Work in progress: Are Clippers running out of time to fix issues?

There aren’t many teams in the NBA that are dissected more — both good and bad — than the Los Angeles Clippers. ‘Polarizing’ might be a better way of describing the perception of this 2014-15 Clippers squad.

Despite sitting with 28 wins through 42 games, good for sixth place in the Western Conference, not everyone is sold on the construction of this Clippers team. The onus for that falls on the shoulders of Doc Rivers, the president of basketball operations, not Doc Rivers the head coach.

That has been a lot of talk of Rivers’ ability to wear both hats, and for good reason. The Clippers’ bench has struggled all season. The scoring disparity between the first and second units is all too noticeable.

The Clippers boast one of the top starting fives — Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, J.J. Redick, Matt Barnes — in the league, if not the best, averaging 117.9 points per 100 possessions. The starting five collectively shoots 51.2 percent from the field, higher than any other starting unit the league (based on at least 30 games played together).

As a team, only the Dallas Mavericks (110.6) score more points per 100 possession than the Clippers (110.4). The scoring drop starts after the NBA’s reigning Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford, who’s averaging 15.7 points per game in 26 minutes. The bench unit is averaging 40.8 percent shooting from the field, good (or bad) for 28th-best (or worst) in the league. 

"When you look at our five against everybody else’s five, they’re as good or better," Rivers said before Monday’s win over the Boston Celtics. "So your next step, and you know in the playoffs you’re not playing but eight anyway. But you have to get there, and that’s what we’re trying to do."

Rivers gives off the impression that he really believes in the moves he’s made this season, four of which took place in the last week. Veteran guard Dahntay Jones was signed to a 10-day contract; Jordan Farmar was waived; and one of the team’s most valuable bench assets, youthful guard Reggie Bullock, along with Chris Douglas-Roberts, were traded as part of a package deal for his son, Austin Rivers, a former first-round draft pick who has struggled enormously in his three-plus seasons in the league.

Those kinds of moves don’t move the needle within the NBA landscape, because those moves don’t win games for you down the stretch. But Rivers doesn’t sound like he’s done shuffling guys around. 

"You do need some surprises off the bench. So that’s what we’re searching for. I thought defensively we were very weak … Now we have to try to shore (up) a couple more spots on our bench, but I like where we’re headed."

On the defensive end, there’s not much of a difference between the two units, because they’ve both been right around the middle of the pack all season. The Clippers are allowing 104.0 points per 100 possessions — 12th-best in the league — on 45.7 percent shooting. There isn’t much variance between the starters and the bench, both hover around 45 percent. 

What more telling is the difference in plus/minus ratings between the starting five and the bench. While five starters carry a positive plus/minus, all but two members of the Clippers’ bench, Crawford and Epke Udoh, are in red figures.

In Monday’s win over the Celtics, the Clippers held large double-digit leads throughout the second half. It wasn’t until Rivers played Hawes, Big Baby, Rivers and Jones together that the Celtics charged back, turning an 18-point deficit into eight points in short order, behind the three-point shooting of guards Marcus Smart and Marcus Thornton. The Clippers’ bench struggled to score points and struggled to stop the Celtics from getting back into the game. 

One idea that might inject some life into the second unit would involve giving Jordan fewer minutes early in the game, taking him out in favor of Hawes around the five-or-six-minute mark of the first quarter, allowing the team’s best rebounder and best defender to do his work with a second unit that misses a lot of shots and lacks athleticism. Jordan can provide more second-chance opportunities for the bench while providing a spark on defense. This would be a similar move to what the Mavericks do with Dirk Nowitzki, taking him out earlier on in the first quarter so he can be fresh in the second quarter to anchor the second unit.

At this point, throwing ideas at the wall doesn’t seem like a bad idea.

As the stretch run gets underway, the Clippers’ biggest weakness will be exposed one way or another. The starters won’t be able to carry the entire load with a breather here and there. The Clippers finished December by playing 10 games in 16 nights. January and into February, the Clippers will head on an eight-game road trip that features five for-sure playoff teams — San Antonio, Cleveland, Toronto, Oklahoma City, Dallas — and one on-the-fence team — New Orleans.

The tough is about to get going.

Getting to the playoffs is one thing, winning the title is another thing entirely. Watching these Clippers game in and game out, the eye test tells you that Paul, Griffin, Jordan, Barnes and Redick have a championship feel to them. Those five can run with any staring group in the league. Beyond those five guys is where the Clippers start getting themselves into trouble.

A game-changing move needs to be made, and sooner rather than later. Now it’s just a matter of finding it without being afraid to shake things up, being aggressive. As much as Rivers sees himself only running eight deep, if the Clippers are losing leads and eventually games because of a bench that can’t run with the other benches in the league, making a deep run in the postseason won’t happen.

Will Jones and Rivers, the two most recent additions, somehow find ways to elevate the Clippers from sixth-best in the Western Conference to the conference’s representative in the NBA Finals? Can anyone envision guys like Hawes, Jones, Rivers, Big Baby or even Hedo playing meaningful minutes down the stretch or deep in a seven-game series against Golden State? The answer is no, or at least it should be. Trading for Austin Rivers seemed a little bit like a panic move, given what the Clippers gave up when weighed against the return.

While there is still time for Rivers to get it all figured out, this season could be the Clippers’ last shot at winning a title with this group. When Jordan hits free agency this summer, the Clippers more than likely will have to overpay their double-double machine, and who knows if Rivers will be willing to do so.

What lies ahead for the Clippers is up to Doc Rivers the president of basketball operations. Moves need to be made to bolster this team’s back end, but the Clippers have very little wiggle room under the salary cap. So, barring some sort of blockbuster trade, any and all moves that get made will happen on the smaller end and look like the same moves you’ve already seen, just with different faces.

All stats come courtesy of NBA.com/stats.