Figuring out the Clipper Puzzle

Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

After a Christmas day win over the locker room rival Lakers, it seemed that Santa had left a stocking full of coal for the Clippers as Blake Griffin was diagnosed with partially torn tendon in his quadriceps following the 10-point victory. With no definitive timetable for his return, the Clippers needed to make a decision on how they would respond to this adversity. Before the Laker win, they had lost 3 straight to the Thunder, Rockets and Spurs, failing to put together 4 quarters of basketball in each of those games. Since Christmas however, the Clippers have put together a solid 10-game winning streak without Blake in the lineup. While the big names of Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan and J.J. Redick have all stepped up to pick up the slack, what has been most impressive has been the collective efforts of the roll players. With more minutes available, the Clippers have been able to gel and find important pieces of the puzzle in Wesley Johnson, Cole Aldrich and Pablo Prigioni.

Wesley Johnson - SF #33

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Coming over from the Lakers a year ago, the signing of Johnson did not make a big splash in the LA headlines this offseason. However since his arrival, Johnson has proven to be the best value spent in free agency. With a 2-year deal averaging $1,163,944 per year, Wesley has proven to be a bargain based on his performance on the court. While there may be more excitement surrounding his highlight reel dunks and play above the rim, Johnson has shown touch beyond the arc as he continues to find open space, particularly the corner 3-point shot. In addition to his timely 3’s, Wes has proven to get it done on the defensive end of the floor where he leads Clipper forwards in steals per game and is 2nd in blocks per game for forwards behind only Blake Griffin. Johnson’s most underrated asset is his knowledge of the game. Whether it is making a perfectly timed cut to the hoop, making the extra pass to hit an open teammate, or using his length to deflect balls on defense, Johnson’s intelligence places him in opportune situations to make positive plays for the Clippers on both ends of the court. In order for Clippers to advance beyond the second round in the playoffs, it will be key for Johnson to average between 22-28 minutes per game as he is currently averaging 17.5 minutes per game.

Cole Aldrich - C #45

Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

In the absence of Blake Griffin, most fans would assume that Josh Smith would assume a majority of minutes with Blake on the bench, however it has been the surprise play of Cole Aldrich who has given the bench a lift whenever he checks into the game averaging about 14 min/game over the past 10 games. Aldrich is not a flashy player by any stretch of the imagination. You can usually spot him doing the dirty work of gaining position inside for rebound, setting picks and surprisingly blocking shots. While his performances may go unnoticed in the stat sheet, it is his intangibles of boxing out, grinding out hustle plays that will be important in the playoffs as every possession can mean the difference between a win or loss. Aldrich picked up the slack versus the Heat where he finished with a season best in points with 19 followed by 7 rebounds in 24 minutes of action, filling in nicely for DeAndre Jordan. An additional plus for Aldrich is his free throw percentage as he is shooting close to 70% even with his awkward release point. One of my concerns coming into the season for the Clippers was finding a capable backup to Griffin and Jordan who can protect the paint on defense and pick up the trash on offense. If you remember a couple of seasons ago it was Kenyon Martin who filled this role. I’m happy to say that the Clips do not have to work the trade deadline to fill this position as they have found their reliable big-man in Cole. Proving that he can play extended periods of time, I don’t think the Clippers will need to lean on him that much once the playoffs roll around. If Cole can provide 8-10 minutes of quality play to give Griffin and Jordan rest, I believe this will give the Clippers an edge as they battle the bigs of the Spurs in the playoffs.

Pablo Prigioni - PG #9

When the Clippers signed Pablo Prigioni, I was surprised given the amount of minutes that Chris Paul and Austin Rivers play. However as the NBA season goes along, injuries have played a role providing an opportunity for Prigioni to prove his value to this team. He reminds me of a poor man’s version of Steve Nash. A crafty pass first point guard who holds on to the ball until the very last minute before finding an open teammate. Prigioni has earned his minutes when on the court, where he has boosted the chemistry and production with the second unit. Not focused on scoring, Pablo is able to set up the offense and gain rhythm to whoever is on the court with him. And while not the best defender in the world, his ability to make steals and rotate on defense was on display versus the Heat on Wednesday where he recorded 8 steals and put pressure all over the court. While he may be old by basketball standards at 38, Pablo has spring in his step and has been able to use his understanding of help defense and space on the floor to make up for for the quick guards of the NBA. With Paul and Rivers as the main point guards, Pablo’s role will be limited when both are healthy, however if any time is missed by those players, Prigioni is a capable backup and a positive influence that the Clippers are fortunate to have.

Moving Forward

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It has been fun watching the Clippers on their 10-game winning streak, however, what has been even more exciting to see from a team development point of view is the play of the reserves. While it is great to see some of the questions resolved from the bench, as we approach the halfway point in the season, I am still not certain that the Clipper roster as currently constructed is ready to face the one-two punch of the Spurs and Warriors in a 7-game series. There are still chemistry and playing time issues for Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith and it still remains to be seen if Luc Mbah a Moute is the long-term solution as the starting small forward. I believe that at this time in the season that the Clippers are in a great position with their added depth on the bench. However as a GM, I still believe that the Clippers are one trade away from challenging the Warriors and Spurs for representing the Western Conference in the NBA Finals.