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Does Doc Rivers Play Young Players?

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A quick look into Doc Rivers' tendency to play, or not play, young players.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

There's been a lot of criticism of Doc Rivers' coaching acumen this season by fans, to the point where I would posit he's now underrated as a plus head coach in the league. Qualms about rotations and "favoritism" towards certain players seem to make up a majority of the criticism, and by no means am I saying they're not unwarranted; some of the time I scratch my head or disagree with how Doc chooses to deploy his roster.

One of the more recent criticisms, especially in preparation for the draft, is the idea that Doc Rivers doesn't care about developing young players/ isn't good at developing young players/ just flat out doesn't play young players. Why should our #25 and #33 pick matter when they're just going to sit on the end of the bench the whole year and not get any playing time? Are these players good enough to deserve playing time and Doc just refuses to play them? If they're not is that on Doc Rivers for not making them better? And then this all can spiral into a the 4th circle of Dante's hell when people start to argue definitively about whether Doc is a good drafter or not (hint we don't know yet).

Those are a lot of good questions, but they also seem slightly lazy to me in that they often rely upon narrative for their foundation. Why do you think Doc doesn't play young players? Because he doesn't, everyone knows that. It's something you hear once, and it seems to fit your weltanschauung, so you just accept it as fact and keep going, even throwing it out there in the comments on a fan site. I'm guilty of doing this myself at times.

But let's take a closer look at the idea that Doc doesn't play young players. To do this, I looked both at his time with the Clippers, but also for a larger sample, at his nine years spent with the Celtics. I took young players to mean a player with less than 3 years of experience within the league, so rookies, 2nd year, and 3rd year players. I accounted for every player that fit those criteria under a Doc since the 2004-2005 season, and then looked at how many Minutes Per Game they averaged as a quick and dirty way to evaluate how much Doc played them. I also looked at how many games they played in total during the season, to somewhat account for outliers where a rookie might only play in 3 blowouts, averaging 14 MPG. The results are as follows in raw totals:

2004-2005 Year 1 BOS MPG G
Tony Allen (R) 16.4 77
Marcus Banks (1) 14.1 81
Al Jefferson (R) 14.8 71
Kendrick Perkins (1) 9.1 60
Justin Reed (R) 5.3 23
Delonte West (R) 13 39
2005-2006 Year 2 BOS
Tony Allen (1) 19.2 51
Marcus Banks (2) 14.9 18
Ryan Gomes (R) 22.6 61
Gerald Green (R) 11.7 32
Orien Greene (R) 15.4 80
Al Jefferson (1) 18 59
Dwayne Jones (R) 6.2 14
Kendrick Perkins (2) 19.6 68
Justin Reed (1) 9 32
Delonte West (1) 34.1 71
2006-2007 Year 3 BOS
Tony Allen (2) 24.4 33
Ryan Gomes (1) 31.2 73
Gerald Green (1) 22 81
Al Jefferson (2) 33.6 69
Kevinn Pinkney (R) 16.7 6
Leon Powe (R) 11.4 63
Allan Ray (R) 15.1 47
Rajon Rondo (R) 23.5 78
Sebastian Telfair (2) 20.2 78
Delonte West (2) 32.2 69
2007-2008 Year 4 BOS
Leon Powe (1) 14.4 56
Gabe Pruitt (R) 6.3 15
Rajon Rondo (1) 29.9 77
Glen Davis (R) 13.6 69
2008-2009 Year 5 BOS
Glen Davis (1) 21.5 76
J.R. Giddens (R) 1.3 6
Patrick O'Bryant (2) 4.2 26
Leon Powe (2) 17.5 70
Gabe Pruitt (1) 7.8 47
Rajon Rondo (2) 33 80
Henry Walker (R) 7.4 29
2009-2010 Year 6 BOS
Glen Davis (2) 17.3 54
J.R. Giddens (1) 4.7 21
Lester Hudson (R) 4.4 16
Oliver Lafayette (R) 22 1
Marcus Landry (R) 3 1
Henry Walker (1) 3.6 8
2010-2011 Year 7 BOS
Avery Bradley (R) 5.2 31
Semih Erden (R) 14.4 37
Luke Harangody (R) 8.6 28
Chris Johnson (R) 8 4
2011-2012 Year 8 BOS
Avery Bradley (1) 21.4 64
JaJuan Johnson (R) 8.3 36
E'Twaun Moore (R) 8.7 38
Greg Stiemsma (R) 13.9 55
2012-2013 Year 9 BOS
Avery Bradley (2) 28.7 50
Jordan Crawford (2) 21.6 27
Kris Joseph (R) 4 6
Fab Melo (R) 6 6
Jared Sullinger (R) 19.8 45
Javis Varnado (R) 3.6 5
2013-2014 Year 1 LAC G
Reggie Bullock (R) 9.2 43
Darius Morris (2) 5.4 10
Maalik Wayns (1) 4.5 2
2014-2015 Year 2 LAC
Reggie Bullock (1) 10.5 25
Jared Cunningham (2) 4.7 19
Austin Rivers (2) 19.3 41
C.J. Wilcox (R) 4.8 21
2015-2016 Year 3 LAC
CJ Wilcox (1) 7.3 23
Branden Dawson (R) 4.8 6

