Los Angeles Clippers: What’s in a rotation?


So far, the Los Angeles Clippers’ season has been a failure, and the issue of Doc Rivers’ rotations has been a fundamental reason why.

While it is still early in the season, the Los Angeles Clippers have failed to live up to any expectations set this summer. To make matters worse, there appear to be complaints coming from within the locker room.

First of all, the starting four of Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are not the problem. Insert Lance Stephenson, Luc Mbah a Moute or Wesley Johnson and those lineups all result in a double-digit net rating, according to NBA.com. Insert Jamal Crawford in with those four and the net rating is still positive (8.8).

Much like the last few years, the problems occur when the starters are resting and head coach Doc Rivers is forced to use multiple players off his bench together.

After signing Josh Smith, Paul Pierce and Johnson, plus re-signing Austin Rivers and trading for Stephenson, the hope was the Clippers’ bench would be improved and much deeper than in previous seasons. In some ways that is true, and in others it isn’t.

There is a growing concern from Clippers’ fans about Doc’s rotations. Actually, a concern is a conservative way of presenting the issue. Fans are beyond ticked, and while that might not mean much in the grand scheme of things, (when aren’t fans upset?) the numbers support their concerns.

Issues revolving around Rivers’ rotation are two-fold.

One, Doc is far too loyal to “his” guys and trusts them nearly unconditionally.

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Crawford, a clear Rivers favorite, has played the third-most minutes on the team despite having a negative net rating (-.7). To make matters worse, according to Basketball-Reference, the Clippers are 4.9 points per 100 possessions better without Crawford on the floor.

More on this later.

Second, Rivers often comes across as condescending and unwilling to develop his bench.

For example, after the Clippers lost to the Indiana Pacers on December 2, Rivers was asked to comment on Stephenson. While Rivers said Stephenson played fine offensively, he needs to improve his defense.

That is certainly a valid complaint, but Stephenson was clearly the best player on the Clippers roster that night and absolutely the most motivated, considering he was playing his former team.

Additionally, Stephenson played 28 minutes compared to Crawford’s 37 and 5-for-16 shooting from the floor. I don’t want to make this into a man versus man debate, but Rivers has to build the trust of his players, especially the new acquisitions. Talking about how Stephenson needs to improve his defense, playing him limited minutes and then allowing a player like Crawford, who has been horrendous defensively all season, lead the team in minutes is absurd.

Who are the guys Rivers is loyal to a fault to?

One was already discussed briefly above; Crawford.

I love what Crawford has brought to the team over the years offensively. Outside Stephen Curry, there are very few players more entertaining to watch create their own shot than Crawford. However, lately that has been mostly detrimental to the team.

Nov 12, 2015; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Los Angeles Clippers guard Jamal Crawford (11) shoots the ball over Phoenix Suns forward Jon Leuer (30) during the second half of the NBA game at Talking Stick Resort Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

This season, Crawford is taking 55.3 percent of his shots off pull-ups. Nothing too outlandish, providing you understand who Crawford is and the tendencies in his game. However, he is shooting a miserable 37.8 percent on those jumpers. That is simply not acceptable, especially considering those result in six shots per game.

To make matters worse, opponents are shooting 10.9 percentage point better than average against Crawford from three. Having watched plenty of tape of his defense, the issue is that he routinely gets lost defending the perimeter. He misses rotations or is forced to scramble at shooters, giving them more than enough space to knock down open jumpers from the perimeter.

While those number are depressing, the next seal the deal on the debate. Out of 90 qualified shooting guards, Crawford ranks 86th with a -4.38 real plus-minus and ranks 88th with a -2.96 defensive RPM.

Another player who has been absolutely dreadful, Pierce, has also been given a steady amount of minutes.

November 22, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Toronto Raptors forward DeMarre Carroll (5) controls the ball against Los Angeles Clippers forward Paul Pierce (34) during the first half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Pierce is playing near 20 minutes each contest but hasn’t been able to hit a shot from the perimeter and has had even more difficulty playing defense.

