Since the acquiring of both Paul George and Kawhi Leonard during the 2019 off-season, the Clippers have had championship aspirations. On paper, the roster talent from top to bottom was undeniable, especially with so much versatility on the perimeter. But between Ivica Zubac, Montrezl Harrell, and Mfiondu Kabengele, the depth at the center position seemingly left a lot to be desired. Having just three centers on the roster, including the starting center who was benched during the playoffs, a 6’7 backup, and a rookie that would spend most of his time in the NBA G League, the questions were legitimate. Yet, coach Doc Rivers managed to sustain success for the majority of the season without much reinforcement with this very same Clippers’ center rotation.
However, trying to get through the playoffs with just two big bodies to use figured to be a tall task, especially with the possibilities of having to deal with Nikola Jokic, Anthony Davis, and Joel Embiid over the course of a seven game series. In fact, Embiid’s exposing of the Clippers’ bigs during a February game right before the All-Star break might have been what initiated some necessary changes to the frontcourt. Right before the COVID-19 brought the NBA season to a stoppage, the Clippers announced the signing of Joakim Noah to a 10-day contract, which would later become guaranteed throughout the season.
Interestingly enough, the NBA restarted in late July, and the Clippers began their scrimmages without both Zubac and Harrell. Trez, the Clippers’ most used big man, left the bubble to deal with the death of his grandmother, and Zubac would be away from the team as he quarantined himself after having tested positive for COVID-19. This led into some new lineups that weren’t used during the first part of the season. Joakim Noah was able to log some important minutes throughout the scrimmages, showing off his veteran IQ on both sides of the ball. JaMychal Green also found himself playing some small ball center minutes, much to the delight of Clippers’ fans. Even Patrick Patterson played some stretch five, and didn’t do too badly himself. With the small, yet impressive, sample sizes of these players rotating in and out of the five spot, many are wondering what the rotation could look like in the playoffs once (potentially) everyone is back in the lineup and available to play. I’ll make the case for each big, and what we should realistically expect of them come playoff time.
Joakim Noah is the newest member of the Clippers. After a rough go in New York, Noah had a bit of a redemption season last year with the Memphis Grizzlies, where he was able to prove he was still a rotation-worthy player in this league. He finally got his opportunity with the Clippers in March after being linked to the team during the offseason. While the one-time DPOY has had a few noteworthy moments of play during the bubble games, in particular over the scrimmages, he remains the least likely to see any significant minutes on the court moving forward.
Defensively, Noah is much like Ivica Zubac, which is why Doc hasn’t been shy in mentioning how much of a mentor Noah will be for Zu. He’s a step slower these days, but his instincts and IQ are still quite sharp. In the few games he has logged with the Clippers, Noah showed that he is still solid at defending the post, and positions himself well to be able to challenge and block shots at the rim. Most importantly, Noah still plays with a deep passion and energy that can rally a team, a trait that could be important in the bubble’s crowd-lacking setup.
Offensively, Noah is the polar opposite of what the big man has become in the NBA today. He’s not going to space the floor, and he’s not really a threat finishing at the rim. What he does do well is create offense. Noah continues to be a master at operating out of the high post and finding cutters. Even more impressive was Noah displaying his awareness in pick & roll situations. He thrived during the scrimmages in short-rolling to around the freethrow line and being able to pinpoint passes to spot up shooters; certainly the most natural at doing so of all the Clippers’ bigs. During the playoffs, teams are going to send double teams at both Kawhi and PG in an attempt to take the ball out of their hands, so this ability to receive the pocket/short-roll pass and then play quarterback could really break the defensive scheme.
While Noah’s sheer effort is enough to make the case for more minutes, and his passing has the potential to keep the offense functioning, it’s hard to expect that Noah will see consistent playing time. Given the situation with his late arrival to the team, Trez being Doc’s go-to guy for long sequences at a time, and the recent stellar play of Zu and JaMychal at the center, it’s unlikely that Noah will find more than a few minutes here and there. The majority of his minutes might be used to spell another player who is in foul trouble, or to throw a physical body at the back-to-the-basket opposing bigs.
In what has been sort of a revelation for the Clips, Patrick Patterson has been a pretty good player this season. Coming off a disappointing stint in Oklahoma City, Pat Pat was figured to be an end-of-the-rotation signing last offseason. Very few people thought he would contribute much of anything to this Clippers team.
