Making the Transition: The Curious Case of Brian Roberts

Published: December 6, 2012

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.


  1. J

    December 6, 2012 at 8:12 am

    He’s just an below average pg nothing more

  2. Michael McNamara

    December 6, 2012 at 10:19 am

    Couldn’t agree more- nicely said Russ.

    Of course Roberts is the better player right now, but how important is an extra win or two in the grand scheme of things? Rivers needs to have the ball in his hands and has to be given the green light so he can make all his mistakes this year and learn from them. Roberts is an above average shooter who should be doing just that, not dribbling out shot clock at the top of the key for 20 seconds, while Rivers sits in the corner, learning nothing.

    Roberts has grown on me through the season, but he is at best a 5th guard spark plug on a really good team. Rivers has the potential to be either a good starter or a great bench player if he gets the reps. Stick to your long term plan Hornets, er, I mean Pelicans

    • Nithenz

      December 9, 2012 at 5:01 pm

      But Roberts is just 26, why just disregard him and give all playing time hoping that Rivars pans out. If Roberts can get his act together faster than Rivers, why wouldnt we polish him as well. Why couldnt he be our project for the next 3 / 5 years? Just because he was undrafted and Rivers was a 10th pick? Are we judging players but the slot they were drafted instead of production? I could understand it if we were talking of NY rookie Prigioni (36 years old) but Roberts could be used in the future as he is still young. In this NBA you dont need to be bad to get picks toimprove… you need to WIN and change a culture of losing, and if Roberts can give me that chance better than Rivers, I welcome it. Players should play based on production, not draft position…at least that is what I think…

      • Jason Calmes

        December 9, 2012 at 5:28 pm

        Just turned 27 this week.

        The average NBA career is about 4.5 years, so most NBA careers are over by the time people reach Roberts’ age. You see the survivors.

        Roberts may be `it’, but the odds are against him getting better. Rivers is an investment and that need to make a decision BEFORE next season to pick up his year 3 option. They likely have all the info they need about Roberts to decide to keep him. What they don’t know is what the back court he may need to fit into will look like.

  3. Will

    December 6, 2012 at 10:24 am

    Good read. I really agree with many of point brought up. Rivers is better at getting guys involved than Roberts but Roberts has a great midrange shot that the team needs.

    I feel that if You let Rivers play more with Anderson and Smith (or Lopez and, ideally, Davis) along with Aminu and Miller, perhaps, he will excel. Whenever I see Rivers out there with Smith, Rivers gets separation and Smith works his way open for a midrange shot. When Rivers is out there with Roberts and Xavier and the like, nobody moves and when they do, they’re lack of instincts and indecision ends up in a rushed shot at the end of the clock.

    Of course, the argument can be made for anybody that playing with better players will make them better, but Austin’s ability skyrockets with other guys who don’t stand in the corners or run high P&Rs exclusively. If his work ethic matches it’s reputation, I’m fairly confident he’ll start hitting the lay-ups that always seem to bounce the wrong way. I

  4. 504ever

    December 6, 2012 at 10:49 am

    I am confused by the reference to Rivers’ “surprisingly efficient TO/AST ratio”. Rivers’ Assist to Turnover Ratio is 2:1. Roberts’ Assist to Turnover Ratio is 2.5:1.

    In fact I am not sure what Rivers does better than Roberts (besided rebound), and Roberts’ PER is 3x better than Rivers’. So why isn’t this a case of Roberts earming playing time by vastly outplaying Rivers?

  5. Bigeauz

    December 6, 2012 at 11:28 am

    I have been wondering about this too. Why is a slasher sitting in the corner in the offensive sets? This can’t be the offense that Monty wanted to run when he envisioned Rivers as the 1 and Gordon as the 2. Neither of those guys want to just sit in the coffin. So why are we running it that way now? I agree, let Rivers take his lumps now. Let Roberts join the corner crew with Mason Jr.

  6. wilsmit

    December 6, 2012 at 12:21 pm

    This group is really hard to watch….I’d guess the main thing that bothers me most is when they fall behind they tend to walk the ball up court. This often gives one the impression they’ve given up. I’d rather see them speed it up to 1/2 court even if its just to get it across in 3 to 4 seconds then run the 1/2 court set. Make the opposing team spend more energy getting back on D…..The way the 3rd quarters have been going it seems scripted. And btw the Pelicans…NO way plz!

  7. Dayton Flyer

    December 6, 2012 at 5:40 pm

    Is Rivers good enough to play in the NBA? People keep trying to explain away his performance. Is it possible that he is just completely overmatched as a pro? If that’s the case it doesn’t matter what position you put him in, how many minutes he plays or his role. Let’s be honest, here. His offense is beyond atrocious right now. He’s 0-for-his-last-12 by the way and under 30 percent on the season.


    December 6, 2012 at 6:31 pm

    Reading what Russ has written makes you wonder why Monty doesn’t see the same thing. Roberts strength is that nice 17 foot jump shot. His weakness is his lack of ability to run the offense – too much dribbling at the top of the key as the shot clock runs down.

    Rivers strength is that quick first step. He’s been a surprisely good distributor(considering his MO out of Duke was just the oposite). However he struggles to finish at the rim against stronger shooting guards.

    Why not flip them and have Rivers use his quickness at the point and Roberts can use his time at the 2-guard to look for his mid-range jumper.

  9. mojart

    December 6, 2012 at 10:38 pm

    to solve it

    rivers should play the point…..roberts to play SG…when they are on the court together

  10. Dom

    December 7, 2012 at 6:53 am

    I don’t understand why people feel that Rivers should have the ball in his hands more. I agree that a player should be allowed to play through lumps, but these aren’t lumps. He’s just been bad. His PPP as a pick and roll ball handler is 0.57 and it’s just 0.43 in isolation. His FG% in those situations are 23 and 18 percent respectively.

    With the way the Hornets are playing defensively right now, can they really afford for the offense to be less efficient?

  11. MZURK

    December 8, 2012 at 1:00 am

    Rivers had a good game today. But overall, he’s been worse than horrible. A scorer who shoots less than 30% and is a vital cog in the Hornets’ “vaunted” perimeter defense. He will get better over time, but he still has a long way to go before he can be even a mediocre bench player.

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