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The Clippers' Big Four are a Strength and a Weakness

Will continuing to plug and play junk-pile wings with Paul, Reddick, Griffin, and Jordan be enough to get the Clippers past the Warriors?

by ​Jared Dubin
Feb 10 2017, 7:05pm

Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Doc Rivers' Los Angeles Clippers have had four of their five starters locked in every night, barring injury, for the last four years. Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan have formed one of the most fearsome foursomes in the league during that time, and is the only four-man unit in the NBA to share the floor for at least 400 minutes in each of the last four seasons, per NBA.com. It has annually ranked near the top of those four-man groupings in offensive rating, defensive rating, and pace-adjusted scoring differential. No matter how you slice it, it's an elite unit.

Paul runs the show offensively with a healthy assist from Griffin, while Jordan spaces the floor vertically and Redick spaces it horizontally. It's nearly impossible for a defense to simultaneously account for the threat that each of them pose, given the different locations on the floor from which they operate and the way they move and think in concert.

Their defensive prowess has been a bit more unexpected, but it makes a certain degree of sense as well. Paul has long been one of the NBA's elite point guard defenders, and Rivers appears to have incepted Jordan into becoming an All-Defense caliber player over the last few years simply through telling everybody that he already was one. Redick is nobody's idea of a conventional wing stopper, but, as every coach that has ever had Redick on his team will tell you, he is always in the right position, and that helps immensely. Griffin has also shown great improvement in his defensive positioning and, especially, in his back-line communication with Jordan.

Read More: On Defense, the Lakers are Setting a Low Bar

No matter who the Clippers have used at the fifth slot in the lineup next to that group of four, they have experienced great success. This stands out mostly because they have cycled through a whole bunch of different guys there over the last four years. But is continuing to plug and play dollar-bin wings actually the right approach? After all, the Clippers have yet to show that they can beat the Warriors and get out of the Western Conference.

First came Jared Dudley, who arrived in the same deal as Redick in the summer of 2013. He fit perfectly as a solid positional defender and high-level three-point shooter that could also make defenders pay for closing out too hard on his shot, but he wound up getting injured enough to impact his game but not enough to keep him off the floor. Dudley has openly talked about how he needed to sit out with a fractured knee in order to get healthy, but acquiesced when Rivers asked him to keep playing because Redick and Matt Barnes were already out with injuries. When his play slipped, he wound up in Rivers' dog house and eventually on the trade block. And that's where the Clippers' issues in finding a suitable small forward began.

Dudley wound up being traded because Rivers, in his capacity as the team's president of basketball operations, put the Clippers right up against the hard cap by signing Spencer Hawes and Jordan Farmar in the summer of 2014. (Farmar was waived by mid-January while Hawes almost immediately fell out of the rotation; he was later traded, along with Matt Barnes, for Lance Stephenson, who...also almost immediately fell out of the rotation.) Their payroll was dangerously close to that hard cap, so Rivers attached a first-round pick to Dudley and sent him packing to Milwaukee for pretty much nothing; the specific return was Carlos Delfino and Miroslav Raduljica, both of whom were waived three days later, and a second-round pick. The Clips have been looking for a low-priced wing to shoot, defend, and make plays off the bounce ever since. I'd say that player has been difficult for them to find, but Doc disagreed.

"It's not been difficult to find. It's been impossible to get," he said. "We're a max team. I don't know why people don't get that. If you're signing guys at minimum contracts, you're not gonna get an elite small forward. I don't think it's that difficult to figure out."

That Rivers' own maneuvering put them in that position in the first place somehow doesn't come up.

Luc Richard Mbah a Moute guards his potential replacement. Photo: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports.

Barnes held down the role for the better part of two years after Dudley was dealt, and the Clips found great success on both sides of the ball when he shared the floor with their top four. He guarded the opposition's top wing scorer every night, was in the right spots with his help, and cashed in a respectable 35.4 percent of his triples across those two seasons. Defenses paid him no respect, though, and he wasn't able to make them pay for it. Teams were content to let Barnes fire away from outside; if they did close aggressively, he just didn't have the dynamism to make them pay off the bounce. He could keep the ball moving on the perimeter but very rarely made a play himself. And so, as mentioned, he was packaged with Hawes in exchange for Lance Stephenson. The less said about that experiment, the better.

Doc has occasionally tried to use either Jamal Crawford or Austin Rivers alongside Paul and Redick on the wing, but both configurations have left the team dangerously small and vulnerable to specific matchups. Rivers is a solid on-ball defender against guards, but has gotten bullied by bigger wings. He's also occasionally struggled to find an offensive rhythm alongside Paul. Crawford remains a delight to watch when he's doing what he does, but he couldn't play defense at the height of his athleticism, and has only gotten worse with age; he's practically unplayable against the Warriors, for example. Playing next to Paul also neuters much of Crawford's effectiveness on offense, because so much of his value comes from shot-creation and well, obviously, it's better for an offense to have Paul creating shots than Crawford.

There's no solution, here, although lord knows the Clips have tried. Doc has cycled through a ton of guys that he either coached or coached against during his Boston days in an effort to find anyone workable on both ends: Stephen Jackson, Danny Granger, Sasha Vujacic, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Wesley Johnson, Paul Pierce, and more. None has worked for very long, if at all. He's finally settled, for the last season-and-a-half, on Luc Mbah a Moute.

Mbah a Moute works especially well on the defensive end, where he matches up with the opponent's best perimeter scorer on most nights; this season, he's even spent copious time guarding point guards, which allows Paul to rest by sliding onto the second-greatest perimeter threat. That kind of versatility is huge, especially for a team with a short point guard and a relatively weak individual link in Redick.

Mbah a Moute's offensive role mostly consists of spotting up and letting loose with the very occasional three or slicing through for a well-timed cut. For the most part, he doesn't kill the Clippers on that side of the ball, at least during the regular season. Teams have and will continue to ignore him in the playoffs until Rivers is forced to take him off the floor, just like they do with Tony Allen.

So again, Doc has spent the last two years experimenting with other guys next to his top four, in an effort to find a tenable full-time solution for another playoff run. "We do it by committee," he said. "And that's the only way we can do it unless we want to give up one of our key guys."

That, of course, leads us into the ongoing trade talks surrounding Carmelo Anthony. Is he exactly what the Clippers have been looking for? No. Melo wouldn't bring the high-level defense of Barnes or Mbah a Moute, and he is something like the opposite of Dudley's low-usage/high-efficiency three-and-D marksmanship.

But working Anthony in as another shooter alongside Redick and another inside-outside creator alongside Paul and Griffin would make one of the best offensive lineups in the league even tougher to stop. If they acquired Melo, the Clippers would essentially be making a bet that the best strategy to get past Golden State is something along the lines of: "if you can't stop 'em, smoke 'em." The Clippers have tried and failed to find a solution for guarding the Warriors, and they haven't been able to do it; they've got plenty of company in that department. If they're going to pull it off, there are worse ways to do it than trying to become just as impossible to guard as the Warriors themselves.

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