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BEN BOLCH / ON THE NBA

Throwing a wrench into the Clippers' bench

So good last year, the reserves have struggled to find an identity without Eric Bledsoe and Lamar Odom.

November 26, 2013|By Ben Bolch
  • Last season, Jamal Crawford was a part of an elite bench unit that scored an average of 40.1 points per game -- fourth most in the NBA -- this season that same group sans Eric Bledsoe, Lamar Odom and the oft injured Matt Barnes now averages 31.1 points.
Last season, Jamal Crawford was a part of an elite bench unit that scored… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

The Clippers' bench was so good last season, there were times when you almost didn't want them to bring back in the starters.

It was such a rush to watch Eric Bledsoe accelerate and Jamal Crawford discombobulate and Matt Barnes infuriate and Lamar Odom orchestrate.

The collection of reserves, known as "A Tribe Called Bench," often extended leads and occasionally played entire fourth quarters.

"We would come out of the game maybe up eight," forward Blake Griffin recalled Tuesday, referring to the starters, "and then we would come back into the game being up 18 or 20, something like that."

Now leads are regularly buried because of the spotty play of a diminished bench. There's no official nickname for a group deprived of Bledsoe via trade and Odom via off-season turmoil and Barnes via a slew of injuries, but a working title might be "A Tribe Called Retrench."

The reserves who last season combined for 40.1 points a game, fourth-most in the NBA, now average 31.1 points, a middling 16th in the league. The rankings dip even lower when it comes to their averages in steals (2.4, tied for 17th), blocks (1.4, 19th) assists (5.5, tied for 22nd) and — gulp — rebounds (10.2, 29th).

More worrisome, the Clippers' bench has been outscored by its counterparts in eight of 15 games and four of the team's five losses.

The drop-off in production is largely the result of a trade that brought the Clippers starters J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley while subtracting the dynamic Bledsoe, whose breathtaking play with the Phoenix Suns knocked the wind out of Clipper Nation.

Clippers Coach Doc Rivers recently confirmed a Yahoo report that owner Donald Sterling was so reluctant to part with Bledsoe that Rivers had to personally talk Sterling into it.

Rivers got the players he wanted, but he also obtained an unbalanced roster that has forced him to skew minutes heavily toward the starters. Griffin, Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan have each experienced an uptick in playing time from last season, with Jordan's jump from 24.5 minutes a game to 35.2 the most startling.

"Our starters have played more minutes because we've added to that group and they're lethal," Rivers said. "I want our bench to play better, but I don't really compare them to last year."

Smart move.

New backup point guard Darren Collison has shot a career-worst 38% while struggling to adjust to the transition from starter to reserve. Barnes has played in only eight games because of a bruised thigh and a retinal tear. Big men Ryan Hollins and Byron Mullens haven't proven worthy of playing for more than a few minutes a game.

Small forward Reggie Bullock continues to find his way amid the usual rookie moments and veteran shooting guard Willie Green might want to send out reminder cards that he's still on the team.

The one positive carry-over from last season has been Crawford, whose scoring punch has been comparable to when he finished as runner-up to New York's J.R. Smith for sixth man of the year.

Oddly, the Clippers have a second reliable scorer on their bench but are reluctant to use him.

Antawn Jamison scored 11 points in his season debut Sunday against the Chicago Bulls, leading one to wonder why the Clippers wouldn't want to make the veteran forward a part of the rotation.

"It will never be regularly," Rivers said of Jamison, a career 18-point scorer who averaged 9.4 a game off the bench for the Lakers last season. "I mean, I like him. I like playing him. I just don't want to play him too much."

Or … what? Jamison, 37, might wake up a little sore the next morning?

If Rivers isn't willing to play Jamison, another option would be Odom, the free agent who has met with the coach about a possible return after a summer marred by a DUI arrest and drug rumors.

Odom's former teammates seem enthralled by the idea of reuniting with someone whose basketball acumen and locker room presence more than make up for a rapidly declining skill set.

"Whenever you can add a guy like Lamar," Crawford said, "it helps with what we already have. His IQ is so high on the basketball court and he's such a smart player, so unselfish."

Odom would also provide a familiar face on a bench that is integrating four new players in Collison, Mullens, Bullock and Jamison. Crawford said the reserves haven't been able to replicate last season's success in part because they are still learning roles.

"Just give it time," Crawford said. "Last year, when it was happening, I was like, this is rare because it doesn't usually take off this fast. So that kind of set the precedent. This is kind of a natural progression for how things should go."

On the plus side, they can only get better.

ben.bolch@latimes.com

Twitter: @latbbolch

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