Who Should Start At Small Forward For The Clippers? Not Paul Pierce Or Lance Stephenson

The Los Angeles Clippers finally boast the depth necessary to compete at the absolute highest level. But with an influx of talent comes more questions, ones most related to playing rotation and potential chemistry concerns gleaned from it.

Doc Rivers deserves scrutiny for not just his inability to build a viable bench in his first two seasons with Los Angeles, but also his oft confounding substitution patterns. Say this for the Clippers’ czar, though: Perhaps no coach in the league is a better motivator or possesses more locker room clout, attributes that will no doubt prove a boon to his team as Rivers’ decides Los Angeles’ fifth and final starter.

You know the locks by now: Chris Paul, JJ Redick, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan. Small forward has been a weakness for the Clippers ever since this core was first established, and Rivers did well to strengthen it this summer by bringing in Lance Stephenson, Paul Pierce, and Wes Johnson – the former of whom was acquired in a trade involving incumbent starter Matt Barnes.

But don’t expect name recognition to be the deciding factor in which of those three players will join Paul, Redick, Griffin, and Jordan at tip-off. Rivers, in fact, seems to have already decided that Stephenson will come off the bench.

Los Angeles’ coach said as much immediately after acquiring the gifted, mercurial wing in June – well before Pierce and Johnson had come aboard. The Clippers have plenty of playmaking in the starting lineup; what they lack is a versatile wing defender who can capably space the floor. Stephenson has always been an impactful defensive player when engaged, but his shooting range leaves much to be desired and he’s yet to show comfort playing without the ball in his hands. Born Ready, basically, is a no-brainer off the bench.

That leaves Pierce and Johnson, which doesn’t seem much of a competition at all first glance. As always with teams of an established caliber, the big picture is what matters most for Los Angeles. Is starting Pierce and playing him an additional few minutes per game really worth the long-term health risk? We don’t think so, and it certainly bears mentioning that the athletic, long-limbed Johnson is a superior defender at this point in their careers, too.

But the Clippers’ opened training camp the way the majority imagines they will the season – with Pierce as a starter.

That’s not necessarily indicative of Rivers’ final decision. Unless he’d already spoken with Pierce about being a reserve for the first time in his career, it makes most sense for Rivers to avoid any initial conflict by sticking to the status quo.

Don’t be surprised when Johnson is in the starting lineup when Los Angeles opens 2015-16. He’s at least as good a fit – a better one in our opinion, actually – alongside the Clippers’ entrenched quartet as Pierce is, and presents none of the wear-and-tear concerns that inevitably accompany a starter’s role.

Does that mean the career journeyman will close games as Pierce rides the pine? Of course not. The Truth remains a proven crunch-time performer at 37-years-old, and has enough juice and knack to capably check upper-echelon wings for small stretches, too.

Basketball at its highest level isn’t just about talent alone, but which team gets the most out of its collective ability. And by eschewing expectation and making Johnson a starter, Rivers would give the Clippers their best opportunity to do just that.