The All Star break is drawing to a close, which means it’s time to look forward and examine a few bigger picture items to look at for the Clippers during the last 29 games of the season.

Do the Clippers Make any Buyout Signings?

NBA teams have until March 1 to sign players who were bought out this season if those players are to be eligible for playoff play. This does mean players who haven’t been in the NBA at all this season, like JaMychal Green or Blake Griffin, could be signed at any time before the playoffs and could still appear in the postseason. Thus, while the deadline for a lot of players will be coming up in less than two weeks, there is still a pool of players available after that – though there would obviously be very limited time to get them acclimated to a new team.

The Clippers of course, have a completely full roster, with 15 players on full deals and all three two-way spots filled as well. However, they were linked to Danilo Gallinari last week, which means they are considering buyout players. The obvious hole in their roster is a bigger forward/small-ball five option (like Gallo), but theoretically a veteran wing could be an ok get as well. There aren’t a ton of names out there, though I thought Chimezie Metu had some solid minutes for the Suns earlier this season.

The more interesting question is who the Clipper would waive in such a scenario. If you rule out current rotation players, two-way guys, and Kobe Brown on the first year of his rookie deal, the players left are PJ Tucker, Daniel Theis, Bones Hyland, Brandon Boston, and Josh Primo. I think it’s probably safe to rule out Theis, who has played well for the Clippers this year and is a great insurance 3rd big man (I also still think he could beat out Plumlee for that last rotation spot, see below). PJ Tucker seems to be unwilling to accept a buyout, so that’s not an option. Hyland has guaranteed money for next year, Primo has a small partially guaranteed deal, and Boston will be a free agent, so from that lens maybe Boston is the guy. On the other hand, he’s the closest to the rotation of that trio. If I had my druthers, Primo would the cut, but I’m honestly not sure what the Clippers would do.

My guess is the Clippers don’t make any other additions, but it is something to watch out for over the next couple of weeks.

The Stars’ Minutes Loads

The Clippers have been remarkably healthy this season, which has been great, and a driving factor in their success. The small negative side of that is the games and minutes played for the Clippers’ key players is adding up. The other component is that the Clippers are an old team – and their core players are the oldest ones on the roster. Norm Powell (30) and Russell Westbrook (35) are on pace to play all 82 games. Paul George (33) is on pace to play for 77 games. James Harden (34) and Kawhi Leonard (32) are on pace for 74 games played. Norm and Russ are on fairly manageable minutes per game, but George, Kawhi, and Harden are all over 33.5 minutes, a sizable number for players of their ages, injury histories, and miles.

All of that is reason (regardless of what the NBA said in their report earlier this season about the ineffectiveness of load management) to try to get these guys some rest down the stretch of the season. Even if load management doesn’t prevent injuries, the Clippers need their stars to be fresh enough for a deep playoff run. They were all looking gassed by the last week before the All Star Break, and while that break will help, March is a grueling schedule. The effects of the break will be gone quickly, and these Clippers simply can’t make a playoff run if their stars are gassed.

The flip side, of course, is that the Clippers have professed a desire for the number one seed in the conference, and that won’t be easy. They’re two games behind the Wolves for first and 1.5 behind the Thunder. The Nuggets and Jokic loom just a game behind the Clippers. Beating out all three of those teams for the top one (or even two) seed will probably require the Clippers get to 55 wins, or finish at a 19-10 clip – and that might be optimistic. The Clippers won’t get there if they are resting their stars even semi-regularly. And there’s the even more concerning fact that the Suns and Pelicans are only 5 losses behind the Clippers, and the Mavs and Kings just 6. That’s a lot of ground to make up this late in the season but it’s not insurmountable, and the Clippers keeping at least a top four seed is of paramount importance.

How the Clippers balance the push for the 1 seed against keeping their players fresh will be interesting to watch. Considering how they’ve pushed playing games all year, my suspicion is that resting is kept at a minimum until seeds might be truly locked in the last couple games.

The Back Half of the Rotation

The Clippers have had a fairly set rotation since mid-December, starting Harden, George, Terance Mann, Kawhi Leoard, and Ivica Zubac, with Westbrook, Powell, Amir Coffey, and one of Mason Plumlee or Theis off the bench. The only change has been Plumlee overtaking Theis for the backup center role the past couple weeks. When one of PG or Kawhi has been out, Amir has slid to the starting lineup and Boston has taken his spot as the 9th man in the rotation. The question is: will it remain that way the last 35% of the season?

There has been at least a bit of news on that front. The Clippers sent home PJ Tucker and Bones Hyland the last game before the All Star break due to some disagreements between the players and the front office and/or coaching staff. Interestingly, Shams Charania reported there would be “openness to re-inserting him (Tucker) into the rotation” after the break. There are a few different options here. The first is that this means nothing – Ty Lue said all last year he wanted to play Robert Covington more and then never did. The second is that Tucker will see limited use in specific situations, such as small-ball or against certain opponents such as Zion Williamson. The third is that Tucker actually will re-enter the full rotation.

Well, who would Tucker player over? It’s nearly impossible to see him edging out Amir Coffey, who has been fantastic. The Clippers are not removing Russ or Norm from the rotation. Terance Mann has had an up-and-down season, but the starting lineup with him has been too good to adjust much. The two more likely options are that Tucker becomes the backup center over Plumlee and Theis, or that he joins the rotation and it simply expands to 10 players. This could be part of giving the stars more rest down the stretch. The issue with this is that Tucker works best as a glue guy next to stars, and bench lineups with him with, a center, and Russ would be awful on offense. I do think at least trying him as a small-ball center at times would be a good strategy just to be ready for that option in the playoffs, but he’s simply not as good as Plumlee or Theis. A part-time, limited role for Tucker to keep him engaged and game-ready seems smart. More than that, I don’t know.

Outside of Tucker or a buyout guy, there are other possibilities for expanding the rotation. Bones Hyland is unlikely, as the Clippers don’t view him next to Russ and Norm as viable defensively. Instead, Boston and Brown are the likelier guys to get handfuls of minutes if Ty does move the rotation to 10 to buy his older players a few extra minutes of rest per game. While Boston has improved in some ways, I don’t love his fit next to Norm and Russ either, and to be quite frank it seems unlikely he’s on the team next year – so I’d rather give Kobe those minutes.

Finally, there’s the backup center battle. Plumlee was receiving the minutes leading up to the All Star break, and a few embarrassments aside was mostly fine. Numbers don’t really bear this opinion out, but I do think Theis has outplayed him this year. Really though, they’re around the same level of player, and I’m fine with Ty going with either down the stretch of the season.

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