Moses Brown gives Clippers boost but might not be long-term fix for struggling bench

Los Angeles Clippers center Moses Brown defends against Houston Rockets guard Daishen Nix
Clippers center Moses Brown defends against Houston Rockets guard Daishen Nix. Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said the backup big man "really won this game for us." But he might not be a long-term solution for the struggling second team. (Michael Wyke / Associated Press)

The big man provided the big impact the Clippers needed.

Moses Brown’s 13 points in 12 minutes — matching the combined number of minutes he’d played all season to that point — “really won this game for us,” coach Tyronn Lue said after Wednesday’s 109-101 win in Houston that moved the Clippers to .500.

And yet the 7-foot-2 Brown isn’t necessarily the long-term answer for what the coach called “my biggest challenge.”

There are challenges, plural, because it is not only “how we get the second unit to play better, and be better,” as Lue said, but also how Clippers lineups without a center can play better, as well. The issues can overlap because the Clippers often have played bench units without a center.

Although Clippers lineups have proven to be hardly a juggernaut through a 4-4 start, outscored about six points per 100 possessions, lineups without a big man have been worse — outscored nine points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass’ lineup data. And when Paul George, the top offensive option with Kawhi Leonard unable to play, has sat, the Clippers have been outscored by 15 points per 100 possessions.

“We can get better with our second unit, with our small lineup, and that's on me,” Lue said.

These are not the bench units or wing-dominated lineups the Clippers envisioned playing during training camp, when Leonard was healthy. Plus, Robert Covington, usually a small-ball center with reserves — a role that would allow Nicolas Batum to play the four, a more comfortable fit than center — has been absent the last two games while in the league’s COVID health and safety protocols.

But even acknowledging that, Lue still expects better from his smaller lineups.

“I don't like it right now, but I got to do a better job with just letting those guys understand how we gotta play and what we're trying to do and how we're trying to exploit teams,” he said.

Lue didn’t elaborate, but some issues have not required explanation. Without either starting center Ivica Zubac or Brown on the floor this season, opponents have grabbed offensive rebounds on more than a third of their misses.

The bench unit needs to have “its own identity … they got to be a little bit scrappy,” George said, because opponents have tried to send extra rebounders to keep point guard John Wall from bursting ahead in transition.

When Zubac said on Oct. 25 that “I hate small ball, I think every big hates it,” he was smiling, a reflection of his pride of being on the court. But the response also involved production.

Clippers center Ivica Zubac takes a shot against the Houston Rockets on Monday at Crypto.com Arena.
Clippers center Ivica Zubac takes a shot against the Houston Rockets on Monday at Crypto.com Arena. (Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

“Whatever works for us, I’m supporting it but I want to be out there, I want to help the guys with rebounding the ball,” Zubac said while in Oklahoma City. “I know being small on the floor would hurt them on the boards and I want to be out there.”

Small ball wasn’t the entire culprit Wednesday as an 18-point lead dwindled to three at halftime and Zubac was on the floor as the second-quarter cushion dwindled. When he earned four fouls before halftime, it posed the question of whether Lue would ride out the long stretch until Zubac’s next appearance with smaller lineups or tapping the largely untested Brown.

Enter the former UCLA center.

Since leaving Westwood, Brown has played for five teams in four seasons and at his latest stop the center signed a two-way contract to essentially serve as an in-case-of-emergency option should foul trouble sideline Zubac.

Brown’s role, he said, came down to being a good teammate, and being ready to play. When the team is in Los Angeles, Brown often returns to the practice facility for additional work with assistant Jay Larranaga on touch shooting, free throws — Brown’s shooting form is unorthodox, and the team has attempted to refine it — and how to keep opposing guards from dribbling past him on close-outs.

The moment to put that practice into play came Wednesday at halftime, when Lue relayed to Brown he would run only three plays to keep it simple. Lue regretted afterward calling a few additional plays for which Brown wasn’t prepared, but within the narrow role the Clippers wanted from him, Brown “was really good for us.”

Lue always kept a center on the floor during the third quarter to success, but Wednesday wasn’t a sign Brown will become a fixture of the rotation. The team already has a difficult enough time finding minutes for Lue’s 11-deep rotation, the coach said. And it also wasn’t a signal that the Clippers are going away from their center-less lineups.

They knew they were taking a risk starting the season with Zubac the lone traditional big man in their rotation, and whether they stick with that all season or add another big man option is something that will be monitored and determined as the season progresses.

But for now, the Clippers still envision their wing-dominated, center-less lineups being a key part of their postseason arsenal. As the Clippers made clear Wednesday, much work remains to get to that point.

Up next: at San Antonio

When: Friday, 5 p.m.

On the air: TV: Bally Sports SoCal; Radio: 570, 1220

Update: The NBA fined the Clippers $25,000 after Moussa Diabate and Brandon Boston Jr. were listed as unavailable for Sunday’s game against New Orleans, only for the pair to eventually play. … The success of the Spurs (5-3) — expected to be aiming for the draft lottery — has been one of the season’s earliest surprises, but a dose of reality hit Wednesday in their 143-100 loss in Toronto that marked the largest margin of defeat in coach Gregg Popovich’s 27-year tenure. Starter Devin Vassell and reserve Isaiah Roby missed that rout but reportedly took part in pregame workouts and could be available to face the Clippers.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.