If time is a flat circle, if everything that has already happened will indeed happen again, the Los Angeles Clippers’ attempts this season to finally turn the page on their most successful chapter may already be fraught.
No matter how much distance Steve Ballmer and Doc Rivers have created from the franchise’s sordid history, the past still heavily informs the team’s future. No other team has experienced the kind of roster upheaval the Clippers have over the past two years (Wesley Johnson is the longest-tenured player, at three seasons) and yet fought so hard against a fresh start. Their battle for respectability has been waged for too long. This is how Lou Williams, a 31-year-old sixth man, received a three-year contract extension. The Williams deal was a solid value; it’s also one of the many indications that the Clippers are swimming against the current after undergoing numerous rebuilding processes that dragged on for years and years.
But there have been moments of hope buried in those years of futility. In 2004, the Clippers drafted Shaun Livingston. He was a lanky teenage point guard prodigy, praised for vision and feel beyond his years. With a veteran coach and an underrated power forward, the Clippers hoped then that their young potential star would finally elevate the franchise’s status.
Fourteen years later, the Clippers are right there again.
“Having Shaun [Livingston] join the team gave you a reason to be excited to come to the gym each night. You could see him grow. You could see him work on his shot. You could see him getting stronger and you thought this guy had a chance to really be special and be the type of player you could really build a franchise around.” —Ralph Lawler, Los Angeles Clippers broadcaster
A lot of people thought he was like Magic. Magic thought he was like Penny. But to the Clippers, Livingston was the first project pick that possessed the kind of intellect and work ethic necessary to make it.
You probably remember how it all ended. In just his third season, fresh off a 14-assist game, Livingston suffered a horrific knee injury, one that nearly required his leg to be amputated. That wasn’t the end for Livingston; he eventually grinded his way back into the league and became an integral part of championship teams with the Golden State Warriors. But he did so as a role player, not as the next great supersized point guard he was promised to be.
It’s not entirely fair to project all of that onto Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, but the resemblances are inescapable. Yes, there’s the gangly frame and the long strides. There’s also the stop-on-a-dime pull-up with a straight up and down release, the floating hesitation dribble, the disruptive pokes at ball handlers, the snaking drives that end in crafty below-the-rim finishes, the poise, the ability to see the game on a different plane of vision. It’s all Livingston, all over again.
In terms of measurements, the two are practically spitting images: Livingston was 6-foot-7.5 and 186 pounds with a 6-foot-11 wingspan when he entering the draft as an 18-year-old; Gilgeous-Alexander was 6-foot-6 and 180 pounds with a 6-foot-11.5 wingspan as a 19-year-old college freshman. But the Kentucky product’s maturity and nuance are what really bring out the similarities to pre-injury Livingston. Gilgeous-Alexander will peek around a ball screen and change his pace to freeze the action, ball on a string. That same ability was why Livingston was so highly regarded.
Livingston, who joined the NBA straight out of high school, spent much of his Clippers career playing behind or alongside veteran point guard Sam Cassell, soaking up as much knowledge as possible while he played catch-up in the weight room. Now an assistant coach under Doc Rivers, Cassell will pass on many of the same lessons to Gilgeous-Alexander as he did to Livingston.
Gilgeous-Alexander has looked comfortable playing both on and off the ball in summer league and preseason. But with the Clippers’ current roster stacked with veterans, and with the franchise hoping to remain competitive this season, will the 20-year-old rookie be deprioritized, too?
“With Doc [Rivers], everything is earned,” Clippers assistant coach Casey Hill told The Ringer in July. “You aren’t going to be given anything, especially as a rookie.”
Rivers has tried to refute the idea that he doesn’t play his rookies. He doesn’t. In 19 seasons as an NBA head coach, here’s the list of rookies to play more than 1,400 total minutes and average more than 24 minutes per game under Rivers:
Avery Bradley, a former Celtics first-round pick and current Clipper, played just 162 minutes under Rivers in his rookie season. Gilgeous-Alexander wouldn’t be the first promising prospect to get buried in his first year.
In addition to Bradley, the Clippers also have Patrick Beverley; both will defend as though their last big paychecks depend on it. Williams will be charged with keeping the offense afloat. Milos Teodosic is still around. Tyrone Wallace and Jawun Evans may have earned time with their efforts last season. Fellow lottery pick Jerome Robinson will also need some burn.
The decisions would be a little easier if the Clippers were fully invested in rebuilding. Play your youth, get the growing pains out of the way, and pick up better lottery odds in the process. But Clippers owner Steve Ballmer doesn’t sound ready to trust that process.
“People can do it their way,” Ballmer said at a recent team event. “We’re going to be good our way. We’re not going to show up and suck for a year, two years. I think we’ve got higher expectations on us than the long, hard five, six years of absolute crap like the 76ers put in. How could we look you guys in the eye if we did that to you?”
Retooling is the preferred nomenclature for how the Clippers have chosen to transition from the Lob City era. With two max-contract slots available next offseason, Jerry West’s recruiting, Ballmer’s deep pockets, and all the spoils of Los Angeles, the Clippers may not need to bottom out to vault back into the title conversation.
Free agents, though, typically want to know exactly who they’re signing up to play with. The tangible matters more than the potential; when is the last time you heard a free agent mention a cupboard of future draft picks as a major reason for signing with a team? Pouring minutes into Beverley and Bradley at the expense of Gilgeous-Alexander, even if the veterans are more productive this season, may end up being counterproductive to the bigger picture. Despite the fact Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler have already given nods in the Clippers’ direction as a preferred destination, it’s Gilgeous-Alexander who has the best shot at becoming a young star who attracts that kind of talent. But he’ll need to play.
Rivers ended up as the Clippers head coach largely because he didn’t want to go through another rebuilding process in Boston. He also traded away a future first-round pick for a few months of human Band-Aid Jeff Green. Rivers is no longer making personnel decisions for an improved front office, but will he still prioritize the present over the future on the court?
There are signs that Gilgeous-Alexander can break the mold. Rivers heaped praise on his young point guard after the rookie started and had a solid performance in a preseason game against the Lakers. Asked if it’s unusual to see a rookie learn on the fly, Rivers told reporters, “Depends on the rookie. I remember a guy named Jordan was pretty smart. LeBron was pretty smart. Rivers was not so smart. It probably depends on what rookie it is but those are things we didn’t know about Shai and he’s teaching us that he’s a lot smarter than we knew.”
It took years for the world to fully appreciate the breadth of Livingston’s abilities and basketball intelligence. If Gilgeous-Alexander sees the floor early and often, his wait won’t be so long.