Patterson’s minutes have run hot and cold thus far. While he has started 18 of the 57 games he’s played in, he has also had his share of DNP-CD’s. Pat Pat isn’t as mobile of a player as he once was, and that has been noticeable this season. He’s done a decent job at times guarding players that mirror his own style, and has even held up well enough defending the post. Patterson’s troubles come when having to use his foot-speed to keep guys in front of him. He’s just too slow to play much defense out on the perimeter, which is a problem, as he’s not big enough to offer much rim protection either.
Outside of Kabengele’s 20 3FGA’s on the season, Johnathan Motley’s single attempted and made three-pointer, and Reggie Jackson’s 15-game sample size of shooting in a Clippers uniform, Patterson ranks third on the team in three-point shooting percentage. His 38.6% trails only Paul George’s 41.1%, and Patrick Beverley’s 38.8%. This type of accuracy from downtown has been consistent no matter the situation. As mentioned earlier, Patterson’s playing time has been all over the place; sometimes he starts, sometimes he plays garbage minutes only, and then there are times where he doesn’t play for consecutive games. It takes a true professional to be ready at any given moment, and it’s really impressive that Patterson has consistently been ready to perform despite the variety of roles he’s played.
Doc’s “random acts of Patterson,” as I like to say, leaves all possibilities on the table for the veteran F/C. There won’t be a surplus of Patterson minutes in the playoffs, but due to his floor-spacing, and physical presence, I do think we’ll see him in most games.
Perhaps the player who currently makes the best case for more minutes at the five spot is JaMychal Green. After being acquired last season at the trade deadline, Green fit in very well as a stretch four. He quite possibly fit in even better during the playoffs thriving as a small-ball five. Sadly, we hadn’t seen as much JaMychal as we would have hoped for throughout much of this season, but there has been a recent uptick in both minutes and production, which simply cannot be ignored. Maybe Doc was holding Green as a key player in his back pocket, or maybe the absences of Zu and Trez forced his hand. Either way, Green has played more in the bubble, and has been fantastic.
JaMychal is a very important defender. He won’t be confused for Draymond Green on that end of the court, but his versatility to guard many different types of players is what makes him playable in almost any matchup. For example, being 6’8 and a strong 227 lbs, JaMychal has unique physical qualities that have allowed him to defend and make things uncomfortable for the Anthony Davis’ and Kristaps Porzinngis’ of the NBA for stretches at a time. But JaMychal also has the experience of playing on the perimeter during the earlier parts of his earlier career, which makes him capable of guarding players like LeBron James and Kevin Durant from time to time. His ability to switch onto wings and guards is going to play a huge role against teams like the Houston Rockets or Dallas Mavericks, who will try to expose Zu’s pick & roll coverages by playing with pick & pop shooters.
Speaking of pick & pop shooters, JaMychal has really found his confidence as a shot-maker post all-star break. Since the break, he is shooting 46% from behind the arc, including 52% in the six bubble games at the time of this writing. This type of floor spacing really changes the dynamic of the halfcourt offense, as it creates much more room for gifted isolation players like Kawhi, Lou, and PG to get to their spots. Also worth noting: players like Rudy Gobert, Nikola Jokic, and Steven Adams typically prefer to do the bulk of their defending closer to the basket. So in a potential playoff series against that style of center, JaMychal’s floor spacing and ability to catch and shoot will be key in breaking the defense.
However, Montrez Harrell’s return to the team is inevitably going to take away significant minutes at the center position. Fortunately for JaMychal, he has spent much of his Clippers’ career logging minutes alongside Harrell off of the bench, and has had successes in doing so. Now, more than ever, we are witnessing the best version of JaMychal as a Clipper. I suspect that Doc recognizes the value that JaMychal adds to the team and will figure out how to keep his minutes up, regardless of lineup or position.
The big fella has played in, and started in, every one of the Clippers’ games this season, and he will continue to do so. Of all of the players on the roster, Zu is perhaps the least versatile in his role. You won’t find him playing any position other than center, and he won’t do anything outside of the normal, but that is exactly what is asked of him.
