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Los Angeles Clippers Need More Than Roster Tweaks to Chase NBA Title

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterJanuary 15, 2015

Jan 3, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers talks with Los Angeles Clippers guard Jamal Crawford (11) during the fourth quarter against the Philadelphia 76ers at Staples Center. The Los Angeles Clippers won 127-91. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

As far as Western Conference contenders are concerned, the Los Angeles Clippers are stuck between a rock and a hard place. If the recent flurry of rumors regarding Southern California's second NBA sons is any indication, they're scrambling to climb out of their current conundrum.

The team announced Wednesday the signing of veteran swingman Dahntay Jones to a 10-day contract. According to the Los Angeles Times' Ben Bolch, Austin Rivers, the son of Clippers head coach/team president Doc Rivers, could soon join his father's team by way of a trade with the Boston Celtics

"I think a year ago I probably wouldn't," Rivers said of possibly coaching his own son, per Bolch, "but I think I would for sure. I think this team could handle that. He's a downhill guard, which is something we need, so I certainly would."

The Clippers have also been mentioned in connection with seemingly every backup guard (i.e. Nate Robinson, Ramon Sessions) and two-way wing (i.e. Tayshaun Prince, Wilson Chandler, Arron Afflalo) who's been party to a trade, executed or speculated, over the past few weeks.

There's been plenty going on between the lines in L.A. to spur such inquiries from Rivers and his front-office cadre. Between a moribund bench, a team-wide inability to stifle dribble penetration and a resulting struggle to clean the glass, the Clippers' problem runs deeper than any fringe trade or walk across the waiver wire could root out.

Stench on the Bench

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By and large, those troubles can be traced back to the pack of underperforming players on the pine at Staples Center.

Spencer Hawes, the non-Steve Ballmer crown jewel of the Clippers, has been bothered by foot problems for much of the 2014-15 campaign and has hit an unsightly 30.7 percent of his threes when he has played. Jordan Farmar, brought in to replace Darren Collison on the cheap, has given the Clippers what they paid for (38.6 percent from the field), prompting another search for a reliable understudy to Chris Paul

Reggie Bullock, who would appear to be L.A.'s best in-house solution to its lack of wing depth, has played only sparingly during his second season as a pro. Glen Davis and Hedo Turkoglu have performed about as well as one might expect players who peaked a half-decade ago to perform.

Even Jamal Crawford, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, has suffered across-the-board slippage in his 15th NBA campaign. He's the only L.A. reserve whose on-court impact has been more than merely marginally positive.

As a result, Rivers has leaned on his starting five of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, J.J. Redick and Matt Barnes more than any other coach has counted on any quintet—by a wide margin. Coming into Wednesday's action, that group had logged 694 minutes together, while the Atlanta Hawks' starters, the second-most-used fivesome in the NBA, had put in 475 minutes of work, per NBA.com.

Statistically speaking, that's probably the right call. Per NBA.com, Rivers' "Fave Five" has outscored its opponents by a sturdy 16.7 points per 100 possessions so far this season. Only lineups featuring Crawford in place of Redick or Barnes have fared anywhere near as well over significant minutes for the Clippers. All told, those groups have soaked up more than half of the minutes (997-of-1,829) that the team has played to this point.

It's all well and good that Rivers' top six guys play so well together, but playing them so often could hurt the Clippers in the long run.

For one, it limits the extent to which Rivers can and will try out new arrangements, as any coach should during the regular season. Chances are there will come a time, perhaps during the playoffs, when the Clippers' core proves ineffective in a given matchup. If/when that moment comes, it'll be crucial for Rivers to be able to turn more than one reliable body on his bench to provide a spark.

And, well, Rivers can't play his starters all of the time. They're still human, after all, with limited energy to expend when ample rest isn't an option. By playing his main guys as much as he has, Rivers runs the risk of wearing them down before the truly meaningful games begin to the point where their postseason performance may suffer.

Missing the Point

January 11, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul (3) controls the ball against the Miami Heat during the first half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

That's particularly problematic for Paul. L.A.'s superstar point guard can't shoulder quite the same load he used to—not without a significant drop-off in production and decision-making down the stretch—with his 30th birthday on the calendar in early May. One need only look back to Paul's mistake-filled finishes in last year's playoffs against the Oklahoma City Thunder to remember that.

The Clippers have some potential means of addressing this quandary in-house without having to hope that Farmar finds his footing or that Austin Rivers replaces him—namely Blake Griffin, who leads all power forwards in assists. Bleacher Report's Fred Katz recently lobbied for The Flying Lion to get more time at the point:

Whatever the odds are that Griffin could play point forward—even if it's just a 5 percent chance—it has to be worth a few minutes without Paul on the floor, especially with all the trouble the Clippers have had with Jordan Farmar at backup point guard.

