The absences of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan weren’t discussed before the Clippers played the Miami Heat.
There was no need. Cole Aldrich and Pablo Prigioni were still available.
Aldrich and Prigioni will never be confused for All-Star-caliber players, but the journeymen were exactly what the Clippers needed Wednesday without their frontcourt stars.
Aldrich started at center and scored a team-high 19 points while thriving in pick-and-roll situations alongside point guard Chris Paul, and Prigioni was a defensive menace off the bench with a career-high eight steals in only 14 minutes.
Their presence during the Clippers’ 104-90 victory over the Heat provided more evidence of how Doc Rivers the general manager is benefiting Doc Rivers the coach more so than at any other point in his three seasons in the dual role.
“He was very aggressive in terms of adding all sorts of different talent,” ESPN analyst Tom Penn, a former assistant general manager with the Portland Trail Blazers and Memphis Grizzlies, said Thursday in a telephone interview. “They’re one of the handful of teams that could be in the discussion that if they get right, they can win a championship, so you’d have to say that the general manager in that case has done a very fine job of assembling a very competitive team.”
Widely panned for his team’s thin bench last season, Rivers has supplied a bounty of options that have sparked a 10-game winning streak. The Clippers have persevered thanks to an ensemble approach even with Griffin sidelined the last nine games because of a partially torn left quadriceps tendon.
It wasn’t just newcomers Aldrich and Prigioni who helped beat the Heat; eight players whom Rivers signed last summer made important contributions.
Luc Mbah a Moute and Austin Rivers were strong defensively. Josh Smith had three steals and nine points off the bench in his first meaningful minutes since last month. Paul Pierce scored 15 points and told his teammates they were headed for a win at halftime even though they were down by seven. Wesley Johnson made a three-pointer as part of a second-half surge. Even the flamboyant Lance Stephenson showed some rare restraint in his six minutes.
It was Rivers’ belief that his players were capable of these kinds of performances that kept him from mentioning Griffin or Jordan in the locker room before the game.
“I think you have to do that,” Rivers said of emphasizing a next-player-up approach, “because guys all can play. So you just trust them.”
Of course, it took some time for Rivers to figure out how to best utilize the resources he had given himself. He started the season with Smith and Stephenson in his playing rotation and the team struggled, its record barely above .500 after the first two months.
Then Rivers inserted Aldrich and Prigioni into his second unit. Prigioni took over the primary ballhandling duties, allowing Austin Rivers and Jamal Crawford to be more assertive in attacking the basket. Aldrich created space with continual rolls toward the basket that freed his teammates for open shots.
Now it’s the Clippers who are on a roll, owning the NBA’s longest active winning streak. It’s helped that they no longer need to rely as heavily on the Griffin-Paul-Jordan trio, even when healthy.
Mbah a Moute, capable of guarding all five positions, has become the lockdown defender the team needed to complement Jordan. Pierce has stretched the court with a recent hot spell of three-point shooting. Johnson has made some timely shots and used his length effectively on defense. Austin Rivers is in the midst of the best sustained stretch of his career.
Almost every newcomer has found a role in which he can thrive.
“Doc the coach has had this period of time to give everybody a chance and then settle in on what he likes,” Penn said. “It will be another challenge when Blake comes back incorporating him and his touches and his shots into the successful rotation that he’s identified.”
Penn said he didn’t believe the Clippers, as currently constructed, were good enough to beat the Golden State Warriors or the San Antonio Spurs, suggesting they should remain open to making a move before the trade deadline next month.
“They’ll be wise to have their eyes and their ears open to see if there’s a deal that they could make that would make them better versus a club like Golden State or San Antonio,” Penn said. “I think [the Warriors and Spurs] should unplug all their phones because they have proven to be exceptional and the Clippers aren’t there yet. But they have settled on a really good rotation here that has created quite a bit of success.”
The absences of Griffin and Jordan could actually help the Clippers over the long term. Aldrich and Smith are logging extra minutes, giving them experience that could benefit the team later in the season.
“These guys missing games is giving other guys an opportunity to build their confidence,” Paul said, “and that way when they come back it just adds that much more depth to our team.”
It also gives Doc Rivers belief that he can rely on someone besides his stars in a crucial situation. He largely has himself to thank after his summer harvest.
“It’s great to know that you have that,” Rivers said, “and that can help you.”