May 29, 2024

To fans who left Arena this week unsure what to make of seeing the Clippers, at mostly full strength, play the half-resting Denver Nuggets, take heart: You are not alone.

Several of the most experienced Clippers acknowledge that when they watch preseason basketball across the NBA, with its varying lineups and levels of intensity, even they find it difficult to gauge what might be real, and what might prove to be really misleading.

Yet at least one thing has been abundantly clear throughout the Clippers’ preseason, including their 116-103 win Tuesday. Coach Tyronn Lue is still trying to solve a math problem that has persisted for the past year: How to fit a roster with a dozen or more options for playing time into his preferred rotation of nine or 10 players.

At the start of last season, the Clippers hailed the reality of their minutes crunch, with more passable options than possible opportunities, as a good problem and dubbed “sacrifice” their mantra. But midseason trades did not alleviate the logjam at guard or forward, nor the confusion that built over time as opportunities for some, such as forward Robert Covington, remained minimal all season, while others, such as wing Terance Mann, saw their minutes and roles fluctuate on any given night.

The much-heralded depth could appear illusory, rarely tapped into. Teammates considered the minimal usage of Covington, a well-liked teammate with disruptive hands defensively, a persistent mystery; in hindsight, Covington should have played more, Lue conceded this month.

By staying effectively pat during the offseason and adding promising young forward KJ Martin, the Clippers ensured the question of how much depth is too much would return, too.

“It’s kind of like [Team] USA,” said Lue, who spent the summer as an assistant for the U.S. national squad. “You have a lot of guys who deserve to play but you can’t play all those guys.

“For me, [I am] just having the constant dialogue with the players and communicating and just let them know that, ‘This is what I’m looking at, this is the sample size of games that I’m looking at, and you‘ve just got to be ready.’ ”

Like last season, the attention centers on what is nominally power forward — nominal because the Clippers view the role less as a hard-and-fast position than a set of demands: must be able to defend multiple positions to maximize the defensive capability of a lineup featuring starters Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Russell Westbrook and Ivica Zubac; must be a threat to shoot as well, to maximize the offensive spacing.

To gauge how candidates fit alongside Leonard and George, the Clippers have started a different forward in each of their three preseason games, with Mann leading to Covington leading on Tuesday to Nicolas Batum, and all three “have done a great job so far, so we’ll see going forward,” Lue said.

“I don’t think we really care about that,” Batum said of the position battle. “… Every player knows what they can do and now at the end it’s going to be coach’s decision that’s going to be the best fit for the team.

“… And that’s what matters the most for us.”

Los Angeles Clippers forward Robert Covington (23) plays against the Oklahoma City Thunder on March 21, 2023, in Los Angeles.

Clippers forward Robert Covington (23), playing against the Oklahoma City Thunder in March, should have gotten more minutes last season, coach Tyronn Lue said recently.

(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

Despite the preseason auditions, Lue is not picking a starter at forward from solely that trio of Mann, Covington and Batum, he said Tuesday. Others who play the position include Martin and Marcus Morris Sr., the former starter the team nearly traded in July before discussions broke down, and who has yet to play in a preseason game but worked on offensive plays with the presumed starters during a recent practice.

Mann’s usage in his fifth season is particularly fascinating. The 27-year-old is so prized by the front office that team executives have been reluctant to include him in a potential trade for Philadelphia’s James Harden, one part of a trade-talk impasse that has lasted since June, league sources said. But Mann’s greatest strength, his ability to play every position from point guard to center, also rarely allowed him to feel established in any one role, and at times there was little communication about what that role would be in a given game.

At December’s end, he was out of the rotation some nights. A week later, he was the starting point guard. When Westbrook signed in February, Mann became a reserve again.

“Wherever, whatever,” he said of his role this season. “I don’t care.”

In previous seasons Lue expressed a desire to play lineups together consistently, but now he says he is open to considering a by-committee approach to forward. Matchups could dictate using a different nine or 10 Clippers on a given night, widening ever slightly the total number of players given minutes.

“I don’t think it’s that big of a deal, I mean as long as the consistency is PG and Kawhi out there on the floor,” Lue said. “So I mean, we’ll see. I’ve changed. I’ve evolved. So we’ll see. Like I said, to start, we always had that 10-, 15-game sample size of kind of seeing what works.”

Inside the Clippers’ locker room, and inside opposing teams, too, there is a belief that it is only a matter of time before part of the roster crunch will be settled via trade. Playing under a mandate to compete for titles, the Clippers are one of the most active teams in the trade market.

But if the Clippers make a trade for Harden, which the team has remained active in pursuing, their outgoing trade package could streamline their depth at power forward while also creating a new logjam in the backcourt. Bones Hyland left Denver via trade last season desiring a larger role only to see it slashed quickly in L.A. But teammates have raved about the third-year guard, now the team’s backup point guard, in training camp.

NBA scouts, however, questioned whether a significant role for the team’s younger wings and guards will remain if a ball-dominant guard were to be added to the mix.

It would be the latest roster squeeze on a team familiar with them. Covington, for one, said he has not spoken much to Lue about last season, preferring to keep his focus ahead.

“He said a couple things; I was like, man, look, best man going to win at the end of the day,” Covington said. “You know, no matter what, you got a tough job. And you got a tough job last year.”

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