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NBA PM: Past Decision Haunting Doc Rivers and Clippers

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The Los Angeles Clippers are currently tied 2-2 with the Utah Jazz heading into Game 5 of their first-round series. Injuries have played a huge role in this series so far, with Rudy Gobert missing Games 1­-3, Blake Griffin suffering a season-ending injury in Game 3, Gordon Hayward playing just nine minutes in Game 4 because of food poisoning, Austin Rivers sidelined with a hamstring injury and several other guys playing through nagging injuries.

While these injuries are in many ways dictating the dynamics in this series, there is another factor that has played a significant role. That factor is a choice Clippers team president and head coach Doc Rivers made in 2014.

On September 26, 2014, Marc Stein of ESPN reported that the Clippers agreed to a one-year deal with Joe Ingles, a versatile forward who was coming off a nice showing at the FIBA Basketball World Cup as a member of the Australian National team. The Clippers have struggled to find a viable solution at the starting small forward position for years, and signing Ingles was an attempt at addressing that issue.

Rivers signed Ingles to a non-guaranteed deal and he was set to compete with Jared Cunningham for the final roster spot. Jordan Farmar, the Clippers’ backup point guard at the time, suffered an injury and Cunningham ultimately got the nod over Ingles. Rivers reportedly waived Ingles in the hope that no other team would claim him off of waivers so he could ultimately reacquire him, but the Utah Jazz ruined that plan by picking him up.

“We took the game and lost if you want me to be frank. We thought we could sneak him,” Doc Rivers said. “[Utah] won.”

At the time, losing Ingles didn’t seem like a major loss. He was an interesting talent, but few (if anyone) was projecting him to become a star player or even someone who could be an impact player in the playoffs a few years down the road. Less than three years later, Ingles isn’t a star, but he sure is a difference-maker in this opening series against the Clippers.

Through four playoff games, Ingles is averaging 8.5 points, 4.3 rebounds, 5.3 assists and two steals in 34.5 minutes per game, while shooting 42.3 percent from the field and 40 percent from three-point range. Ingles’ stats may not threaten Russell Westbrook’s per game averages, but box score statistics only cover a small portion of the impact Ingles is having in this series.

Ingles was ranked third in the NBA this year in three-point percentage (among qualified players), indicating just how effective of floor-spacer he has been for Utah. That element of his game has paid off in a significant way this series as he is knocking down two three-pointers per game. This has forced the Clippers’ defenders to run him off the three-point line, which allows Ingles to attack the scrambling defense off the dribble.

“He’s been so unbelievably coachable with that part of his game,” Jazz head coach Quin Snyder said of Ingles. “He figured out that he could shoot and started shooting. Then people started having to close out on him and he’s able to use his shot to get into the lane.”

Once in the lane, Ingles is using a combination of hesitation dribbles, ball fakes and other techniques to draw DeAndre Jordan away from the rim. This is leaving Jordan in between cotesting shots from the midrange and shots at point-blank range. This primarily benefitted big men Gobert and Derrick Favors in Game 4, who got plenty of easy looks at the rim because of Ingles’ playmaking off the dribble.

“Just making DeAndre try to read what he’s going to do,” Ingles said. “If he comes to us, we pass to the B, and if he stays back, we try to finish around the rim. Even if we miss — I missed one tonight, and Favors gets the tip because it’s still middle ground.”

The importance of Ingles’ playmaking was on full display in Game 4 in Utah. Joe Johnson’s brilliance in the fourth quarter stole the headlines, but Johnson wouldn’t have been in a position to take over the game without Ingles’ contributions throughout the contest. Ingles chipped in eight points, a career-high 11 assists, six rebounds and two steals in 38 minutes of action while knocking down three of his six field goals, including two of his four three-point attempts.

In the fourth quarter, Ingles logged an assist, two huge three-pointers and played solid defense (as he did the entire night and has done throughout the entire series). The offense became more straightforward in the fourth, with the Jazz consistently looking to get the ball to Johnson in favorable one-on-one situations, which paid off in a big way. Ingles, as any good role player would do, adjusted to the shift in offensive approach and executed his role effectively.

In a game where Utah was missing (arguably) its best overall played in Hayward, the Jazz got big-time performances from several players, including Ingles. Between locking up players like J.J. Redick on defense, running Utah’s offense as a secondary playmaker and doing all of the small things to help his team win, Ingles provided his team with everything it needed in a crucial Game 4.

The Clippers struggled to fill the void left by Griffin in Game 4 and that won’t change moving forward. You know who has the skill set to make a nice replacement for Griffin? Yes, Joe Ingles. It’s easy to criticize Coach Rivers for waiving a player who would likely be a significant contributor for his team in this series and is currently giving the Clippers headaches. But Rivers did have the right idea in signing Ingles initially – he simply got burned by waiving him in the hope that he would ultimately be able to re-sign him.

For his part, Ingles didn’t lament the way things worked out three years ago and certainly doesn’t regret it now.

“I don’t regret anything about what happened or what I did or anything,” Ingles said. “I did all I can to make the team and wasn’t what [the Clippers] wanted or good enough or whatever it was, so it worked out perfectly. I’m very happy here [with Utah]. It’s been great.”

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About James Blancarte

James Blancarte

James Blancarte is a writer for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney based in Los Angeles, California.