Wesley Johnson ‘likely’ to start in Clippers’ opening preseason game


In a little over 24 hours, the Clippers will be taking to the basketball court for the first time since the disappointing Game 7 loss to the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference semi-finals.

Over the last few weeks, namely Media Day and the beginning of training camp, there have been rumblings of free agent signee Wesley Johnson being slotted into the starting small forward spot left void when Matt Barnes was traded to the Charlotte Hornets, a move opposite of what many expected when the Clippers and Paul Pierce agreed to a deal this off-season. Throughout camp, Doc Rivers has allowed both players to mesh with the starting unit, and going into tomorrow’s preseason opener, it’s Johnson who’ll get the starting nod.

It’s an experiment to say the least, but one that could provide the proper dividends by seasons end.Of the listed players on the roster, no one best ‘fits’ the role Matt Barnes played on the team last season, defending the opposite teams best wing defender and knocking down open threes as the surrounding four starters draw the attention of defenses on a nightly basis.

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  • “Wes, similar to Matt [Barnes], is able to hit threes and he can space the floor so we’re going to ask him to do a lot of the same things that Matt did,” said teammate J.J. Redick of Johnson. Of course, there’s the reality of Johnson having not proven in his career to be anywhere near as good as Barnes was last season, though after a career-best season last year in which Wes averaged 9.9 points and shot 35% from three, there’s some optimism he can fill out at least 75% of Barnes’ previous production.

    And if things go poorly? Rivers could make the change without consequence, shifting Johnson to a bench role, lessening his responsibility, and thrusting Pierce into a starting role, while maintaining a minutes limit for the soon-to-be 38-year-old forward. in a 1-to-1 comparison of the two forwards, Pierce is easily the better alternative from a pure talent perspective, but even the elder is with flaws as he’s getting no younger and showed in Washington he’s best used as a small-ball power forward at this stage of his career, with spot minutes at the three depending on the matchup — the splitting hairs of Pierce’s position is backed by both the eye test (lacks the foot speed to keep up with elite wings) and advanced statistics (graded out with a PER per-48 minutes of 23.2 at power forward; at small forward, 15.0) for those who wonder.

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    All-in-all, it’d take Johnson being dreadful for his presence to negatively impact the Clippers’ ceiling, so whether it’s Pierce or Wes, or any other alternative, namely Lance Stephenson (though Rivers is bullish on inserting the forward into the starting lineup), the Clippers should be able to manage. It’s been proven countless times over the last two seasons that the Clippers are capable of fielding an elite lineup regardless of whose at small forward, as shown by the 16.4 and 10.5 net ratings from the ’13-14 and ’14-15 season when Paul-Redick-Griffin-Jordan are on the floor together; figuring out the fifth spot puts the Clippers in the best position to reach their ceiling, whether it’s Pierce or Wes.

    “Whether he plays me as a starter, whether he plays me off the bench, whether he plays me 15, 16 minutes,” Pierce said at media day, “I’m willing to take on any role as long as we win a lot of games.”

    Next: Lance Stephenson: Clippers' scrimmages feel like All-Star games