LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Clippers had one glaring weakness on the roster heading into the offseason. Despite Doc Rivers' best efforts this summer, it remains the biggest weakness on the team this season and might be the biggest reason they don't live up to their lofty expectations.
For all the talk of the Clippers being a championship contending team, they are missing the one big threat most of the other contending teams have -- an elite wing defender.
In fact, the Clippers don't even have a starting small forward at the moment. Rivers started a collection of players at the position during the preseason and went with Matt Barnes through the first five games of the season before benching him in favor of Jamal Crawford, a shooting guard and far from a threat defensively.
On Monday night against the San Antonio Spurs, it once again hurt the Clippers, as they squandered a 10-point lead and lost 89-85. The Spurs outscored the Clippers 14-3 at the end of the game thanks largely to the play of Kawhi Leonard on both ends of the floor.
"You play chicken, but it didn't matter who guarded him tonight," Rivers said about guarding Leonard at times with Crawford and J.J. Redick. "He scored a lot of them when we switched and we had Blake [Griffin] and [DeAndre Jordan] on him. He's just terrific. He's got great confidence, and I thought he willed that [win] tonight for them because they were struggling. I'm telling you, we switched and every single guy guarded him at some point. He probably scored on every single guy on our team, and some of them were tough shots."
Leonard had 26 points and 10 rebounds, and he guarded Chris Paul at the end of the game and forced him to make two turnovers. Leonard finished with three steals in the fourth quarter alone. Like the Portland Trail Blazers did with Nicolas Batum and like the Golden State Warriors did with Andre Iguodala and Klay Thompson, the Spurs were able to put an athletic wing on Paul to effectively neutralize him. That's a luxury the Clippers simply do not have.
"I don't worry about it because we don't have it," Rivers said. "It's not anything I'm going to lose sleep over. It would be great. I would be a lot smarter coaching-wise if we had something like that, but we don't. We have what we have. I think every team has some flaws. The key is to cover up for them."
The Clippers are trying to cover for it by starting Crawford, who won the Sixth Man of the Year last season, out of position and effectively taking away the only reliable scorer they have off the bench. At the very least they have a wing who can score in that lineup, but they don't have one who can defend, and their production off the bench takes a hit.
"We don't have that one guy," Rivers said. "I'm not going to tell Matt, 'I need you to go stop LeBron.' I'm not going to tell Chris that or J.J. or Jamal or Reggie [Bullock]. It's going to have to be a team effort, and we knew that coming into the season."
Rivers knew that coming into the season, but he was far from comfortable with that reality and will likely do everything in his power as the president of basketball operations to change that. Last season, the Clippers nearly pulled off a deal for Iman Shumpert that would have sent Barnes and Darren Collison to the New York Knicks, but that deal fell through after Shumpert's injury. Now Barnes is struggling and Collison is gone and the Clippers are still looking for an answer at the wing position.
It's easy to jump to conclusions early in the season. Stats have a way of changing dramatically game to game just seven games into the season, and a November collapse against the Spurs won't mean much if they meet each other in the playoffs. What does matter and will have a lasting effect on the Clippers and their chances of winning a title this season is their void at small forward.
There's a reason teams can take their wings and put them on Paul without much regard for Barnes or whoever else they have on the floor and a reason nearly every small forward the Clippers play this season has had one of their best games of the season.
"We ran more plays for [Leonard] tonight than I ever have in his career," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "That's the plan. We've got to start giving him the ball. He's the future. I don't think Tim [Duncan] and Manu [Ginobili] are going to play any more than six or seven more years, so somebody else -- do something."