Heading into the Los Angeles Clippers’ season opener on Oct. 31 we will tackle some of the pressing questions facing the team this season. Today, we ask does a deep team necessarily make a great team.
The constant theme from Clippers training camp so far is the depth of the Clippers’ roster. It’s the one message that every player and coach has when asked about practices and scrimmages. Even veterans like Lamar Odom and Chauncey Billups, who have played 28 combined seasons and been on three championship teams, say it’s easily the deepest team they’ve ever been on.
Take a quick look at the Clippers’ depth chart and it’s easy to see what everyone is talking about. Some teams struggle to field a respectable two-deep but the Clippers currently have one of the better three-deeps the league has seen in a while.
PG: Chris Paul – Eric Bledsoe – Travis Leslie
SG: Chauncey Billups – Jamal Crawford – Willie Green
SF: Caron Butler – Grant Hill – Matt Barnes
PF: Blake Griffin – Lamar Odom – Trey Thompkins
C: DeAndre Jordan – Ronny Turiaf – Ryan Hollins
But does a deep team necessarily equate to a championship team? The simple answer is, not really.
Let’s start with the obvious fact that NBA teams can only suit up 12 players. Having a 15-man, three-deep roster is great on paper but not practical on game nights. When the Clippers are fully healthy, some three-man combination of Leslie, Thompkins, Hollins, Barnes, Green or Turiaf will be sitting at the end of the bench wearing suits, and in Turiaf’s case, potentially waving a towel and jumping up and down.
Having a deep team is great for practices and scrimmages and obviously a great insurance policy when someone gets hurt. For example, the Clippers aren't in a rush to bring back Billups from the torn Achilles he suffered last February because they’re more than fine with Crawford and Green in the interim. Crawford, who won the Sixth Man of the Year award in 2010 is one of only four players (along with Wilt Chamberlain, Moses Malone and Bernard King) to score at least 50 points in a game with three different teams. Green, who averaged 7.6 points with Atlanta last season, is not as offensively proficient as Crawford but is a respected defender that Paul personally asked the Clippers to go after.
The same goes for Paul’s thumb injury. He can take his time recovering while Bledsoe continues to develop as a point guard. The 22-year-old had 25 points on 12-of-17 shooting, with eight rebounds, six assists and five steals in the Clippers' preseason opener last week against the Denver Nuggets. Bledsoe, who was sidelined in 23 of the Clippers’ first 24 games last season with a torn lateral meniscus in his right knee, came into his own during the postseason. He averaged 7.9 points while shooting 59 percent from the floor and 43 percent from 3-point range in the playoffs. In the Clippers' second-round playoff series against the San Antonio Spurs, he averaged 11.5 points while shooting 70 percent from the field and 50 percent from 3-point range.
There’s no question that players like Bledsoe, Crawford and Green will make their presence felt early in the season. And it’s entirely possible that Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro will find playing time for 12 guys a night as he tries to work out his rotation. The reason why depth doesn’t always equal championship teams, however, is because those 12-man rotations usually shrink come playoff time. Take a look at the Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder during the NBA Finals last season. They only went about eight or nine deep during close games and really only got significant contributions from one or two reserves during those games.
That’s why it’s not so far-fetched that Odom thinks these Clippers are deeper than the championship Lakers teams he was on. Those weren't particularly deep teams but they were better than anyone in the league if you just looked at the top half of their roster. A quick glance at the box scores from those championship Lakers teams shows that Odom was the only consistent contributor coming off the bench.
If the Clippers’ deep team is to become a great team this season they will need to define roles for their bench. A consistent sixth man will have to emerge and a solid seventh, eighth and ninth man will have to stand out from the pack as well. It won’t necessarily be Del Negro’s job to decide who these players are; these players will make themselves known with their production. They will become so integral to the team’s success that it will be hard to take them off the court.
Chances are Bledsoe will become a speedy sparkplug off the bench; Crawford will add a consistent scoring punch; Odom, if he returns to his old self, will be a versatile force on both ends of the floor and Hill will be a tenacious defender who can also score in transition. These will likely be the Clippers’ core four off the bench when they are at full strength, but that doesn’t mean others can’t work their way into that rotation.
Depth is great to have but if recent postseason history has taught us anything, you don’t necessarily need to be deep throughout your roster to be a championship team.