Making the Transition: The Curious Case of Brian Roberts

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Published: December 6, 2012
Rivers-Roberts

With Greivis Vasquez firmly entrenched as the team’s starting point guard, Austin Rivers was, seemingly by necessity, slotted into the starting “2” role as a fill-in for the injured Eric Gordon. Management’s discussion of the Rivers pick and his role has consistently included talk of grooming him as a point guard, or at least towards a point-guard-esque role. Rivers’ skill-set also seemed (and still seems) to fit such a role; he is not especially tall or overly strong, and his quick feet and lack of bulk are better suited both as a penetrator and shot-creator on offense and as a defender of point guards. His surprisingly efficient TO/AST ratio coupled with an obvious willingness to defer speak to a player who does not dominate the ball at the expense of teammates. But injuries hit as they always do, and Rivers was inserted back into his college role of shooting guard; at least until Eric Gordon returned, was the general assumption.

Enter Brian Roberts; a 26 year old, undrafted rookie from Germany professionally (primarily), Roberts impressed as a scorer in Summer League, enough to win a roster spot with the team. Roberts is a 6’1″ shooting guard who happens to bring the ball up and initiate the offense. When Rivers was demoted last week in the recent shuffling that has become Monty Williams’ rotations (and partly due to his play, which simply hasn’t been consistent enough), the upside seemed obvious; allow Rivers to come off and play against other NBA benches, and more importantly, lead a second unit that needs a shot creator and has a gaping hole at the backup point guard position. Rivers would get the bulk of his minutes bringing the ball up, scanning the offense, calling plays, running pick and rolls at the top of the key, and penetrating and dishing to open up wider lanes, so that he could get his. With no real backup “1” on the team, it seemed like the ideal time to wet the rookie’s feet playing what was constantly ballyhooed as his future position.

So far, the opportunity has not been taken advantage of. Rivers has generally come off of the bench to play alongside Vasquez for a few minutes, before Greivis sits for Roberts, who assumes primary ball-handling duties. Rivers is then banished to the coffin corner during most half-court possessions, only peeping his head out when Roberts is harassed or when he’s needed to swing the ball around the perimeter. Roberts is essentially a smaller, better-shooting version of Rivers, and while he technically offers a better chance at winning right now as opposed to playing Rivers at the same position, it seems like the team’s other motto, implicit through their off-season (“Get young, build for the future”), is being disregarded in favor of a marginally superior “win-now” tactic, which culminates in maybe an extra win or so in the column at the potential cost of stunting the development of what could be a key offensive player down the road.

What’s perhaps most perplexing is that the Roberts/Rivers tandem doesn’t even need to be abolished if Monty would want Rivers to try to play the point; Roberts’ scoring prowess would serve him equally well playing “Combo Guard No. 2” to Rivers’ “Combo Guard No. 1”, and they could at the very least share play-making duties as a sort of lesser version of Brandon Jennings/Monta Ellis coming off of the bench. The buzzword Monty has recently been using as a mark against Rivers is the rookie’s lack of understanding “concepts”, but surely these concepts are better learned in the heat of battle, so to speak. Despite not earning the full confidence of Monty, Rivers is still averaging over 25 minutes a game, and over 20 per game in his new bench role. Although his playing time is slightly less, his opportunity to play better minutes is much improved; a quality 15 minutes backing up Vasquez at the point are far more valuable than 25 spent playing alongside Vasquez and Roberts, languishing off the ball. Certainly, Rivers is partly to blame for being to “shy” with the ball whenever he does get it, but this lack of confidence might be augmented if he were forced to bring the ball up, forced to initiate the offense, and ultimately, forced into the position that management said all along was going to be his role in the NBA.