that was the short corner on John Wall penetrations. Although he did not shoot well from three in the short corner, he was able to use ball fakes and hesitations to create open looks via his pull-up jumper.

Again, Redick mainly occupies the left side of the floor. Rivers loves to run secondary action away from the ball by running him off ball screens, pin downs, flare screens and dribble handoffs. Pierce’s gravity can tilt the defense even more, opening up weak-side action following Paul and Griffin ball screens.

While he is far from the ideal defensive presence the team needs on the perimeter, he is still a good help-side defender and is extremely familiar with Rivers’ strong side defensive concepts, thanks to their tenure together with the Boston Celtics.

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Essentially, Pierce would make the Clippers’ starting unit even more lethal. However, his minutes should be limited because the team needs his talents more during the playoffs than the grueling regular season. Not to mention, Pierce was more valuable to the Wizards in the playoffs last season while playing power forward.

Considering Rivers would like to use him more at power forward and reduce his minutes, it remains to be seen how much time Pierce will see at small forward. Regardless, Rivers needs to find a way to put Pierce on the floor as much as possible with a majority of the Clippers’ starters as possible. If that means while Griffin or Jordan is resting and playing small, so be it.

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