Last season might have been an anomaly for Doc Rivers.
He played rookies and end-of-the-bench youngsters for long stretches of games. In fact, he relied on them to keep the 2017-18 Clippers competitive.
Forced into something he has avoided mostly for the entirety of his previous 18 years as a head coach, it’s far too early to call it a trend.
So, as the offseason winds along, and a deep Clippers roster continues to take shape with a mix of veterans and youngsters, Rivers might want to do some self-reflecting. Because with the bevy of capable guards on the roster, it’s increasingly more likely that entering year No. 7 with the Clippers he will again venture down an all-too-familiar path of leaning on veterans over player development.
If the first round pick sitting on the bench were Brice Johnson or C.J. Wilcox, low 20s selections with limited first-year upside, it would be predictable or understandable. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is not that.
It became obvious as the Las Vegas summer slate moved on, that the recently turned 20-year-old, 11th overall pick has the chance to be an immediate difference maker. As a rookie, his ability to shift gears, see the floor and make the right play are already present. He’s got a silky mid-range game. And, oh yeah, there’s his defensive potential. Gilgeous-Alexander’s got arms that, outstretched, could seemingly smother the front end of a big rig. That 7-foot wingspan allows him to guard multiple positions and he’s got the defensive instincts to match, which will still continue to improve.
“I just like his intangibles, other than just his size and his skill,” Rivers told NBATV during Summer League. “He’s going to be special.”
And Gilgeous-Alexander looked it in Vegas. In four games, he averaged 19.0 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.0 assists in just fewer than 28 minutes per game. By the time, he suited up for the fourth time it was clear he was ready for the brighter stage. It seemed almost like cheating at times to have Gilgeous-Alexander on the floor.
So, where does that leave Rivers in the decision-making process come October? Perhaps, he sees enough of those “special” attributes in the preseason to make him a staple top 8 member of the rotation. But at this point it should be full steam ahead. As a backup to assumed starter Patrick Beverley, and in-lieu of Milos Teodosic (if he’s on the roster come Opening Night), Gilgeous-Alexander would likely see 18-20 minutes. Take some time away from Avery Bradley or go small and play Danilo Gallinari less, and Rivers can get him up to 28-30. From there, it’s just a matter of trusting him, or more less allowing him opportunity to build that trust.
Realistically, the Clippers are, at best, interesting, fringe contenders for a mid-range seed in the Western Conference. Having a rookie with game-changing potential earn quality minutes early could pay off in March, April and May. Here’s hoping Rivers learned that lesson a season ago.