It’s been written over and over again – as good as their front three are, the Los Angeles Clippers surely can’t win an NBA title with their current bench.
Whether it’s the coach’s son Austin Rivers, 36-year-old Hedo Turkoglu, 290-pound Glen “Big Baby” Davis or other assortments of either odd or out-of-their-prime players, that bench has been a punchline all season long. Sure, their top six players can keep up with the best of the NBA, but you can’t rely on that bench, that cast of characters, to push them over the edge. Right?
There hasn’t been a lot of data presented on NBA benches and just how important they are in the playoffs. It’s an old basketball adage that rotations tighten up in the playoffs, it following logically that benches will matter less. But apparently for the Clippers, a bad bench matters.
Admittedly, there’s a difference between “tightening up the rotation” and only having six players that should be getting minutes in the NBA. However, is there historical precedence for what the Clippers are doing? Has their rotation really been that shallow this year?
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To gauge this, I looked at the past 20 NBA champions and the percentage of both minutes and win shares their top six accumulated during the regular season. The “Min% – WS%” column on the far right shows how lopsided or balanced a team’s production was – if the team was balanced, we’d expect their minute percentage and win share percentage to match up. As you can see, a couple teams – the current Clippers squad included – have, well, not the most balanced squad.
Almost 90% of the Clippers’ production has come from their top six players in terms of minutes – Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. That is an incredibly large burden to bear, especially now as Paul deals with a hamstring injury that took him out of the first two games of their second-round series with the Houston Rockets, and half of game three.
What makes the burden even more burdensome with the Clippers, as opposed to other historical title teams, is the difference between their production and their minutes. If the sextet was putting up 90% of the production and about 90% of the minutes, that’s almost easier to stomach. It wouldn’t be great, obviously (hello, Thibodeau!), but the burden could be potentially decreased by some adjustments and coaching changes.
Alas, the minutes those six play haven’t been outrageous. However, in the time they do have on the court, they are so pressured to make up for their bench that it actually brings up an interesting, if not crazy, question – would the Clippers be better suited just shortening the rotation to mostly those six players? Is it more tiring to play 35 minutes and have to work extra hard because you’re in a hole because of your bench, or to play 40 minutes and not fall into that hole in the first place?
Assuming Chris Paul can get back to 100% health (basketball gods, we need this), his missing a couple of games might work wonders for the Clippers, especially if they match up in the Western Conference Finals with the juggernaut (and apparently the only team immune to injuries) Golden State Warriors (their 2-1 deficit to the Memphis Grizzlies notwithstanding). Even though their series against the Rockets is only three games deep, the Clippers should still have their eyes partly on the bigger picture and the run to the Finals – an odd thing to say now considering their playoff history and surrounding narrative regarding how Paul and Griffin “can’t even get to the West Finals” – and if they get there, they can surely only win with their very best talents on the floor as much as possible.
However, defeating the San Antonio Spurs has raised the ceiling of this Clippers team. We know the Warriors are better than the Spurs this year, but doesn’t it seem like beating the Spurs mean they can beat anyone? If the Clippers can indeed beat anyone, it will certainly be because of their top six players, the ones who will have to do nearly everything on the court for almost all of every game. No title team has ever been so unbalanced as the Clippers are this year, but as they say, there is a first time for everything. Especially since the Spurs were the first ultra-balanced team to win a title last year. You never know. With that great balance having just lost to the great unbalanced, this year could be the complete opposite.