It’s a second-unit lineup that features three ballhandlers, though any of the five players can grab a rebound and push the ball up the court.
The power forward has spent most of his storied NBA career at shooting guard and small forward. The tallest player is 6 feet 9, the shortest is 6-4.
Not knowing what to make of the Clippers’ new small-ball lineup is exactly the point.
“If we don’t know who’s bringing it up,” Clippers shooting guard Jamal Crawford said, “then I know the defense doesn’t know as well.”
Going small was something Clippers Coach Doc Rivers has wanted to do since his arrival more than two years ago. He’s finally able to do it for sustained stretches after his team added the multi-positional Lance Stephenson, Josh Smith and Paul Pierce over the summer.
Stephenson is part of a three-guard alignment that also includes Crawford and Austin Rivers. Pierce, a veteran of 17 NBA seasons and seemingly as many position switches, will man power forward off the bench, if he doesn’t start. Smith, a former small forward who likes to shoot three pointers, will be the center in what feels like name only.
Calling it small ball might be somewhat of a misnomer considering the height of the guards: Crawford and Stephenson are 6-5 and Rivers is 6-4, giving them the size needed to post up their counterparts. Maybe it should be dubbed the biggie small lineup considering it also includes the 6-7 Pierce and 6-9 Smith.
Whatever the name, the bench rotation is expected to be unveiled Friday night at Staples Center in the Clippers’ exhibition opener against the Denver Nuggets unless Stephenson is sidelined by inflammation in his pubic bone that has bothered him recently.
There are other permutations of the small-ball group that will include starters. Former Laker Wesley Johnson could play power forward off the bench on nights Pierce, a 10-time All-Star, is in the starting lineup.
“We have so many combinations,” Doc Rivers said.
Stephenson and Austin Rivers are expected to be the primary ballhandlers off the bench in a lineup that made training camp what Doc Rivers described as “off-the-charts” competitive, with the reserves regularly beating the starters. The challenge of stopping so many playmakers with size was twofold.
“They can either be quick,” forward Blake Griffin said, “or they can overpower some of the guards.”
Folding Pierce into the small lineup comes with dual benefits: He can play fewer minutes as part of the second unit, preserving a body that has logged 50,446 NBA minutes, and serve as a steadying presence.
“With Lance and Austin and Jamal,” Doc Rivers said, “he kind of gives them the calm, and we want those guys in some way to be the storm — like, keep attacking.”
One early problem has been over-passing in an attempt to turn good opportunities into great ones. It has led to some turnovers, irking Doc Rivers because they prevent one of the league’s most efficient offenses from even taking a shot.
“One thing that Josh and Lance have to learn — in our culture, at least — is the turnovers,” Rivers said. “They’re such good passers, but they will go for it every time.”
Having so many similar-sized players on the court could give the Clippers an advantage defensively, Rivers said, because they can switch onto other players without being put into mismatches.
Rivers said he wouldn’t necessarily use the small lineup just as a countermeasure when other teams such as the Golden State Warriors go small. The coach said the versatility of Griffin and center DeAndre Jordan would allow the Clippers to stay big in those situations if they so desired.
“Some teams match up to you; some teams don’t,” Rivers said. “It’s a game of chicken whenever you do it anyways, and if your small lineup is better than their big lineup, most likely they’re going to go small. If it’s the other way, then you’re going to have to go big at some point.”
The Clippers could super-size themselves at times with a lineup consisting of Jordan (6-11), Griffin (6-10) and Smith in addition to Stephenson and Crawford.
But they will probably go the opposite direction more often with the small lineup.
“That’s the group I wanted to create,” Rivers said.