Written by Ethan Feldman Photo via Getty Images
On December 8th, 2011, NBA Commissioner David Stern vetoed a multi-team trade between the L.A Lakers, Houston Rockets and New Orleans Hornets that would have dispatched Chris Paul to Los Angeles, sent Pau Gasol to Houston and delivered Kevin Martin, Goran Dragic, Louis Scola and a first-round pick to New Orleans.
As a result of Stern’s unprecedented intervention, on December 14th, 2011, The Los Angeles Clippers and the New Orleans Hornets agreed upon a trade that sent Chris Paul and two first round picks to Los Angeles while simultaneously sending Al-Farouq Aminu, Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman and a future draft pick in the 2012 NBA Draft to the New Orleans.
Clippers fans relished the arrival of a bonafide superstar, as well the complete overhaul of a rag-tag group of perennial losers, which fostered an optimistic aura that surrounded the team. The organization had recently experienced a fortuitous draft that saw them acquire two burgeoning high-flyers in Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Chris Paul’s virtuosic ability to cast lobs into the air, coupled with the prodigious explosiveness of Griffin and Jordan led to the coinage of “Lob City.”
It didn’t take long for the newly formed trinity to monopolize NBA highlights as the power forward and center combination feasted on a myriad of bounce, no-look and lob passes courtesy of Cliff Paul’s twin brother.
However, if we fast-forward five seasons to the Clippers’ game 7 loss to the Utah Jazz in the second round, this Clippers team has yet to reach the conference finals and has been universally deemed a failure.
Some critics point to Chris Paul who has yet to reach the Western Conference Finals, others point to Blake Griffin and question his leadership abilities as well his toughness and durability. However, both of these players are elite at their respective positions as Paul and Griffin have both been in the top 20 for Box Plus Minus since the 2011-2012 season and Chris Paul ranks third all-time in Box Plus Minus second to only Michael Jordan and LeBron James.
This individual success of the Clippers’ two all-stars begs the question: Why have the Clippers failed to make the Western Conference Finals?
Since the inception of their “Big 3”, the two most glaring liabilities for the Clippers have been their lack of an offensively talented small forward and the lack of a formidable bench.
Since the Paul trade, the Clippers have deployed an elderly Caron Butler, a geriatric Paul Pierce, Jared Dudley, Matt Barnes, Wesley Johnson and Luc Mbah A Moute as their veritable revolving door of small forwards. While some these players provided a level of toughness, only Dudley and Butler were reliable shooter’s and both players struggled to create their own shots.
Although the instability at the small-forward position has been troublesome for the Clippers, the most glaring problem for the clippers has been their abysmal bench. Spearheaded by Jamal Crawford, an inefficient ISO player who is incapable of playing defense, the Clips’ bench has annually underperformed. J-Crossover joined the ‘Clips’ the year after the Chris Paul trade, and ever since his arrival it seems as though the ostentatious sixth man is more interested in accruing four-point-plays than contributing to winning basketball.
This bench conundrum has persisted since Chris Paul arrived, but was notoriously concerning this year. During the 2016-2017, the Clipper’s starting unit of Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, Luc Mbah a Moute, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan ranked second in Points Minus Opponents Points, trailing only the Golden State Warriors’ star-studded five. Additionally, the trio of Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Chris Paul are the only set of teammates that rank in the top 35 in John Hollinger’s Value Added statistic.
However, before we examine the Clippers bench this past season, it’s imperative that we understand what decisions the Clippers front office has made over the past several seasons.
- Trading for J.J. Redick
- Trading for Austin Rivers, a young lottery pick who did not fit well in New Orleans.
- Re-signing Chris Paul
- Re-signing Blake Griffin
- Re-signing DeAndre Jordan
- Signing Luc Mbah a Moute to a multi-year contract
- Orchestrating a trade would send future 20 PPG scorer Eric Bledsoe to the Phoenix Suns in exchange for Jared Dudley
- Signing C Byron Mullens to a multi-year contract (out of the NBA within a year.)
- Signing Glen Davis to a multi-year contract (out of the NBA following Davis’ second year with the Clippers)
- Signing Danny Granger to a multi-year contract (out of the NBA within a year)
- Signing Jordan Farmar to a multi-year contract (out of the NBA within a year)
- Signing, and then giving up on SF Joe Ingles who would go on to be an above average player.
- Signing C Spencer Hawes to the mid-level exception only to trade him the following year
- Signing Paul Pierce to a multi-year contract
- Signing Austin Rivers to a three-year 35 million dollar contract
- Re-signing Jamal Crawford to a multi-year contract
- Opting not to protect their future 2011 lottery pick in the trade that sent Baron Davis to Cleveland ( The Cavs’ ended up drafting Kyrie Irving).
- Signing Marreese Speights to a multi-year contract
The aforementioned “good” signings secured a fantastic nucleus for the Clippers, but the “bad” signings contributed to years of post-season failure and have led to a perpetually poor bench.
This Clippers team did not have a good bench going into the 2016-2017 season, but this season was thought to be the year where that all would change. With the continued growth of Austin Rivers and Wesley Johnson, the addition of a proven point guard in Raymond Felton, instant offense in Marreese Speights and Brandon Bass who was coming off of the most efficient year of career with the Lakers, the Clippers bench appeared to be poised to be serviceable.
Unfortunately, The bench has not lived up to its expectations. The Clippers tended to play four guys off of the bench and none of their bench players provided a positive impact on their team, barring Marreese Speights who was only marginally a plus.
Box Plus Minus’ For The Clippers Bench:
Austin Rivers: -1.6
Raymond Felton: -0.9
Wesley Johnson: -1.8
Marreese Speights: 0.7
Brandon Bass: -0.7
Paul Pierce: -4.4
Alan Andersen: -4.9
Five of The Most Used Four-Man Bench Units For The Clippers Bench:
Bass, Crawford, Felton, Speights: -11.4 points per 48 minutes
Crawford, Rivers, Speights Felton: -3.2 points per 48 minutes
Felton, Johnson, Rivers, Speights: -2.9 points per 48 minutes
Crawford, Felton, Johnson,Rivers: -2.8 points per 48 minutes
Bass, Crawford, Rivers, Speights: -1.6 points per 48 minutes
This is not a formula for a deep postseason run. Paul, Griffin and Jordan routinely perform at an elite level, but it takes more than a prolific starting five to go far in the NBA playoffs.
Overall, when healthy, the starting five for the Los Angeles Clippers shows up, but is indubitably hindered by a lackluster bench. The narrative that Griffin and CP3 are “chokers” is as far from the truth as possible. Paul’s playoff PPG(18.7 vs. 21.2) and BPM(7.6 vs. 8.5) are higher in the playoffs than they are in the regular season and Griffin’s PPG (21.5 vs. 21.0) and BPM(4.1 vs. 3.7) are almost identical to his regular season statistics.
The Clippers front office must keep the “Big 3” intact this summer, while also beginning to construct a formidable bench if they want to have any legitimate chance at postseason success.