Zu is the best defensive and rebounding big on the team by a large margin. His ability to excel in these areas as an elite rim protector will serve a high importance in potential match-ups against other teams that have size at the center position. Synergy Sports rates Zu as an “Excellent” defender in guarding post-ups and isolations, allowing just 25%, conversion rates in those respective areas. This sort of defensive dominance is what keeps players from converting at the rim, and even deters them from attempting those same shots. In terms of guarding the pick & roll, Zu is at his best when he is sitting in drop coverage. It allows for him to be a pest around the rim, but at the same time, leaves the door open for the pick & pop bigs to take advantage. Opposing stretch bigs have hurt the Clippers a few times this season, but never to the point of completely turning the game. It will be interesting to see if stretch bigs become an issue for Zu in potential match-ups against the Bucks’ Brook Lopez, the Mavs’ Kristaps Porzingis, the Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic, and the plethora of small-ball perimeter players the Rockets use as the five.
On the offensive end, Zu’s job is quite simple; set solid screens to free up the ball handler, finish around the rim, and be opportunistic on the offensive glass. He rarely is asked, or even given opportunities, to do on the offensive end what other bigs on the roster do. However, his 112.8 offensive rating is the best of the available bigs. Combine the offense with the defense and you probably have your best, and most reliable big.
With all that being said, given Trez’s massive role throughout the season, JaMychal being able to stretch the floor, and Joakim’s possible quick spurts of minutes every here and there, it would be really surprising to see Zu get more than his average amount of minutes. It’s ultimately going to come down to how he is playing during that specific game, and if he is creating more impact than the other bigs on any given night.
Last, but certainly not least, is the “Monsta,” Montrezl Harrell. Trez’s energy is felt at all times. He plays with a “dog” mentality and competitive spirit that has earned a special place in the hearts of the Clippers community forever. From NBA D-Leaguer, to 6MOY contender, Harrell has quickly worked his way into becoming one of the better players on the Clippers roster. Before the return of the NBA, Trezz was Doc’s clear-cut favorite at the center position. He came off the bench, but played significantly more minutes than any other center on the team, while also closing the majority of games.
Standing at 6’7, Trez usually finds himself undersized in comparison to his matchup. What he lacks in height, however, he makes up for in athleticism and explosion. Trez has a notion for making highlight blocks as the help defender, using his anticipation and explosive jumps to take shots out of the air. However, his lack of size is often his downfall in defending bigger centers who like to isolate in the post situations, which could present a lot of the same problems as playing JaMychal Green at the center. The competitive nature and high motor of Trezz is enough to get him through most situations, but at the end of the day, his weaknesses on the defensive side of the ball are clearly visible. He simply doesn’t offer the defensive capabilities that Zubac or Noah bring. Trez is a fair rebounder at 7.1 per game, but offensive rebounds are seemingly always there for the taking during his time on the court, being most evident in a loss to the Atlanta Hawks back in January when the Hawks pulled down 23 offensive boards.
You know what you’re going to get with Trezz on the offensive end. Over the course of the past two seasons, Trezz and Lou Williams have used the pick & roll to become the highest scoring bench duo in NBA history. While that dynamic has been a mainstay in the offense, Trezz has seen an increase in opportunity to operate in isolation situations out of the post. He is shooting 58% from the field this season, while using a combination of strength and crafty ball-handling to work his way to the rim. The isolations are sometimes wonky, but necessary. Trezz, who averages 5.6 free-throw attempts per game, attacks the rim in a relentless and creative way that often leaves his defenders in foul trouble. This offensive pressure could be key in shifting momentum in playoff games.
It’s likely going to take Trezz a bit of time to work his way back into game shape and return to form. Given the reality of Trezz’s situation, there won’t really be much time for him to ease his way back in, given that the playoffs are slated to begin August 17th. Nevertheless, he’ll be a key part of the rotation as he has been all year. Don’t expect anything less.
Given Trezz’s absence from the team, the Clippers; center rotation has been altered to experiment with different lineups, and give more minutes to their available bigs. The results have been encouraging, and honestly, seem to be sustainable. However, despite the success, we’ve seen the all-bench lineups really struggle to generate offense during stretches of games. Clearly, Trez’s ability to “get a bucket” is missed, as the lack of shot creators really plagued the bench unit at times. With Trez’s eventual return to the bubble seemingly around the corner, you can expect his surplus of minutes to return with him.
Ultimately, Doc’s decisions on the Clippers’ center rotation should come down to matchups and how things are playing out throughout the course of playoff matchups. He will have tough decisions to make, but I expect that the versatility these bigs bring to the game will allow Doc to be creative with his lineups.
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