The first thing you notice when watching this season's Los Angeles Clippers team sprawled across a gym is the sheer talent.
Last season's squad went seven deep at most; this season's roster easily features 11 or 12 players who can realistically contribute rotation-quality minutes. Last season's starters had to suck wind in the playoffs for fear of losing a lead or a game; this season's roster is so deep that finding enough playing time to keep everyone happy is a legitimate issue.
The bench depth was on display on the first day of training camp, as the second unit -- which consisted of Josh Smith, Wesley Johnson, Lance Stephenson, Jamal Crawford and Austin Rivers -- beat the starting unit of DeAndre Jordan, Blake Griffin, Paul Pierce, J.J. Redick and Chris Paul in an intrasquad scrimmage.
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"Of course," Johnson said when asked about the bench being able to keep up with the starters. "That's the talk of practice right now. But I think they're going to have a little chip on their shoulder going into tomorrow's practice, so it should be very competitive."
The team's depth makes head coach Doc Rivers feel like a kid in a candy store. He has so many options to choose from, and they all look great. Certain lineups will obviously play better than others, though, and this key stretch of time before the regular season is when experimentation will reveal which pairings coexist optimally.
In particular, the Clippers are tinkering with small-ball lineups and mixing and matching the first and second units.
"We just want to keep working on it so guys get comfortable," Rivers said.
The Clippers target multi-positional players in the offseason, and found them in newcomers Pierce, Stephenson, Smith and Johnson. Each can play at least two, if not three, positions, which gives the Clippers a level of depth and versatility the team has lacked in the past couple years.
"Now you have one through five coming off the bench that could possibly go anywhere else and start," Griffin said.
The most pressing roster concern has been who's going to win the starting small forward job, and there has still been no official announcement yet.
Though Pierce played with the starters on Saturday, Rivers said he was going to insert Johnson into the starting lineup on Sunday and see how he liked the lineup. Stephenson is still a candidate for the starting spot, but Rivers said he prefers Stephenson help lead the second unit.
Pierce, who has started in all but 10 of his 1,250 career games, has never been reduced to a bench role, but Rivers isn't worried about upsetting the 37-year-old forward if he chooses to start Johnson instead.
"Yeah, but I don't know if that's going to happen yet," Rivers said. "I'm not that concerned by it. Paul's going to do whatever it takes to win. He may start. He may start and come out quickly then because we do like him with that other group because of his ability to spread the floor and clutch scoring. He's a vet, so we'll just figure it out."
Either way, the Clippers are looking at a starting battle that may not be determined until the end of the preseason, which is more than they could say last season, when the bench had no chance at challenging the starters in practice.
"[Last year] the first group could goof around [in scrimmages]," Rivers said. "Today they couldn't goof around. They had to play, and that was good."