As the playoffs approach, the Clippers and Vinny Del Negro are faced with the dilemma of shortening the rotation and determining their most-efficient lineups.
The Clippers have given 13 different players rotation-level minutes at some point in the season. That number will shrink to nine or 10 guys, at the most, in the playoffs. Tough choices will be made and egos will be bruised.
“It really depends on who’s healthy and who can go. We really haven’t had that consistently. It’s been different lineups for just health reasons,” Del Negro said at practice last week. “Hopefully we can sew that up as we move forward at the end.”
Here are a few postseason lineup tweaks the Clippers probably should make:
The closing lineup
The Clippers best lineup this season, by far, has been DeAndre Jordan at center, Blake Griffin at power forward, Matt Barnes at small forward, Jamal Crawford at shooting guard and Chris Paul at point guard.
The lineup scores 118.4 points per 100 possessions and allows just 90.2 points per 100 possessions defensively (+28.2 net rating), figures that would rank as both the NBA’s top offense and defense by a considerable margin.
Thus far, the Clippers have mainly closed games with Griffin, Barnes, Crawford, Paul and Lamar Odom, not Jordan. The lineup has done very well, scoring 111.5 points per 100 possessions and allowing 103.1 points per 100 possessions (+8.4 net rating). It has been nowhere near as dominant as the lineup with Jordan in the middle, though.
Jordan’s inconsistencies on both ends of the floor, as well as his free-throw shooting woes, have made it difficult for Del Negro to fully trust Jordan with legitimate starter-level and closing-time minutes.
But the numbers say he should be out there.
“We need him big time,” Paul said of Jordan after last week’s win over the Brooklyn Nets. “I think he knows that and he needs to know that. With him in the game, he's a game-changer.”
With Jordan, the Clippers post a 57.0 rebounding percentage; replace him with Odom in that same lineup, and the figure drops to 49.8 percent. The same drop-off occurs offensively (60.4 true shooting percentage with Jordan; 54.6 percent with Odom).
Defensively, the Clippers see a significant boost in their 3-point defense with Jordan, allowing just 28.2 percent shooting on opposing 3-pointers, compared to 40.3 percent 3-point shooting with Odom.
It may run counter to Del Negro’s instincts, but Jordan should finish games.
The bench lineup
With Grant Hill constantly in and out of the lineup, and Eric Bledsoe’s recent injury, the bench has lacked the consistency and structure it had earlier in the season.
Since Jan. 1, the “Tribe Called Bench” lineup of Ronny Turiaf, Odom, Barnes, Crawford and Bledsoe has been outscored by 16.1 points per 100 possessions. But those numbers stem from a very small floor-time sample size (56 minutes).
To spark the struggling bench, Del Negro replaced Turiaf with Ryan Hollins in early February. The results have been abysmal.
Since Feb. 1, about the time Hollins took over as the bench’s center, the new lineup has been outscored by over 20 points per 100 possessions.
Neither Hollins (+0.5 points per 100 possessions) nor Turiaf (+3.8 points per 100 possessions) projects to play much in the postseason, but if one of them needs to be called off the bench, almost all signs point to Turiaf being the better choice.
The wildcards of the Clippers season have been Billups and Hill. If healthy, both will play vital roles in a playoff run. If not, the Clippers will start Willie Green and be stretched thin with Barnes and Butler as their only wing players with size.
The small ball bench lineup with Hill as a big man instead of Turiaf or Hollins has only played 42 minutes, but has been dominated on the glass (47.1 rebound percentage), struggled offensively (87.7 offensive rating) and been outscored by 1.4 points per 100 possessions. Designed around versatility and speed, the lineup might fare well against a team like the Denver Nuggets.
Against the Dallas Mavericks on Tuesday night, the Clippers briefly went with a lineup of Griffin, Barnes, Butler, Crawford and Paul down the stretch. The Clippers’ defense struggled, and in 32 minutes overall, the lineup has been disastrous (-25.1 net rating). Replace Crawford with Jordan, though, and the results are much better (+23.5 net rating), indicating the duo of Barnes and Butler can coexist on the wings.
An intriguing lineup of Jordan, Griffin, Barnes, Bledsoe, and Paul has only played 21 minutes and been outscored by 4.4 points per 100 possessions, but has shot efficiently and dominated the boards (62.1 rebounding percentage). The lineup oozes elite defensive potential and off-ball movement, and could have value against a long, athletic team like the Oklahoma City Thunder.
A realistic possibility, depending on the situation, is for Del Negro to finish with Odom, Griffin, Barnes, Billups and Paul. Crawford is the Clippers’ second-best shot creator behind Paul, but Billups has a reputation for making big shots and would alleviate pressure on Paul with his sound decision-making, shooting and court vision. This lineup has only played seven minutes, so it’s impossible to glean anything from the data, but it’s the type of veteran-savvy lineup coaches prefer.
For most of the season, the Clippers’ starters and bench players have played almost entirely separately.
Four of L.A.’s nine lineups that have played at least 100 minutes are entirely compromised of either starting players or bench players. Two other lineups feature either four starters and one bench player or four bench players and one starter.
Therefore, there will be a lot of inexperienced lineups in the postseason, as lineups will be mashed and new player combinations will be tested in the name of defeating the Thunder and San Antonio Spurs. Luckily, Paul, Griffin and Crawford will be on the floor at almost all times, mitigating any potential lulls.
Deciding who should play, who shouldn’t and more importantly when they should play is a difficult and delicate task.
The Clippers’ best chance of playing into June hinges on the coaching staff’s ability to strike the right balance between managing egos and deploying the right combinations, that will be their playing in June.
Stats from nba.com/stats