Experimenting with Griffin in this capacity might be a tough sell, since Rivers wouldn't have much practice time in which to try it out. But it could spare Paul some wear and tear while affording Griffin a greater opportunity to grow into an even more devastating all-around force than he already is.

Preserving Paul for the pivotal part of the year might be the more important of those considerations. Offensively, Paul's habit of floundering down the stretch in close games has persisted this season. According to 82games.com, only 6 percent of Paul's crunch-time field-goal attempts have come within close range of the hoop. Worse still, he's logged a paltry effective field-goal percentage of 24.1 percent on the rest.

Paul's problems on the other end haven't been limited to end-of-game situations.

He's not the defensive maker at the point of attack he once was, as his middling defensive plus-minus of 0.14, per ESPN, would suggest. He's always been among the league's shorter starting point guards, and now that he's no longer as quick or athletic as he once was, Paul can't keep his opponents from penetrating and bending the Clippers defense as well as he used to. 

It's no wonder, then, that Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher pegged Paul as the most overrated player at his position:

To be sure, Paul isn't solely responsible for the Clippers' struggles preventing foes from getting into the lane. Good defense requires all five constituent parts to rotate in support of one another and hustle to execute those movements properly.

Too often the Clippers have been a step or two slow in covering for one another. That's allowed smart passing teams, like the Atlanta Hawks and Golden State Warriors, to generate great shots with just a few passes and torch L.A.'s middle-of-the-pack defense accordingly.

Running Out of Options

Nov 19, 2014; Orlando, FL, USA; Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul (3) and guard Jamal Crawford (11) high five against the Orlando Magic during the second half at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

Adding the over-the-hill Prince, the similarly elderly Jones, the 22-year-old Austin Rivers or the diminutive Robinson wouldn't likely put much of a dent in the Clippers' perimeter woes defensively. Nor would any of those marginal pickups goose a scoring outfit that ranks 23rd in offensive efficiency in clutch situations.

These are concerns that require serious resources to address, and that could easily submarine the Clippers' championship quest in the ultra-competitive West.

Trouble is, Rivers is short on the sorts of assets and flexibility that are typically needed to bring in a real difference-maker—without shaking up the core in a big way, that is.

Their lone remaining second-round pick between now and 2018 figures to go to the Boston Celtics in a deal for Doc's son. Their 2015 first-rounder is already betrothed to the C's as recompense for Rivers coming to L.A. to coach in the summer of 2013.

Rivers shipped the Clips' 2017 first-round pick to the Milwaukee Bucks this past offseason to help offload the salary of Jared Dudley, who'd come to L.A. by way of a trade that cashed in the team's most valuable young chip (Eric Bledsoe) a year prior.

No team is likely to accept any of the Clippers' current youngsters (i.e. Bullock, C.J. Wilcox) in exchange for an impactful piece. Nor can the Clips take back significant salary in a trade without sending their fair share out; they're deep enough into luxury-tax territory to be hard-capped under the auspices of the current collective bargaining agreement.

Putting Crawford on the market would be a good start in this regard. His skills are attractive enough to bring back helpful players, as is his $5.45 million salary. But, according to CBS Sports' Ken Berger, the Clippers don't "intend" to offload their only reliable bench player.

In an alternate universe, Rivers might even entertain the notion of moving his top ball-handler. Paul's value, like his overall game, only figures to decline from here on out. And if Paul's career is any indication, he's probably not good enough to be the top dog on a conference finalist, seeing as how he's yet to take a team that far.

It's not as though the chemistry of the team Paul leads is impeccable to begin with. Even if you think NBA.com's David Aldridge, one of the sport's foremost insiders, and Grantland's Bill Simmons, a close Clippers observer, are blowing smoke, there may well be an internal fire from whence their plumes of caution came.

A Sense of Urgency

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Of course, Rivers isn't going to part ways with the player who, according to Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, was pivotal to Doc replacing Vinny Del Negro on the Clippers' sideline.

Paul is this team's vocal leader, its veritable heartbeat both on and off the floor. The odds of him leaving L.A. before his player option comes up in 2017, much less within the next month, range between infinitesimally small and nonexistent.

Still, L.A. doesn't have time to waste. Its window of contention could close quickly. Paul and Crawford aren't getting any younger. Jordan will be an unrestricted free agent in July and could collect a max contract elsewhere if the Clips don't pony up.

Even if they do, the cost of paying Jordan would severely inhibit the front office's options for improving the rest of the roster until at least 2016-17, when the cap is expected to jump once the new national TV money starts flowing into the league's coffers.

If the Clippers are to capitalize on this moment—a uniquely promising one in the history of this long forlorn franchise—they'll have to think creatively, perhaps even vacate the proverbial box entirely, if they're to keep pace in the Western Conference. They're winning about as frequently in 2014-15 as they did at this point last season, but that ultimately wasn't good enough to get L.A. past the second round.

Getting even that far this spring, with the West as stacked with talented teams as it is, could be an even taller task.

Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.

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