For five seasons, the Los Angeles Clippers have been the exact same team. In the regular season they win 50-something games, and in the playoffs they flame out before the Conference Finals. But things might just be different this year, because their previously worthless bench unit is dominating games.
Last night the Clippers blew out the Trail Blazers—who knocked them out of the playoffs last season—111-80, to advance to 7-1. They’ve only played one team that is presently below .500, and their lone loss was a two-pointer against Oklahoma City. Their margin of victory is a ludicrous +17 points, and they’re only allowing 91 points per 100 possessions; the next best defense is allowing 98.
The starting lineup of Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, Some Small Forward, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan has always been one of the league’s best, but the Clippers’ bench has mostly consisted of the high-scoring but inefficient Jamal Crawford and a bunch of D-Leaguers. We’ve long made fun of Doc Rivers around here for his terrible GMing and shitty bench, including this offseason, when his entire plan was to re-sign all of the players from that shitty bench.
It’s only been eight games, but it’s increasingly looking like we’re going to have to eat some crow. The Clippers starting lineup is the best lineup in the NBA, but, shockingly, the Clippers all-bench unit is one of the best as well. In 82 minutes, the lineup of Raymond Felton, Jamal Crawford, Austin Rivers, Wesley Johnson, and Marreese Speights is outscoring opponents by 16.6 points per 100 possessions. Among units that have played at least 40 minutes together, that’s fifth best in the league.
Perhaps the strangest thing is that they’re playing spectacular defense. Most observers would consider Speights, Crawford, and Felton to be defensive sieves, and Rivers and Johnson are playing fairly undersized at the three and four. And yet the group is scoring a 105.9 points per 100 possessions, a respectable but not outstanding number, while allowing just 89.2.
Early on, at least, even Doc Rivers didn’t know what he had. The Clippers were following a fairly normal substitution pattern that limited the amount of time five bench players were on the floor. But then, as the unit played well in its limited minutes together, rotations were changed to give them more time together. Last night, for instance, the Clippers played the first 5:22 of the second quarter with the five bench players, and went back to them during a 6:42 run bridging the third and fourth quarters.
This is the part of the article where I tell you how the Clippers bench is doing this, but mostly I’m baffled too. The stats say it is because they’re holding opponents to 38.4 percent shooting, and just 34.2 percent from threes. Watching them play, only a few things stand out: they pressure ball handlers well on the perimeter, Speights is suddenly decent at defense, and they contest well without fouling. But if I had to describe their defense, I’d give the totally meaningless answer about how it seems like they’re working very hard, and it is paying off.
Only eight games! Small sample size! They’ll come back down to earth! Some regression is certain to come, but that fact that we’re even here talking about the Clippers bench as anything other than a massive liability is amazing.