In the first 1.5 games of the season, Doc Rivers used a 9-man rotation: four guards, three forwards, and two centers. Miloš Teodosić’s left foot injury Saturday night threw that equation out of balance. He’s going to be out for a couple months at minimum, possibly as many as four. The question now is: who will Doc tab to replace him (if anyone)?
Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat— playing an eight-man rotation is not smart, and I really hope Doc doesn’t go there (I doubt he will). Dividing 240 total minutes between just 8 players means 30 minutes per game on average for each—with some definitely getting in the mid-high 30s. That’s a recipe for players getting injured (or just worn down) as the season goes along. The Clippers are an especially poor choice for a shortened rotation, as several of their best players are notoriously injury prone. An eight-man rotation is simply not a good idea. I don’t think Doc will go there (on a regular basis, at least), but it is still a possibility.
The most likely scenario is that Doc brings the rotation back up to nine by adding another guard into the mix. If that’s the case, there are only two real options on the Clippers roster. That would be the Clippers’ rookies, Jawun Evans and Sindarius Thornwell. On the surface, Thornwell would appear to be the more ready NBA option. He’s been an active player for the Clippers’ first two games, unlike Evans (who Doc will make active for Tuesday’s game), and acquitted himself well in garbage time. Thornwell is older than Jawun, and his skillset (defense, energy) is more readily transferable to the NBA game than Evans’ (pick and roll point guard) is. However, Evans is a pure point guard, while Sindarius is more of a combo guard/wing player. That means rotation-wise, he seems to be a better fit to replace Miloš’ minutes.
Austin Rivers and Lou Williams are combo guards; neither is really fit to run an offense as the lead guard. Sindarius’ easiest path to minutes would be playing him alongside one of those guys off the bench, but that would put the offense in a precarious position in terms of passing and ball-handling. Having Lou and Austin on the court together mitigates some of the playmaking issues that playing them individually creates, but it would also block Thornwell from getting minutes, returning to the issue of playing just eight guys in the rotation. Doc has been playing Wes Johnson at small forward off the bench alongside Danilo Gallinari or Black Griffin at power forward, and his effectiveness thus far this season means Doc won’t bump his minutes for Thornwell to play there in small lineups. If Sindarius doesn’t get minutes, it would put Jawun in line to get around 8-10 minutes per game as the nominal backup point guard alongside Lou Williams, allowing Lou to do what he does best: score the basketball.
Jawun is completely unproven at the NBA level, but he should at least be able to bring the ball up the court and make entry passes to the post— a low bar to clear, to be sure, but a bar nonetheless. There is also some hope that Evans could run legitimate pick and rolls, especially since Willie Reed has looked incredible rolling to the rim in the first two games. Jawun was one of the best executors of the pick and roll in college his sophomore season, and while NBA defense is on a whole different level from that of the NCAA, Evans should benefit from the increased spacing and offensive ability of his teammates. Rookies are almost always horrible on the defensive end, but Evans brings a lot of energy on defense, and his long arms are great for generating steals and blocking passing lanes. He’s unlikely to be a game-changer this season, yet I think he could provide solid minutes in limited time for the Clippers if called upon.
Of course, Doc could also go large off the bench instead of small, playing four forwards rather than four guards. That could mean more minutes for Sam Dekker, using him at the four alongside Wes or Gallo. Wes is the best bet of the Clippers’ wings to defend small forwards, so look to see an uptick in minutes from him as Doc phases out the three-guard sets he used in the first two games. If Doc wants to go for more rebounding rather than floor spacing, Montrezl Harrell would probably the next man up to play alongside Wes and Willie Reed. The issue with that lineup is spacing: Harrell and Reed can’t hit threes, and the lane would be incredibly congested on offense. Harrell might see a few more minutes, but I think Dekker is the logical choice among the forwards to benefit from Miloš’ absence.
It all comes down to the Clippers only having one real point guard in the rotation while Miloš is out. Pat Beverley can’t play all 48 minutes (though I’m sure he would love to), and Lou and Austin aren’t consistently good enough playmakers to man the position in his stead. Sindarius Thornwell will probably get the first crack at rotation minutes, but I’m skeptical a lineup with him alongside Lou or Austin will run a real offense or share the ball very much. Consequently, I have Evans as the favorite to inch out Sindarius for minutes as the season goes along.
Either Thornwell or Evans, both second-round rookies, will be getting legitimate rotation minutes for a hopeful playoff team. Each has shown flashes of real NBA ability in the minutes they have given the Clippers so far, and I like them defensively (at least compared to other rookies). I thought Jawun and Sindarius were great selections when the Clippers drafted them in June, and have seen nothing since to dissuade my opinion that both will have nice NBA careers. Hopefully, they will be ready to start those careers for real on Tuesday against the Jazz.