It was sheer short-handed necessity that forced the Clippers to shuffle their starting lineup and rotations yet again Friday in a performance in Sacramento during which the team, with just nine players available, came within seconds of ending a losing streak that reached five.
Their next game, Sunday in Los Angeles against Memphis, could feature a new look to coach Tyronn Lue’s rotations by choice. Last week, the coach said he expected to lock in a steady rotation and end his lineup experimentation in a search for continuity in two to three games, a window that has passed after a 128-127 loss at Sacramento that leaves the Clippers 33-32 and eighth in the Western Conference standings.
With the team not playing on consecutive days again until March 31-April 1, and with several days of rest built into their schedule, the Clippers have nearly a monthlong opportunity to build the rhythm with Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and teammates they have lacked all season in a now-or-never bid to qualify for the first round of the playoffs and avoid the play-in tournament.
In recent days, starting with a shootaround Thursday in San Francisco, the Clippers have been preparing with an expectation that Marcus Morris Sr. is on his way out of the starting lineup, according to people not authorized to speak publicly on internal conversations. Such a change would be significant: Morris has started 155 of his last 156 games, including the postseason, since March 2021 because of the Clippers’ belief in his value as a tough shot-maker who better provides space for Leonard and George to operate in the offense.
One question that arose following Friday’s loss was how the Clippers would fill such a vacant power-forward job. Nicolas Batum started against the Kings with Morris missing a second consecutive game with what the team cited as a strained calf.
Little-used forward Robert Covington, who had 15 points and multiple deflections in a season-high 31 minutes against Sacramento, could be a candidate.Covington’s average of 16 minutes is his lowest since his rookie season in 2013-14. He has played 40 or fewer games in a season only twice; this season, he is at 38.
Lue “talked to me and told me basically what his plan was; he just told me stay ready,” Covington said. “You don’t know when things are gonna shift but he just said, keep doing what you’re doing. Like, things are going to shift.”
“I thought it was great, just his deflections, I thought a couple blocked shots, driving closeouts, getting to the basket, making the right play,” Lue said of Covington’s play against the Kings. “I thought he did a really good job just, on both sides of the basketball.”
The Clippers’ defensive regression has prompted the question of whether Covington could continue to play a more regular role after Lue solidifies his rotation.
“We got two great defenders in [Leonard] and PG, Nico [Batum], [Terance] Mann, we got guys that can really guard,” Covington said. “But I bring a different thing to this team. And it’s one of the things, one of the reasons why they brought me here. It’s being that disruptor on it. Being a disruptor off the ball. Seeing things and reading it right. Watching plays really develop, and just getting a knack for getting my hands on the basketball. Creating an opportunity for us on the defensive side and creating transition plays and getting out and running.
“So I mean, that’s the way, what I’ve built my name on. Whenever my name is called, I’ll keep doing that.”
For at least one week, and possibly longer, another rotation decision has already been made for Lue. Backup guard Norman Powell will be reevaluated late next week after suffering a partial dislocation of his left shoulder Thursday in San Francisco. Since the Feb. 9 trade deadline Powell, valued for his inside-outside game behind 41% three-point shooting paired with his 4.4 free-throw attempts per game, had been part of a rotating mix of guards playing off the bench along with Eric Gordon, acquired last month from Houston, and Mann. Bones Hyland, the former Denver Nugget, has been part of the rotation to a lesser degree.
Powell’s injury will leave Lue with one fewer reserve backcourt option, but so would keeping Gordon in the starting lineup, where he has played the last two games. His 30-foot shooting range helps to counterbalance spacing issues created by defenses sagging off of point guard Russell Westbrook.
Amid the questions surrounding the rotation Lue will settle on, there seemed to be a certainty leaving Sacramento that the Clippers will enter a critical closing stretch with confidence despite joining lottery-bound Detroit and Houston as the only winless teams since the All-Star break.
Adding Gordon, Hyland, center Mason Plumlee and Westbrook within the last month has forced the team to “re-program and fit the way a whole totally different team plays, and I think that takes a while to kind of put your imprint on a team that already is molded and playing a certain way,” George said. “So you know, I think we’re going through that a little bit. But again, we’re right there.”
That has kept George positive in what he called the “big picture” of the team’s ultimate, championship aspirations.
“I think you see the big picture of what we can be and what we will be,” George said. “I still believe we’re gonna be a tough team to beat in seven games. And these tough losses can be lessons learned, just how to close out, we haven’t done it yet, I’m sure we’ll get to it. And when we do, we’ll be comfortable and confident in these moments.”