As NBA teams gear up to begin pre-season “scrimmage” play in Orlando this week, it’s safe to say that we shouldn’t take these pre-mid-season games too seriously. But, still, the games are going to be on TV and we’re going to be watching, so I figured it would be good to check in and discuss what to watch for in the Orlando scrimmages.
First, let’s outline what not to watch for: quality from the Clippers’ good players. Guys that are guaranteed to be a part of the team’s playoff core–Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Paul George, and Kawhi Leonard come to mind among players who are currently in Orlando (Montrezl Harrell left the bubble due to a family matter, while Ivica Zubac and Landry Shamet all have yet to arrive in Orlando at all and Marcus Morris participated in his first practice this morning)–don’t really need these games to be anything more than tune-ups. I expect them all to play (though it wouldn’t be a big deal if someone, like Morris who just arrived, sat out), but they should all have relatively limited minutes as they work into game shape and Doc Rivers balances getting everyone playing time in the 10-minute scrimmage quarters.
While I know we’ll all be excited to see some of our favorite Clippers take the court, a poor shooting night for one of their stars really doesn’t mean much. The further we go down the Clippers’ roster, however, the more these largely meaningless games can become meaningful for individual players who are going to be competing with each other for minutes as the absent Clippers arrive in Orlando, the playoffs drag on, and Doc Rivers’ rotation tightens. So, with that in mind, here are 3 things to watch for as the Clippers return to play this week:
Is Joakim Noah “back”?
This is what most Clippers fans will watch for in the Orlando scrimmages. Few topics in the Clippersphere have as much intrigue as how the arrival of Joakim Noah will impact the team in Orlando. Originally signed to a 10-day contract just before the season was suspended, Noah has yet to actually appear in a game for the club, but has now been an anticipated free agent arrival for over four months. Of course, the Joakim Noah you’ll remember–2013-14’s Defensive Player of the Year and All-NBA First Team Center–ain’t walking through that door. But that doesn’t mean, half a decade later, that the 35-year-old veteran has nothing to offer the Clippers in this title run.
Noah signed mid-season with the Memphis Grizzlies last season and contributed quite solidly, posting averages of 7.1 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 2.1 assists while playing 16.5 minutes per game in 42 contests. More important than his per-minute stats, he showed that while he is no longer in his prime, he was still Joakim Noah in Memphis–a fiercely physical and passionate center who excelled at rebounding and was a far above-average passer for his position. At his best, Noah has a bit of Patrick Beverley in him, and it should be a real treat for Clippers fans to watch the two of them share the floor in Orlando.
Still, Noah is a year older now and has had to recover from another major injury. With the Clippers already boasting two good-but-limited younger centers, there’s a pretty wide spectrum for Joakim’s potential impact in the playoffs: anywhere from “a good locker room presence who isn’t really serviceable” to “the center Doc Rivers trusts most to close big games.” While he would have gotten run in these scrimmages regardless, it’s worth nothing that the Clippers have no other center in Orlando currently. Even when Montrezl Harrell returns and Ivica Zubac arrives, it’s unlikely that either of those guys will bring much different than the (very good) versions of themselves that fans have grown accustomed to watching. But Noah provides a player ripe to be evaluated, and while we don’t want to overreact to good or bad performances in these meaningless scrimmages, we should be able to learn a little bit about the extent to which he still is (or isn’t) an NBA-caliber player.
JaMychal Green and Patrick Patterson
Another thing to watch for in the Orlando scrimmages will be the backup power forward battle. I like both JaMychal Green and Patrick Patterson quite a bit (though I must say I give the edge to Green after his wonderful playoff performances for the Clippers last season). But here’s something that I think is safe to say: if the Clippers stay healthy, only one of these guys will be a rotation fixture in the playoffs. Now that Marcus Morris has arrived in Orlando, he figures to take over the starting power forward spot, and between Morris’ likely big minutes and any time Kawhi Leonard takes at power forward in small-ball lineups, there’s only minutes for one backup power forward at most.
But what will be a crowded front court when the Clippers’ roster is intact is wide-open as scrimmage play begins. Not only do Green and Patterson have the chance to both get minutes at power forward as Morris eases his way back into the lineup, but they’re also the two most viable options to split minutes at center with Joakim Noah (though Rivers has hinted in the past that he’d like to try small-ball lineups with Morris at center). It’s not likely that anyone will play seriously heavy minutes during these scrimmages, but the openness in the current depth chart means that both will get plenty of run to both prove their superior fit as the team’s backup 4 throughout the bubble, as well as potentially convince Doc Rivers to incorporate small-ball lineups with one of them spacing the floor at center.
Beyond these scrimmages, we’re just over a week away from opening night against the Los Angeles Lakers on July 30th–a bit of déjà vu from Doc Rivers’ decision to start Patterson over Green and then-normal starter Moe Harkless way back when the 2019-20 season opened against the Lakers on October 22nd of last year. One of these two will need to use the July practices and scrimmages to pull ahead in Doc Rivers’ eyes.
Third String Wings
The general rule of thumb is that the less a game means, the more you’ll be able to see obscure players–like benchwarmers, prospects, two-way players–get real reps. So, when I was asked on some podcasts this weekend what to watch for in the Orlando scrimmages, my mind immediately went to the Clippers’ third-string perimeter players: Terance Mann, Rodney McGruder, and Amir Coffey.
Coffey and Mann, of course, are the two rookie wings the Clippers brought with them to Orlando, while McGruder is a more established veteran who has disappointed for the team after being an under-the-radar value signing last summer. The three of them make up a contingent of perimeter reserves who will support the Clippers’ continuing efforts to load manage Kawhi Leonard and limit the burden on their other core perimeter players as everyone’s body slowly returns to full conditioning. Beyond that, they make up the potential emergency players for Doc Rivers–like when someone rolls an ankle to start the fourth quarter of a playoff game and Doc Rivers needs a reserve to hold down the fort for two minutes before a starter can come back in to close the game.
Right now, you’d imagine that Rodney McGruder holds the advantage among these three. He’s the guy who is probably most likely to fill in for Landry Shamet until the sharpshooting guard can arrive safely in Orlando, as well as get rotation minutes on any nights when Leonard sits out. But given McGruder’s poor performances through much of the season, you have to imagine that he has something to prove in Orlando–and something to lose if either rookie shows competence and energy. The potential for either a McGruder redemption arc, or surprising emergence from one of the Clippers’ rookie wings, is what I’ll be keeping close tabs on in these scrimmages.