When the Los Angeles Clippers opened the 2011-2012 season on Christmas Day against the Golden State Warriors, the second string on their depth chart read as follows:
When you realize that Foye has since been forced into the starting lineup in the wake of Chauncey Billups' torn Achilles, that leaves Williams as the only reserve from the start of the season who played so much as a single minute in the seven games of the Clippers' first round playoff series victory over the Memphis Grizzlies.
Back in December, Reggie Evans (who had only been signed on Dec. 22) was nursing a sprained right foot, Eric Bledsoe was recovering from October knee surgery, Kenyon Martin was playing in China, and Nick Young was starting for the Washington Wizards.
The early season Clippers bench was anemic. Thompkins, a rookie second round pick, shows promise, but is not ready to be part of an NBA rotation. Gomes, the starting small forward for the Clippers a year ago before being replaced by Caron Butler, had lost all confidence in his game and posted the third worst PER in the entire league this season among players with more than 400 minutes played. Cook was even worse; a stretch four who couldn't shoot, he was 5 for 27 from beyond the arc as a Clipper. His PER in L.A. was 0.0, which is not easy to do.
Williams, a starter most of his NBA career and an All-Star in 2009 with Cleveland, was thriving in his sixth man role, but there was little else in reserve for the team.
Slowly but surely, the reinforcements arrived. Evans' foot healed and he made his season debut in the sixth game, immediately becoming the first big man off the bench and a STAPLES Center favorite. Martin got out of his contract in China early and joined the team on February 8. Bledsoe returned to the lineup in early February as well, though he was brought along slowly as he tested his knee and tried to regain game shape. Young was acquired for Cook and a second round pick at the trade deadline in mid-March.
As it happens, Williams suffered a toe injury and missed 11 games shortly after Young joined the team. So it wasn't really until April 12, with just eight regular season games remaining, that Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro had his full contingent of bench players available. No wonder these guys were such a well-kept secret.
During the regular season, the Clippers bench was 26th out of 30 NBA teams in points per game. Their subs' efficiency differential while on the floor was -6.9, also 26th. In game after game, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin would build a lead, the bench would come in and squander it, and then Paul and Griffin would return to pull the game out. It was one of the reasons the Clippers had more come from behind wins overcoming double digits deficits than any other team.
By contrast, the Los Angeles bench is fourth in scoring among 16 playoff teams during the postseason, averaging 31.7 points per game from reserves. The Clippers are third among the eight teams in the second round -- only San Antonio (with Manu Ginobili) and Oklahoma City (with Sixth Man award winner James Harden) have gotten more points off their bench among the final eight.
In Sunday's decisive Game 7, the Clippers bench played as huge a role as it has all series. The Clipper reserves scored exactly half of the team's 82 points.
Coach Vinny Del Negro, who only got his full bench contingent to work with a couple of weeks before the end of the regular season, has bucked the conventional wisdom in the playoffs that says you shorten your bench. The Clipper bench is averaging over 19 minutes per game in the post season as compared to 16.6 in the regular season. Del Negro also has had the guts to put five backups on the floor together for extended stretches throughout the first round, something few coaches do in the playoffs.
During crunch time of Game 7, Del Negro played Chris Paul and four reserves (Martin, Evans, Young and Bledsoe or Williams), making it the first time this season that Blake Griffin did not finish a close game. Imagine that: in Game 7 on the road.
It was a gutsy decision to sit his All-Star, the face of the franchise -- but it paid off as the Clippers dominated down the stretch to pull away.
The Clippers' second unit is a mishmash. Bledsoe, Evans and Martin are the defensive-minded energy guys; Williams and Young are the designated gunners. When it's working, it's a lot of fun. Bledsoe, Evans and Martin are easily the three best on-ball defenders on the Clippers, and Bledsoe in particular is a relentless ball hawk. He didn't play a ton of regular season minutes because of his injury, but he was right at the top of the league in steals per minute. The Clipper backups are definitely at their best when they are forcing turnovers and getting out in transition -- in that sense, they beat the Grizzlies at their own game.
The halfcourt attack can get bogged down a bit, with Evans and Martin being limited offensive players and Bledsoe lacking much of an outside game. Far too many halfcourt possessions end with Williams or Young forcing up a difficult shot in isolation. But the defense and energy can always be counted on.
The emergence of Bledsoe may be the key to the success of the second unit. Even after he returned from his surgery in February, he lacked the blinding speed and explosive athleticism that makes him unique. Whether he got stronger or simply got more confident, he began to have a real impact in mid-March.
On six occasions in March and April, Bledsoe had three or more steals in a game. There were several times late in the season when his defensive pressure alone changed a game. Offensively, he has no jump shot to speak of and can get out of control, but he's a complete blur and has a knack for getting into the lane and finding teammates around the rim. He's also an uncanny offensive rebounder at just 6'1 (if that), the best in the league among players under 6'3. He had two offensive rebound baskets in Game 6.
Evans was the other bench hero of the first round. Griffin was the sixth best rebounder in the NBA during the regular season -- but he wasn't the best rebounder on his own team in the first round, an honor that went to Evans with almost nine per game. His defense against the big and talented Memphis frontline, particularly Zach Randolph, was also key.
From Young's barrage of three-pointers during the Game 1 comeback, to Evans' timely rebounding, to Martin's defense, to Bledsoe's semi-controlled chaos, to Williams' ability to hit difficult shots, the Clippers' bench was a factor in all four of L.A.'s victories in Round 1 -- and they almost bailed the starters out in a Game 6 loss as well.
A playoff series, against the same opponent night in and night out, can certainly skew the numbers. Evans for instance, because of his defense on Randolph, got more minutes against the Grizzlies than he's likely to get against San Antonio. But so far this postseason, a bench that was supposed to be a weakness of this Clippers team has proven to be a major strength.