Clippers

Analysis: Clippers are deep in talent — and that raises questions

Doc Rivers

Clippers Coach Doc Rivers pleads for a foul call from official Eli Roe during the fourth quarter of a game on Dec. 17.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Doc Rivers, the Clippers’ president of basketball operations, has stocked the team’s roster like a grocery store in the days before a snowstorm. There’s a Socrates-deep bench to go with two of the NBA’s top players, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, not to mention the emoji-fueled return of defensive dynamo DeAndre Jordan.

All of which leads to a surprisingly long list of questions for Doc Rivers, the coach:

Borderline ball hogs Lance Stephenson and Jamal Crawford on the same unit? How’s that going to work?

Can Paul Pierce realistically expect to play starter-level minutes at age 38?

Four small forwards? Really? Does the fourth-stringer get more minutes than the video coordinator?

The Times enlisted two former NBA coaches — Mike Fratello, Rivers’ first professional coach; and Stu Jackson, who, similar to Rivers, once held the dual role of general manager and coach — to sift through the challenges facing Rivers this season. Expectations are such that anything short of the Clippers’ first appearance in the Western Conference finals would widely be considered a failure.

There is no shortage of issues when you have two alleged malcontents, five ballhandlers and seven forwards.

Fratello, who coached Rivers for his first seven years as a point guard with the Atlanta Hawks, had his own question regarding Stephenson and Josh Smith, new acquisitions with shaky reputations.

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“There’s no one in the league who won’t say that they have talent and they have been athletically blessed,” said Fratello, an analyst for TNT. “However, they also come with the word ‘but’ after it, a little like [free-agent guard] J.R. Smith. Which J.R. Smith are you getting? The one who unties guys’ shoes at the foul line or the one who makes eight threes in a game?”

For the record, Josh Smith made four three-pointers in the Houston Rockets’ epic comeback against the Clippers in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals, though the Clippers would gladly take that production on a regular basis from a player who figures to back up Griffin at power forward.

Stephenson comes with a history of having blown in LeBron James ear’ during a game. He’s also generated whispers about being a bad teammate, leading to more questions from Fratello.

“How is he going to fit in with the chemistry of this team and how will he handle the star factor of Chris Paul, of Blake Griffin, of Pierce’s experience and his Hall of Fame background?” Fratello asked. “How is he going to fit in with all that and does he bounce back from having a disappointing year last year? Has he grown up, has he matured, is he going to be a contributor?”

Jackson, a former coach and general manager of the Vancouver Grizzlies who is an analyst for NBA TV, said the presence of Paul, Griffin and Pierce should act as a buffer against bad behavior because they have created a culture of success and expectations.

“Teams that have veteran leadership can absorb almost any player into their culture and their environment,” Jackson said.

Pierce brings a championship pedigree but also concerns. He has logged 50,446 minutes, including action in the playoffs, in his 17 NBA seasons and averaged a career-low 26.2 minutes a game last season with the Washington Wizards. That makes him a candidate for a maintenance plan that could entail not only reduced minutes but sitting out games in back-to-back situations.

“Given the depth of the Clippers’ roster,” Jackson said, “I think it probably behooves them to manage his minutes because the result could be a highly productive playoff-oriented player, which is what they’re after.”

That newfound depth should have other pluses, Jackson said. The Clippers will have versatility on the perimeter they lacked in recent seasons, giving them the ability to match up with opponents big and small. They will also have enough bodies to sustain a few injuries without an appreciable drop-off in play.

But what about having so many players with overlapping skill sets? Pierce, Stephenson, Wesley Johnson and Jordan Hamilton all play small forward, and the ballhandling spot could be even more of a logjam. Paul, Austin Rivers and newcomer Pablo Prigioni are point guards by nature and Stephenson and Crawford also like to operate with the ball in their hands.

This is where Doc Rivers’ skills as an orator and consensus-builder will be tested.

“One of Doc’s strengths is the ability to communicate and galvanize a team,” Jackson said. “Doc has the ability to focus teams on a common goal … and he does it in such a way that he gains buy-in.”

Fratello said Rivers would need to take a wait-and-see approach as to whether Stephenson and Crawford can coexist as part of the second team. If not, a trade is always an option.

“Maybe these guys are too similar to each other,” Fratello said. “Maybe we don’t need both of them, so maybe we use one of them in a deal that may come up.”

Crawford has alluded to displeasure with the Clippers on social media, tweeting that being a free agent would be a “wish” for him in the wake of persistent trade rumors. The veteran shooting guard also listed Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena among his favorite NBA spots, seemingly referencing the Cavaliers because they were one of his rumored trade destinations.

There is also the matter of whether the Clippers need to make Jordan more of a focal point of their offense. That possibility seemed to dazzle the center during his free-agency dalliance with the Dallas Mavericks.

Jackson suggested the Clippers should continue to develop Jordan, who’s still only 27 despite having completed seven NBA seasons, on his current trajectory as a defensive menace who is enhancing his offensive repertoire. Fratello pointed out that giving Jordan more touches would result in fewer opportunities for gifted scorers Griffin and Paul.

Of course, there’s one solution that would get Jordan more points while pleasing his teammates.

“He needs to become a better free-throw shooter,” Fratello said of a player who has made 41.7% of his foul shots in his career and spent long stretches of the playoffs being intentionally fouled.

That’s one thing about the Clippers that there’s no question about.

Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch

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