When LA Clippers coach Tyronn Lue declared that Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and Russell Westbrook would sit out the preseason finale Thursday against the Denver Nuggets, it was an indication Lue had made up his mind on who the fifth starter would be, joining that trio and center Ivica Zubac. The power forward spot was vacant because incumbent Marcus Morris Sr. was no longer being discussed as a potential starter and Morris was held out of preseason games.
By the end of the preseason games, three candidates had emerged in multi-tool weapon Terance Mann and veteran off-ball forwards Nicolas Batum and Robert Covington. One of those players was unlike the other two.
Even while Lue lumped the three into similar categories before Thursday’s game, Mann stood out — emphasis mine:
“T. Mann is one guy who, like you say, can get up in the backcourt,” Lue said. “He can guard point guards; 1, 2, 3 and 4. So he is very versatile in that regard. RoCo more so off the ball; deflections, block shots, rebounds. And then Nico’s a guy that can guard bigger guys when he’s guarding the five, be able to switch, also be able to get up in the backcourt and kind of shadow and deny the point guards the basketball. So they all kind of bring a little something different defensively. But I think as far as being able to switch one through four, starting out guard point guards, I think T. Mann does that a little better. So they all bring something a little different.”
Lue almost announced his starter Thursday night. But he teased that he would have an announcement ready Friday. He announced Mann as the player who will complete his primary lineup:
The announcement that has been in the works since June: Tyronn Lue declares Terance Mann an actual starter, not a fill-in starter, for the first time pic.twitter.com/X278QacAgq
— Law Murray 📱 (@LawMurrayTheNU) October 20, 2023
The decision by Lue marks a major change in how the Clippers are approaching their primary lineup in the 213 era. Before Morris arrived, Maurice Harkless was the team’s primary starter at power forward in 2019-20. Harkless measured in at 6-foot-7 and 220 pounds. Morris is listed at 6-8, 218, though he has always been a physical player. Batum would always be the starter when Morris had extended absences, which was the case to begin the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons and to close the 2022-23 regular season. At 6-8, 230, Batum is bigger than Morris with a wider wingspan, but not as physical. Covington measures closest to Harkless at 6-7, 209.
At 6-5, 215, Mann would be one of the smaller power forwards in the league. The average size at that position among primary starters in the 2022-23 season was 6-8, 230 — basically, Batum’s measurements. But the position has some of the greatest variance in the league. On one end, you have players like Jalen Williams of the Oklahoma City Thunder listed as the starting power forward at 6-5, 211. That’s basically Mann-sized. On the other end, you have rookie Victor Wembanyama at 7-4, 210. Mann is heavier than Wembanyama but nearly a full foot shorter.
Lue does not acknowledge positions as much. Not unless he is describing what a rookie has to learn, how a new veteran has to adjust, when he needs a traditional point guard, or when he needs a real backup center.
Whether you view Mann as a wing with movement skill, a guard who can be effective at the point of attack or a big who can defend the likes of Lauri Markkanen, Lue sees Mann as a versatile chess piece. It allows the Clippers to be flexible. They are still going to have plus size on the perimeter, and Zubac is a 7-footer. They’re not going to be that small. And Mann has the on-ball skills that, while different than Morris, allow the Clippers to have a dribble-pass-shoot option with a traditional point guard and two apex wings.
But that also leads to the other implication of Mann’s starting. The Clippers have kept James Harden as a potential trade candidate for months. Committing to starting a player of Mann’s size with on-ball skills (remember, Mann was the team’s nominal starting point guard until Westbrook was signed) is a shift from starting a player like Batum or Covington, who were rarely on the ball making plays. Making that shift now prepares the first unit for a similar-sized player to possibly join the roster.
Harden is listed at 6-5, 220. That’s not that far off from Mann, and Harden’s wingspan and nose for the ball are even greater than Mann’s. Harden is renowned for his on-ball qualities, though his off-ball game isn’t a complete loss. Lue said that he wants to stagger Leonard and George so that the second unit always has one of them on the floor to help. Harden would likely allow for even more stagger options if this trade were to ever happen.
Lue can’t worry about trades, though. He needs to coach his team. And the Clippers are expecting to cut more, run more and force more turnovers in a quest to be a top-five defense. Lue has determined that Mann, in his fifth season out of Florida State, fits those newly established team goals the best. The Clippers have maintained that Mann is untouchable in any Harden discussion. Starting him validates that decision, and even if Harden were to get traded to LA, Mann should not be a part of that deal. Mann is one of the most valuable Swiss Army knives in the league for his ability to raise the floor and paper over roster holes. Now, the Clippers will go about establishing themselves through a 10- to 15-game sample size with a 10-man rotation that will get down to nine players as soon as possible.
“He’s fine with anything, like he’s the best,” Lue said amid his praise of Mann after making the announcement Friday. “No, really. Come off the bench, starting, it doesn’t really matter. And those are the type of guys you want for your organization. Guys that are all about winning, willing to play their role. And like I said, he was excited, but it’s either way for him.”
(Photo: Adam Pantozzi / NBAE via Getty Images)