What the Clippers Could Learn From the Thunder's Staggered Rotations

Why should Oklahoma City's success with staggered lineups lead the Clippers to do the same upon Blake Griffin's return?

Having a superstar is pretty crucial to NBA success.

Having two superstars is a blessing.

But it can also be a curse in a way -- if you don't use them properly.

The Portland Trail Blazers have proven this season that staggering the on-court time of two star players can work, but the Oklahoma City Thunder had some growing pains when they implemented the strategy a few weeks ago and went just 2-3 in their first five games.

However, even the Blazers needed some time at the beginning of the season to figure things out, and it seems like that was exactly the case for the Thunder as well.

Since they've gotten their first five games under their belt, how much success have the Thunder enjoyed? And what could head coach Doc Rivers and the Los Angeles Clippers learn from that success with the return of Blake Griffin growing ever closer?

The Example

As I alluded to, in the Thunder's first five games staggering Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, they didn't fare too well. 

Their scoring kicked up to 116.4 points per game on the back of an Offensive Rating 3.8 points higher than their season average of 112.9 points per 100 possessions. They even picked up more than a possession per game in that timespan.

But, the Thunder were struggling to find their game defensively, giving up nearly as many points (113.2) as they were scoring per game.

About four weeks later, things are a little different in Oklahoma City.

The Thunder are 10-4 in their last 14 and 8-1 over their last nine games -- that lone loss coming Tuesday night to the Detroit Pistons absent the services of Durant and Serge Ibaka. Since March 3rd, they've allowed just 100.4 points per game with a Defensive Rating of 103.9 -- a 1.4-point improvement upon their rating for the season.

As for the rotation itself, here are the on/off point-per-possession numbers for the season, according to

Thunder PPP Opp. PPP Net PPP
With Both 1.166 1.044 0.122
With Kevin Durant 1.165 1.058 0.107
With Russell Westbrook 1.133 1.055 0.078
With Neither 1.010 1.111 -0.101

If you put these numbers side-by-side with those compiled after just five games with the implementation of the new rotations, it's evident that the Thunder have made some improvements on a point-per-possession basis. 

The Westbrook-only lineups have taken a -0.017 hit, but the Durant-only lineups and lineups with both superstars have both seen a gain of .006 points per possessions with slight defensive advancements in each.

Any star-less lineup still continues to struggle, but isn't that the point of the new rotations? Westbrook-led lineups may struggle at times still, but he keeps the ship afloat -- as does Durant in an even more effective way.

That's the point of the whole concept -- keep the team above water until the two-headed beast that is Durant and Westbrook come in and do their damage.

After all, they are numbers three and four, respectively, in our player power rankings. And they can do things like this together.

To Follow?

After serving his four-game suspension, superstar forward Blake Griffin is set to return to the Clipper lineup this coming Sunday against the Washington Wizards. Upon his return, we know that the Clippers will be that much better in terms of talent and skill. What we don't know is how they'll handle playing their two stars -- Griffin and Chris Paul -- especially after having so much success without Griffin.

Having gone 31-14 over the 45 games absent Griffin's presence, Doc Rivers and company have a lot of thinking to do. I mean, at one point, there were even rumors of trading Griffin. So, how could the Clippers take advantage of knowing just how good the team can be without him on the floor?

By following right in the Thunder's footsteps.

With an up-and-down bench, it's time for Doc to experiment with staggering Paul and Griffin in his rotations.

How's that worked out on a grander scale so far this season?

Clippers PPP Opp. PPP Net PPP
With Both 1.143 1.043 0.100
With Chris Paul 1.141 1.050 0.091
With Blake Griffin 0.991 1.077 -0.086
With Neither 0.979 1.045 -0.066

You can see for yourself that things haven't been all sunshines and rainbows without Paul on the floor this season. Even with Griffin on, the Clippers struggle offensively and are even worse defensively. 

But how much can this tell us? In their 25 games together, the two have played 30.2 minutes together per contest. They just haven't had that much time apart, so like I said, it's time for Doc to experiment. If not now, then when?

The Clippers are 6.5 games up on the Grizzlies for the fourth spot in the West and 4.5 behind the Thunder for the third spot. In all reality, the Clippers have practically locked in the 4 seed, barring any injuries. With an ever-growing pile of injuries, the Grizzlies aren't making a huge run of wins any time soon, and the Thunder are really hitting their stride as of late (as you might have figured out), so the Clippers should be confidently entrenched as the 4 seed.

Now is the time to try out some lineups with Paul and Griffin leading the team at separate points in the game.

Over their last 18 games together, Durant and Westbrook have averaged 24.8 minutes per game together -- 5.4 fewer than Paul and Griffin. And, at least for the Thunder, that seems to be the right amount for such an approach.

A deeper look at how the Thunder achieve success with this strategy shows that Billy Donovan will take Durant out with about six minutes left in the first quarter, leaving Westbrook do the playmaking until about the three-minute mark, where Westbrook gets his first rest. 

At the same time, Durant will return to initiate the offense until Westbrook comes back roughly three minutes into the second quarter. Later in the second, with somewhere between five and seven minutes left in the quarter, Durant will get about a three-minute blow. The duo usually end the quarter strong for the last five minutes or so.

The same kind of on-off action follows suit in the second half, save for the end of the game when score might do more to dictate the length of rests for each.

The Clippers should attempt to use this same strategy upon Griffin's return. Paul and Griffin are great together, as the numbers show, but in order to keep the ship afloat and hold up the bench that, at times, can be relatively nonexistent, they have to spend some time apart.

As for the lack of success without Paul, much like the Thunder and the Blazers before them, the Clippers need to test the waters and see if it works for them.

Ultimately, it's worth a shot. We have seen in recent years that Paul and Griffin have simply run out of gas in the playoffs, so trying a different technique could go a long way.