After blowing a 3-1 lead and getting eliminated in the second round of the playoffs last season, the Los Angeles Clippers have rebuilt their supporting cast to make them contenders.
The Clippers, of course, won DeAndre Jordan back, but on the fringes, they have made several low-key signings and trades that have fixed last season’s biggest weakness: depth.
The Clippers re-signed backup point guard Austin Rivers, traded for Lance Stephenson, and signed Paul Pierce, Wesley Johnson, and backup center in Cole Aldrich. They also signed Josh Smith on a one-year, veteran’s minimum deal — a huge bargain.
Assuming Pierce fills in for Matt Barnes in the starting lineup, the Clippers bench will now have Rivers, Jamal Crawford, Stephenson, Johnson, Smith, and Aldrich — all, arguably, rotation-worthy players. This is a far cry from the playoffs when Doc Rivers only played a seven-man rotation because the Clippers’ bench, with players like Hedo Turkoglu, Glen Davis, and Spencer Hawes, was virtually unplayable.
During last season’s playoffs, many in the NBA world thought the Clippers didn’t have the depth to make it far in the postseason, citing the heavy minutes the starting lineup had to shoulder. Now, the Clippers could likely play a 10-man rotation with little drop-off from the starters to the bench.
Perhaps the scariest notion for the rest of the league is what the Clippers offence will be capable of. Last season, the Clippers were first in the NBA in offensive rating. Though it may take time for their new pieces to jell, they have added so many new weapons that they will be able to throw several different looks at opponents.
Josh Smith, for instance, though not as talented as Blake Griffin, fits the mould of a versatile big who can work off the dribble, make plays for others, and space the floor (marginally). If Griffin is sitting, Smith could take over and work 4-5 pick-and-rolls with DeAndre Jordan — the same play Smith used with Dwight Howard when the Houston Rockets eviscerated the Dallas Mavericks in the playoffs.
Though Stephenson had a nightmare year in Charlotte last season, he adds an interesting dynamic to the Clippers. When Stephenson was at his best two years ago in Indiana, he was a do-it-all type that handle the ball, space the floor, defend opponents’ best scorers, and help on the boards. He led the NBA in triple-doubles in 2013-14. On the Clippers, he’ll have less responsibility than in Charlotte — a good thing — and could theoretically help handle the ball when Chris Paul sits, be a primary rebounder in small-ball units, and defend other teams’ wings.
The Pierce addition is also huge, giving the Clippers another elite floor-spacer next to J.J. Redick, and somebody to take the final shot, as he did with the Wizards. Pierce has also proven to be something of a unifying locker room force as he’s gotten older, which should help a Clippers team often perceived as emotionally fragile.
On paper, the Clippers have thrown themselves into the death match in the Western Conference that will include the reigning champion Golden State Warriors, the revamped San Antonio Spurs, and the rejuvenated Oklahoma City Thunder. Whether the Clippers can form a cohesive unit with all these new pieces is another question, but adding this much depth to an already-elite core makes the Clippers a team nobody will want to face this season.
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