With training camp starting up soon, there are a few exciting battles for positions taking place across the NBA. Whether it be for a starting position or rotation minutes, there are places where minutes are up for grabs. We got you covered here at Today’s Fastbreak, and we’ll start with the Clippers’ starting small-forward spot.
Los Angeles is blessed with two of the best players in the league in Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, and a third star in DeAndre Jordan. The bench, however, was an abject disaster last year, and the Clippers couldn’t make it out of the second round.
Doc Rivers did his best to address the bench, and his roster turnover also included losing last year’s starting small forward in Matt Barnes. But he acquired interesting wings to replace Barnes in Paul Pierce, Wesley Johnson and Lance Stephenson. So, the question remains, who will start alongside Paul, J.J Redick, Griffin and Jordan on opening night?
This was set up to be the most compelling starting competition this year, but Rivers has already conceded that Johnson has the inside track, despite being the worst player of the group.
Pierce is clearly the player who will get the first crack at fourth-quarter minutes, but Rivers will want to keep the veteran fresh this season. Keeping Pierce on the bench to start each half could shave about six minutes a game off his playing time, and that’s very significant for a 37-year-old.
Stephenson is a rebuilding project who likely works better off the bench, but there are questions there as well. Charlotte bet on Stephenson being able to play off the ball more than he did in Indiana, and that backfired horribly. He had one of the worst three-point shooting seasons ever, as he shot 17.1 percent on his 105 attempts.
Paul and Griffin will dominate the time of possession in the starting lineup, and that lineup could use real shooters around them. Redick is a good start, but with two non-shooters down low in Griffin and Jordan, the Clippers really need two wings who can shoot, and until Stephenson proves last year was an aberration, he isn’t that player.
The issue with Stephenson coming off the bench as a ball-dominant second unit player is Jamal Crawford is already firmly entrenched in that role. Crawford typically handles the ball when Paul goes to the pine and needs to be a fairly high usage player to be effective as well. Stephenson and Crawford don’t seem like a match made in heaven.
Will Rivers be able to use both Stephenson and Crawford enough to their liking if neither of them starts? It’ll be difficult as long as Crawford is on the roster. Starting Stephenson would eliminate that issue but exacerbate the spacing problems the Clippers have with that unit.
Johnson is the favorite to start right now, most likely because he fits the role more seamlessly than Stephenson and won’t have the minutes restriction of Pierce. The problem is Johnson isn’t very good. He’s a decent three-point shooter (35.1 percent last season), but he doesn’t do anything else well offensively. He’s shot under 41 percent for his career, a very low number for a player who doesn’t shoot all that much.
While Johnson is a decent defender, he’s not the stopper Los Angeles would like to have playing alongside Redick. Redick is better defensively than he’s given credit for, but nobody would mistake him as someone who will take the opposing team’s best wing and shut him down. That’s what Barnes tried to do last year, and that duty will fall to Johnson if he does start.
Both Pierce and Stephenson have shown higher defensive upsides in the past than Johnson. Pierce’s best days are behind him, but he still makes life tough on opponents’ key possessions by being in the right spot and having some of the best defensive instincts in the league. He can’t do it all game or all season, but there are still moments where Pierce leaves you marveling at how great he can be.
Stephenson was abysmal on defense last year, but that seemed to be more effort and failure to even try and grasp Charlotte’s defensive system. He was out of place often, gambled way too much and never put forth enough effort to get consistent stops.
In Indiana, Stephenson was never the primary stopper, but he flashed some defensive upside. When he’s engaged, Stephenson does a good job of using his strength and quickness to prevent penetration. If Rivers can get Stephenson’s head on straight, the maligned guard could be a key piece defensively.
Yet, there are still going to be moments, particularly early on, where Stephenson struggles. That’s why Johnson seems like the safest choice, as Rivers knows what he’s getting on both ends of the floor. Johnson will do just fine as the starter in the regular season, but come playoff time, the Clippers will need to lean heavily on Pierce and Stephenson to get the job done.