Back before the Spurs were considered a dynasty, Tony Parker, a teenager fresh to the United States, was thrust into the starting lineup. As expected, he made his share of mistakes and consequently took plenty of heat from Greg Popovich, yet one thing that never wavered was his development time.
In 2001-02, the Spurs were a 58-win contender with an unconventional 19-year-old rookie French point guard who couldn't really shoot, didn't rack up a lot of assists, was undersized and didn't play great defense. Any coach would have benched Tony Parker while he was learning, and it's no secret why. I'm not sure I can recall a coach more openly exasperated with Parker than Popovich was that season.
But you know what Popovich did? He played Parker more minutes that season than Parker played this season -- when he was an MVP candidate -- saying all along that he wanted to see if Parker could develop into the kind of player he knew he could become.
If you believe Thorpe's talk of "royal jelly," Popovich's minutes and belief played starring roles in the development of all the Spurs' talented young players. In other words, it's likely Parker would not have turned out as fantastic now without all that learning on the job back then.
Despite the Spurs were a legitimate championship contender, Parker averaged the 3rd highest amount of minutes (29.4) in his first NBA season. The fact the advanced data were not in his corner were of no concern. A PER of 11.7. An offensive rating under 100. Nor even a 46.7 effective field goal percentage.
Popovich made a commitment to Parker and it paid off handsomely. Following the Frenchman's rookie season, the Spurs won 3 of the next 6 NBA championships. For over the last decade, Parker is widely considered to be not only an elite point guard, but one of the game's best.
Austin Rivers career will likely never be littered with so many dubious accomplishments, but realistically, few will. However, that's not the issue. Rather, there currently isn't a more opportune time to find out how Rivers fits into the future plans. All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday is out for the rest of the season. In addition, only 18 games remain on the docket and the Pelicans sit 12 games under .500.
Seemingly, the only remaining obstacle is 28-year old Brian Roberts and his career 14.1 PER. An NBA player who is in his prime, without any undiscovered ceiling and a game littered with flaws. Now, before we proceed any further, let it be known this isn't some anti-Roberts campaign. He is a fine player as long as he stays within the confines of a reserve scoring guard role. Roberts has only one NBA discernable skill: a perimeter jumpshot. His playmaking, defense and rebounding are, and will most likely remain, below average.
Meanwhile, Rivers is a 21 year old enigma. In his rookie campaign, he was thrown to the wolves in the wake of Eric Gordon's delayed start due to injury. He started 26 games, when it was obvious in his first few minutes of action, he wasn't remotely ready.
Fast forward to today, the signs of improvement are evident as his numbers across the board are up. But what really stands out, is the fact he is probably the best option to start at point guard. Since Roberts replaced the injured Holiday in the starting lineup, here are the statistics:
|ORtg||DRtg||AST/TO||Opponent's PER (PG)||FG%||3FG%|
Robert's net rating stands at -8.0, while Rivers a positive 1.8. Defensively, Rivers runs circles around Roberts, but somewhat astoundingly, River's offensive production has been much more beneficial to the team. With similar play-making statistics and shooting efficiencies not remarkably different, Roberts has no distinct advantage as to why he should be averaging 8 more minutes a game during the last 30 game stretch.
Coaches are playing "correct" Grays over "still learning" Valanciunases all over the league. It satisfies a coach's sense of order and control. Every coach wants his team to play the right way -- which is not so different from following coach's orders. Without that, what's the point of having a coach?
Meanwhile, the guy who plays the "wrong" way often helps his team more, thanks to the many advantages of youth.
This excerpt was from the same source quoted earlier and it is very relevant to this situation. Monty clearly falls in the anti-Popovich group -- giving more minutes to veterans without circumstance. Even he has admitted this fault recently on Nola.com:
"Austin (Rivers) is playing the point guard position and he has for a while. The jury is still out there. But we've still got to give him time to figure it out. So there's a combination of still trying to win and develop. I'm at fault as anyone. I'm trying to win. So I'll take a guy out and put somebody else in trying to win that may take away from his development. And that's nobody's fault but mine."
Monty's instincts are getting in the way of giving enough playing time to the developing players. In a lost season and with Holiday sidelined, there should be no reason for it (if his job is truly secure as the media has portrayed it). Thus, the best possible way to circumvent at least the Rivers-Roberts rotation dilemma, would be just to go ahead and start Austin. If our coach can't properly allocate the amount of court time based on merit, then he should attempt to get out of his own way by stacking the deck correctly. Rivers started his career out on a very desolate island but now he's got himself a boat. Let's see him get a chance to use it.