Los Angeles currently houses the two oldest rosters in the NBA, which is not a coincidence being that both teams are in win-now, championship-contending modes. Veteran players flock towards established teams who are on the cusp of winning and take pay cuts in hopes to complement superstar players — their experience and locker room presence being the most important supplements. What’s often overlooked, though, is the important roles of the younger players on the roster and the contributions that they make throughout the season. While the Clippers, average age of 28.8, fit the billing of the win-now described teams, they’ve benefitted from youthful jolts of energy. The challenge, though, has been finding the balance between relying on vets and relying on fresh legs. The Clippers are doing their best to accomplish both in managing their rotation minutes.
It’s a common saying that veteran-led teams are often the ones that end up hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy in the air at the season’s end — which is true when you look at NBA history. Go down the recent list of champions; the Lakers, Raptors, Warriors, Cavs, Spurs, and Heat — all experienced and battle-tested NBA rosters. In the same breath, those championship rosters featured young players who made contributions to winning over parts of the season. Last year, the Lakers got contributions off the bench throughout the season from then 24 and 25-year-old Kyle Kuzma and Alex Caruso. In 2019, the Raptors did it by committee throughout the regular season and had some game-changing playoff performances from reserve guys like Fred Van Vleet and Norman Powell. The Warriors even had guys like Jordan Bell, Pat McCaw, and Kevon Looney soak up some meaningful minutes and provide spot starts in playoff games, although their value was less impactful on those historically great Warriors teams.
Many of those aforementioned teams allowed for their depth to mature throughout the regular season, building game experience through high-volume reps and situational uses. But when it was time for the playoffs, their developed roles were reduced, although still important, as the vets’ minutes ramped up. The Clippers seem to be following a similar blueprint with their rotation choices thus far.
The plan this season for the Clippers has been clear: in this second go-around, surround Kawhi Leonard and Paul George with enough proven (veteran) NBA talent to keep their championship aspirations real and enhance their functionality in the playoffs. With that, Serge Ibaka and Nic Batum inked inexpensive deals in hopes to become reliable pieces to a team that ultimately collapsed under pressure, Marcus Morris Sr. re-upped to give the Clippers’ star players more help on both ends of the court, and Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams made it through the offseason without being dealt — although Lou was dealt at the trade deadline for a veteran playoff performer. Those seven named players (counting Lou) average out at slightly above 31 years of age and are leading the Clippers in minutes per game. And with the minutes distribution being the way it has, the returns have been up and down. Occasionally, they’ve strung together games of dominance in which they show their potential, but the rigors of the regular-season grind on old veteran bodies, and bored veteran minds, have led to some serious inconsistencies.
However, there’s been a recent shift. What’s changed the momentum and even the outcome of multiple games this season has been the performances of the guys who rank near the bottom of the team in minutes per game — the young guys. In-part due to injuries, Ivica Zubac, Luke Kennard, and Terance Mann have seen upticks in their minutes as of late – to positive results.
In the most underwhelming of games, the product off of the bench has been a significant boost; just ask the Miami Heat — who fell twice in defeat to a Kawhi, PG, and Pat Bev-less group of Clippers. If not the Heat, maybe the Hawks could tell you about how a Luke Kennard and Terance Mann led Clippers team, with a splash of Coffey, overcame a 22-point second-half deficit to shock the Hawks. It’s also important to note that Ivica Zubac has been arguably the Clippers’ most consistently reliable player this season. The common trend here is energy, which veteran players often save. Perhaps no player outside of Pat really offers the same energy and electricity as the young Clippers – Terance’s and Amir’s activity and pop, and Zu’s fight and physicality on the glass.
Whether or not the recent performances we’ve seen are going to be as translatable to the playoffs, it’s been nice to see the organization follow through on their claim to focus on player development. As a result, there have been some promising returns. The Clippers must walk a very fine line, however. The recent addition of veteran point guard Rajon Rondo signals to the Clippers getting an early jump on their playoffs rotations. The main guys will have to be better than they have been this season. And given their resumes, you can expect, at minimum, a drastically different effort come playoff time. As stated previously, the challenge will be finding the right balance.