Totaled together, this is what the results look like:

Total Averages MPG G
Boston 15.05 44.18
Boston Post KG/Allen Trade 12.4 35
Clippers 7.83 21.1

So in Doc's 9 years with Boston, from 2004-2012, young players averaged 15 MPG in his rotation, playing on average over half the season. After the Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen trade when the Celtics where in heavy title contention almost every year, young players still played 12.4 minutes per game, in about 35 games on average. Just from the raw numbers, it appears that in his time in Boston, Doc never really shied away from playing a player just because he was young, if he felt he was good enough. Plenty of young players had huge roles in his championship teams, Rondo and Big Baby the most notable. Now there's a lot of context being ignored within this that probably muddles up the numbers a little bit. Injuries to stars which require more young players, or injury to those young players which prevented them from playing more. Trade or mid-season acquisitions for young players affect the games they played. In Doc's first couple years the Celtics sucked, so he was playing young players more.

In comparison, in his 3 years with the Clippers, Doc has barely played his young players at all. Young players play almost 50% less minutes and games as a Clipper versus as a Celtic, and that's including a large buoy to the numbers in Austin Rivers playing 19 MPG in 41 games after he was acquired.

First, to the question of whether or not Doc is able to develop young players at all, go take a look at the Celtics players that started out and played under him, and you get a pretty impressive list of NBA rotation players that came through under Doc. Tony Allen, Al Jefferson, Delonte West, Ryan Gomes, Gerald Green, Kendrick Perkins, Rajon Rondo, Glen Davis, Leon Powe, Greg Stiemsma, Avery Bradley, Jared Sullinger. That's a pretty good list for a coach to have, and I'm sure far more than many Clipper fans would have thought can be attributed to Doc. And now we can add Austin Rivers to that list.

Second, to the question does Doc Rivers play young players? The answer seems to be yes, but he just hasn't really with the Clippers. Why is there such a large change in tactics from his time with Boston and his time with the Clippers. One possibility is that Doc has never liked playing young players, but Danny Ainge gave Doc explicit instructions to play young players against his beliefs, which he isn't getting now that he has complete control. This is possible, I don't know enough about the Celtics organization to speculate.

If you lather up Occam's razor however, the most simple answer seems to be that the young players Doc had with the Celtics were just better than the young players he's had with the Clippers, and that's why he played them more. That would help to explain the reason why Austin Rivers plays and played more as a young player than Bullock or Wilcox, because his true talent level as a players was simply higher than theirs, and Doc knew that (or you can spin nepotism if you like drama). Taking away the narrative that Doc sucks, this makes sense. A coach gets lots and lots of opportunities to see a player perform in practice and to judge his abilities, and his playing time reflects that as well as the team's needs and larger goals.

Since Doc is now the GM in essentiality for the the Clippers, it may be fair to find fault with him for not supplying himself with good enough rookies to play, after all he's the one choosing them. But drafting is really hard, and after basically 2 turn at the wheel, I'm not ready to punish him for that, yet. With likely no draft pick coming in 2017, it's imperative that Doc reverse his fortunes thus far, and try to hit on one of these picks this year. And if he does, if he finds a diamond in the rough, don't be surprised to see him play and contribute next year under Doc Rivers.