Despite Blake Griffin being destroyed by the ghost of Kevin Garnett, the Los Angeles Clippers improved to 12-9 on Monday night with a much-needed road win over the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The win was fueled by the return of Chris Paul, who missed the previous two games with a rib injury, and came back to chip in 14 points, five assists, and four steals in just over 31 minutes of action. The Clippers are now 10-6 when Paul plays, proving that the team will only go as far as its franchise point guard will take them.
While that sounds painfully obvious, especially given Paul’s prowess as not just a top flight point guard, but one of the top 10 players in the league, one of the biggest reasons behind L.A.’s early season struggles (relatively speaking) has been its lack of depth, specifically with regards to facilitators. Free agent acquisition Pablo Prigioni has appeared in just a third of the team’s games, Lance Stephenson can’t find consistent minutes (or a role), and Jamal Crawford’s locked in as the go-to scoring relief, which he does fairly well.
With coach Doc Rivers ignoring Prigioni and Stephenson as potential options to back-up Paul and/or help run more of a fluid offense when he’s not available, he’s relied heavily on Austin Rivers to fill the void…and it hasn’t quite worked in his favor from an offensive standpoint.
While Austin has received plenty of criticism throughout the first four years of his career for not living up to expectations of a top player in his high school class/lottery pick, Doc has taken heat for giving up assets for his son, as well as giving him a large role on a team with championship aspirations. A little over a quarter of a way into the season and Austin has played 70 percent of his minutes at point guard, according to Basketball Reference, and has only posted a positive plus/minus in five of the team’s 21 games.
To further explain how Rivers at point guard isn’t working out, of the 87 guards in the NBA to average 24 or more minutes per game, Rivers has the 67th best offensive rating (98.8), per NBA.com. For context, the Clippers starting backcourt of J.J. Redick and Paul rank fifth and sixth, respectively. I don’t mean to ignore the good—Rivers has made strides as a defender, and relatively speaking he’s improved his shot selection and efficiency (both of which still shouldn’t be considered special). Regardless, the team is 10.2 points per 100 possessions worse with Rivers on the court, per Basketball Reference.
We’ve touched on the team’s lack of depth, but maybe it’s getting to a point where the talent isn’t as bad as the coaching decisions. That could be a scorching hot take on my behalf, as Stephenson (-1.3), Paul Pierce (-6.0), and Josh Smith (-6.8) all have negative net ratings, per NBA.com. With that said, I’m not sure why we’ve seen the aforementioned veterans, who have all excelled on successful teams, have their roles reduced or compromised while Rivers is constantly given the green light and counted on to run the offense in Paul’s absence.
Of course, Rivers isn’t going to rely on Smith from an offensive standpoint, and Pierce’s struggles have been heavily documented, but Prigioni appears to be healthy, why not allow him to play more?
This isn’t my swan song for Prigioni; I’d imagine he isn’t playing more because he’s 38 and doesn’t have a ton left in the tank. Besides, when he’s on the court, he’s posting a 90.9 offensive rating (according to NBA.com), which is third worst on the team only in front of C.J. Wilcox and Cole Aldrich.
I’m also not writing this to completely rail on Doc as a coach. A lot of lineups without Paul feature more decision making from Griffin, who continues to be an absolute stud with and without his starting point guard on the floor. Also, The Clippers are dealing with plenty of adversity and are still in the race for “who’s next” after Golden State and San Antonio out west.
With that said, it’s still early enough in the season for Coach Rivers to figure out his rotations, and from an efficiency standpoint, maybe that should involve a little bit less of his son, who he’s now stubbornly tied to not just by blood, but because his job as a coach and GM depend on his kid’s success.
Maybe Rivers will begin to trend in a better direction as Paul and Redick (hopefully) get healthier, but if they don’t, and Stephenson continues his year-plus dissension into worst player in the league territory, both Rivers should find themselves in…hot water.