Should Wesley Johnson Start Over Paul Pierce for the Los Angeles Clippers?

Pierce and Johnson are locked in a battle for the starting small forward spot. Who should win?

Last season, the Clippers were on the verge of making the Western Conference Finals. Up 3-1 on the Rockets, it seemed inevitable. But after three straight losses, the Clippers were left stunned. Despite 56 wins and a playoff series win versus the defending champion Spurs, the playoff collapse to Houston left a bad taste in their mouth, and changes needed to be made. 

This offseason, the Clippers were determined to upgrade at small forward. Unfair or not, the blame fell partially on last year's starter, Matt Barnes. His 10-for-40 (including 3-for-25 from three) shooting performance over the final six games in the Rockets series doomed his future in LA.

Despite disappearing in the playoffs, Barnes was serviceable for the Clippers last season. With Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and J.J. Redick leading the scoring, the small forward was not needed for more than the 10.1 points and 1.8 three-pointers per game he provided in the regular season.

Even with the decent offense, the 35-year-old's defense was pedestrian at best. Besides the occasional steal, his 107 Defensive Rating and -0.6  nERD, the amount of wins over .500 a player would be expected to make a league-average team, did not do much for Doc Rivers' squad. Coupled with the playoff misfires, it was exit stage left and enter Paul Pierce and Wesley Johnson.

Between Pierce and Johnson, replacing Barnes will not be too difficult, but who should be the man to do it? Both have arguments to claim the starting job for the Clippers. Let's break them down.

The Case for Pierce

Wanting another shot at a title, Pierce signed a three-year deal with Los Angeles. Along with his 17 years of NBA experience, Pierce brings a hefty resume to Clipper nation. A  top 20 scorer of all-time, 10-time All-Star and NBA champion, our first instinct is to declare the battle over before it starts on the side of Pierce. But a 38-year-old Pierce does not bring the same game as his reputation would lead you to think.

2014-15 PTS REB AST FG% 3P 3P%
Matt Barnes 10.1 4.0 1.5 .444 1.8 .362
Paul Pierce 11.9 4.0 2.0 .447 1.6 .389
Wes Johnson 9.9 4.2 1.6 .414 1.2 .351

In comparison to Johnson and Barnes, the 2014-15 Wizards' version of the veteran does not stand out. Until we take a look at the advanced metrics, then the real "Truth" comes out.

Player ORtg DRtg TS% WS PER nERD
Paul Pierce 112 104 .580 5.5 15.2 3.9
Wes Johnson 102 112 .509 1.7 11.1 -5.9

Pierce's efficiency numbers blow Johnson's out of the water. The 9.8 difference in nERD alone should have coach Rivers pencil the 17-year vet into the starting lineup. As the Clippers are in NBA title or bust mode, add in Pierce's playoff experience and he looks like the clear choice.

While Johnson has never seen a minute of postseason action, Pierce has played in 158 playoff games. Even last season with Washington, Pierce stepped up his game with the season on the line. Not only did Pierce raise his scoring average by nearly 25 percent come playoff time, but he also remained as clutch as ever, nailing  a buzzer beater against Atlanta.

The big knock on Pierce is obviously his age. After logging over 40,000 minutes in the NBA, how much is left in the tank? Even while playing a career-low 26.2 minutes per game, Pierce was the 42nd best most efficient player in the NBA, according to nERD. After coaching him for nine seasons in Boston, it's probably safe to trust that Rivers can manage Pierce's minutes while giving him the starting nod. 

The Case for Johnson

Replacing a 35-year-old Barnes with an even older Pierce, is not best for the Clippers' energy level. While Pierce is winding down his career, Johnson is hitting his prime. His legs conceivably are fresher and can withstand heavy minutes while Pierce may do best with limited time on the court at this stage in his career. 

By putting Johnson in the starting lineup, coach Rivers also provides himself with a wealth of options when it comes to his second unit. Pierce brings more versatility off the bench as he can play power forward if the Clippers want to run small ball with the second-unit. Johnson in turn is primarily a perimeter player (78 percent of his field goal attempts were from 10 feet or farther last year) with a slighter frame not suited for the punishment taken even as a stretch four. Rivers would be wise to use Johnson where he can be the most efficient, as someone who can space the floor and shoot threes.

While his efficiency numbers were sub-par to say the least, how much of the blame lies with the 21-win Lakers squad he played on last season? Playing with the likes of Jordan Hill, Wayne Ellington, and Jeremy Lin and their combined -10.3 nERD will not help anyone achieve their potential -- especially a complementary scorer like Johnson.

In fact in his five-year career, the small forward's clubs (Minnesota, Phoenix, Lakers) have won only 119 games. The Clippers won 113 games the last two years alone. 

With over 70 percent of his field goals the last two seasons coming off assists, Johnson can excel with a world-class floor general, like Paul, running the show. In his previous three stops, Johnson has never had a point guard on the same level as Paul helping to improve his game. Playing alongside Paul, Griffin, Redick, and DeAndre Jordan, Johnson should find himself with more open looks than in the past. 

With counting stats similar to Pierce, Johnson will almost certainly boost his efficiency by playing with higher-quality teammates.

The Verdict

Conceivably, coach Rivers could decide to start Johnson, while choosing to play Pierce in crunch time. That's not ideal, but it sounds like a much better idea than his current  plan of alternating starts between the two.

Either way, both players will likely see ample time with the first and second units, especially with the a possible minutes restriction on Pierce.

While Johnson will undoubtedly improve as he plays with a much superior squad, there is absolutely no argument who should start. The numbers simply do not lie. They all are overwhelmingly on the side of the 17-year veteran, and it is not that close.

In the battle of Pierce versus Johnson, Pierce wins hands down.