The Los Angeles Clippers boast a starting lineup that most NBA GM’s would kill for. With perennial All-Stars Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and Deandre Jordan, along with perhaps the NBA’s best shooter in J.J. Redick, the Clippers have been considered legitimate contenders to win the title for several years now.
It’s hard to believe then, that their starting lineup has been incomplete since the start of the Blake Griffin era.
That’s right, the Clippers have a gaping hole in their star studded lineup, one that has kept the squad from advancing past the second round and shrouded their team in question.
The small forward position has become increasingly valuable in a league that is largely dominated by point guards and the occasional true center.
While this may be the era of the point guard, many of the top players in the league hold down the small-forward spot.
The small forward is an extremely unique position and requires perhaps the most skill. The 3-man is depended on to do a little bit of everything.
As the larger wing, the small forward is expected to crash the boards hard, using keen anticipation and awareness to hit the weak-side and swallow up rebounds.
Small forwards are often tasked with being a team’s lock-down defender as well. With the size and strength to cover opposing bigs and forwards, but also the speed to switch to quicker guards, the three-man is often the backbone of a strong defense. Paul George, LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard have proven this to be true.
Offensively, the position requires effective ball handling. While a small forward won’t normally be a team’s primary ball handler, they will often be tasked with driving against opponents or handling the ball during plays and fast-breaks.
Play-making small forwards are particularly valuable as they allow the point and shooting guards more freedom on offense, making them more of a threat to score. Giannis Antetokounmpo excelled in this regard following last year’s All-Star break, upping his assist numbers from 2.8 to over 7 a game and emerging as one of the top small forwards in the league.
Effective small forwards are also consistent threats from 3-point range. With the ability to space the floor and draw the defense away from the paint, they create more opportunities for centers, forwards and slashing/driving guards.
Now that we understand just how vital a solid small forward can be to a contending team, lets break down the Clippers 3-men of recent years:
2011- 13-Caron Butler: 12 points, 1.2 assists, 2.7 rebounds— The starting small forward for the Clippers upon the arrival of Chris Paul, Butler was a savvy veteran presence for Los Angeles. While past his prime, the veteran forward was a decent option at the 3 guard. His first season with the Clippers in 2011-12, Butler proved he could still put up some numbers, but failed to maintain a consistent offensive presence, and lacked the athleticism required to be a top defender in the league.
2013-14-Jared Dudley: 6.9 points, 1.4 assists, 2.2 rebounds— The 6’7’’ forward joined the team during head Coach Doc Rivers first campaign with the Clippers. Dudley shared minutes with veteran Matt Barnes and started in 43 games. While known for his ability to space the floor, Dudley knocked down 36% of his 3-point attempts but was largely unsuccessful at becoming a persistent threat offensively.
2012-15- Matt Barnes: 10.1 points, 1.5 assists 4 rebounds— Barnes played for the Clippers early in his career, then rejoined the team in 2012 after getting booted from the Lakers. Barnes has always been known for his grit, toughness, hustle and harassing defensive ability. After sharing the starting role with Dudley and coming off of the bench for Los Angeles, Barnes claimed the starting spot in 2014-15 and had a career season.
2015-16- Luc Mbah a Moute: 3.1 points, .4 assists, 2.3 rebounds— Mbah a Moute started in 61 games for the Clippers last season. Never known as a scorer, Mbah a Moute failed to be any kind of an offensive threat, but got on the court thanks to his hard play and defensive skills.
During this span the Clippers failed to get past the second round of the playoffs, even giving up a historic 3-1 lead to the anemic Houston Rockets.
After securing a meeting with superstar Kevin Durant this summer, the Clippers hoped to fill their void at small forward the best way possible.
Unfortunately for Los Angeles, Durant left the Hamptons a Golden State Warrior, joining the team’s recent playoff rival.
Now with the 2016-17 season fast approaching, head coach Doc Rivers has been searching for an answer at small forward.
“I think that job is wide open,” Rivers said. “I’d say Luc, Alan [Anderson], Wes [Johnson] would be the three, but we may go small. Like I said last year, and didn’t follow through on it, that position will change a lot. Last year, we ran a lot with the small lineup, three guards, and we may do that to start games.”
While the Clippers lack talent at the small forward position, they do have a plethora of skilled guards. As coach Rivers stated, the team has experimented with small-ball lineups in the preseason, even experimenting with a four-guard lineup of Paul, Raymond Felton, Austin Rivers, and Jamal Crawford at times.
News has emerged that the Clippers will try Austin Rivers at small forward next. The guard has claimed to have hit the weight room this summer, at the request of his father, coach Rivers.
Doc Rivers explained the roster move to the media, “a lot of guys are out at the 3-point line. And a lot of them have the advantage off the dribble. Even the bigger threes who are athletic and can handle the ball, their advantage is a three guarding them.
They have a dribble advantage, too, and quickness. But when you put a smaller guy, you take the dribble advantage away and then you turn them into post players, which is still just two points. So, there’s some benefit to it. You can’t do it every night, obviously. It’s nice to make it very hard to do.”
With an extremely talented but aging roster, the Clippers hope they can fill their void at small forward sooner rather than later. If the team can’t tweak their roster to perfection, they don’t stand much of a chance against the new-look Golden State Warriors.
Joey Thomas is a Los Angeles native and an NBA junkie. Follow him on twitter and instagram @joeythomasss