Before the NBA suspended its season, the Clippers were tied for the league high in a category no coach would prefer leading: most starting lineups. Twenty-nine, to be exact, through their first 64 games.
The necessity of that lineup churn could be over once all 15 Clippers report to Orlando, Fla., for the restart of the NBA season now that stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, reserve center Joakim Noah and several others who were unavailable for long stretches because of injuries earlier in the season, have declared themselves healthy after the league’s four-month hiatus.
The time off “basically improved our chances” of winning a championship, reserve center Montrezl Harrell said.
The improved health of the roster has only made coach Doc Rivers want to tinker even more in pursuit of finding his best five, allowing more opportunities to try combinations that injuries left him unable to test months earlier. As Rivers said Tuesday, the Clippers “are going to add a couple new wrinkles to some of the things we do.”
“We just have so many lineups that we really never — we used them, we just didn’t have enough time to work on them,” Rivers said a day later, before the team’s fifth practice. “… Playing four smalls with one big, playing all five smalls — we did it during the season, we just didn’t do it a lot and we didn’t work on it at all.
“Giving us the opportunity to work on it is going to be great for us. And, honestly, just getting all our guys in that — Reggie [Jackson] and Marcus [Morris] that we made trades with, and now they get to actually learn the detail of our offense and defense, I think will be great for us as well.”
Clippers coaches spent weeks in March and April undergoing a detailed film review of the season to that point. One takeaway for Rivers was the promise of rarely used lineups full of players capable of stretching the floor to the three-point line. That could mean more JaMychal Green at center going forward. Green played center on 7% of possessions last season — a figure that includes his half-season spent in Memphis — according to Basketball Reference; this season, it’s 3%. Moving the 6-foot-8 Green to center during the first round of the 2019 postseason helped the Clippers match up with the Golden State Warriors and push their series to six games.
“I kind of go back on YouTube just to watch it and just see the feel I had for the game,” Green said. “I played hard, and I want to come out strong to help the team in any way I can.”
For the moment, the Clippers have little choice but to experiment with smaller lineups because 7-foot starting center Ivica Zubac and Morris, a 6-foot-8 forward also capable of playing small-ball center, have yet to arrive, according to people with knowledge of the situation.
Green arrived Sunday at the Disney World campus, four days after most of his teammates, to spend more time with his family after the death of his grandmother. Wednesday’s practice was his first since clearing the NBA’s quarantine protocol.
Whatever wrinkles Rivers chooses to add, the constant of pairing guard Lou Williams and center Harrell off the bench will not change. No duo has played more minutes together this season for the Clippers than their 1,388, a span in which they have outscored opponents by 196 points. That is the third-best plus/minus of any Clippers duo to play more than 500 minutes this season.
Williams and Harrell spent past offseasons staying sharp by playing together in a pro-am league in Atlanta. The hiatus presented a different challenge to maintaining their pick-and-roll rhythm, but Harrell believes it won’t dull their efficiency.
“That's something that we've built up over time and the chemistry that we have with one another is something that we kind of jelled and grew with over years," Harrell said. "I really don't think that's something that you can lose just over a couple of months' time period. Especially when, before we actually came back out here, we [were] able to kind of solidify our own little space to still get out there with one another, guys who were still testing negative throughout the testing process, so I think we still [were] able to get back out there, still hoop and get out there and get active.”