For starters, Pierce is shooting a wretched 31.8 percent from the field and 25.9 percent from three. It’s not that he looks lost within the offense, he clearly does not. Rivers has also run plenty of sets to get him good looks at the top of the arc coming off screens and pick-and-pop action. He simply can’t make a shot.

Defensively, Pierce looks like the team’s worst defender. In fact, the Clippers are 6.9 points better defensively with him on the bench and he ranks 60th out of 70 qualified small forwards with a -2.36 RPM.

No matter if he is defending small forwards or power forwards, he has been outmatched. He doesn’t have the quickness to defend on the perimeter and has been abused in the paint. According to NBA.com, Pierce is allowing opponents to shoot 76.3 percent inside six feet. To put that in perspective, that is 16.2 points above average.

The logical thing to do would be to separate your two worst rotation players by staggering their minutes together, right?

Crawford and Pierce have played together the 10th most minutes out of 61 different two-man permutations. Together they have posted a net rating of -8.2, with a pathetic offensive rating of 98.3 and a defensive rating of 106.5.

Yes, you read that right. The duo of Crawford and Pierce combine for an offensive rating lower than the normal human body temperature. Quite fitting, actually, considering they are killing nearly every rotation each one is a part of.

Who should be playing more or at least taking some of Crawford and Pierce’s 45.5 minutes per game?

Oct 29, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers guard Lance Stephenson (1) blocks a shot by Dallas Mavericks center Zaza Pachulia (27) in the first quarter of the game at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Johnson and Stephenson.

A case can be made for Mbah a Moute and Smith as well, but both cripple any spacing unless they are playing center and frankly, Smith should be playing more power forward and less center.

First, let’s examine Johnson’s case.

Although he is only using 13.5 percent of his team’s possession while on the floor, he is shooting an impressive 50.7 percent from the floor and a solid 37.8 from three.

His defense has been a bit suspect, but he has shown the ability to hang with primary scorers in limited minutes and uses his length to clog passing lanes or contest shots. In all honesty, he is the only player on the roster capable of providing the length necessary to bug the top perimeter scorers in the league.

One thing is certain, Johnson needs more minutes with the starters or at least a majority of them. When playing with the other four starters, the lineup’s net rating is +12.9.

His efficiency might not be sustainable if he plays 20-plus minutes per game, but why not increase his floor time above the measly 13.8 he is seeing now?

The most disconcerning part about Johnson is when Rivers pulls him for Crawford or Pierce in situations where the team needs help defensively and someone who can knock down shots. Johnson is doing both, Pierce and Crawford have failed to do either.

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Lastly, Stephenson.

Deserving of more minutes out of sheer curiosity and lineup development, the statistics are also a major supporter of his pay so far.

The Clippers’ starting lineup with Stephenson has played the most minutes together (146) and holds +19 net rating. This is primarily due to Stephenson’s hot shooting from three (40.7 percent) and his ability to defend well from 15 feet and in.

My primary concern is that Rivers has been unwilling to play Stephenson late in games. According to NBA.com, Stephenson only plays an astonishing 4.3 minutes per game in the fourth quarter.

Basically, Rivers has refused to play his best lineup late in games. Instead, playing guys he trusts in Crawford and Pierce, despite the numbers and the eye test saying otherwise (and regardless of Crawford’s random 32 points on Saturday against the Orlando Magic).

Look, you don’t have to give Stephenson free reign or even bump up his minutes much more than 4-5 more per night. However, when you preach about guys needing to be on the same page, playing their role or holding players accountable for their defense, perhaps that theory should be applied to each and every player and not just the ones that need to earn your trust.

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After all, the Clippers have been nothing short of a colossal failure the first quarter of the season. It is definitely time to ease up off the reins and find out what you have on the roster. Guys like Johnson and Stephenson can help the team, that much is certain.

But, when there are chemistry issues and the team continues to falter in late-game situations, it is time for a different approach. The season is grueling and every win in the conference is vital. Rivers obviously understands this, but his rotations do not suggest he does.

So what’s in a rotation?

Currently; obscurity. Hopefully soon; logic.