Clippers coach Doc Rivers said he believed cutting the Australian forward was a mistake in the moment.
That ominous feeling has been validated ever since as Joe Ingles has gone from one team’s castoff to another’s treasure.
“I said that the day we released him,” Rivers said Wednesday, before his team faced Ingles and the Utah Jazz at Staples Center. “This is a bad decision, and that we’re going to regret it.”
Now in his fifth season in Utah, the 6-foot-8 Ingles is averaging a career-high 11.8 points and 4.8 assists while adding 4.1 rebounds a game. His three-point shooting has dipped from the 44% he shot each of the past two seasons to 37.2%, but he still forces defense to account for his threat from beyond the three-point arc, thus opening Utah’s offensive spacing.
Most importantly, he’s retained the edge that has allowed him to carve out a career in a league that welcomed him with a rough introduction.
Ingles began his career in his native Australia, then played to Spain and Israel before joining the Clippers for training camp in October 2014. Clippers coaches found him to be a well-liked teammate whose basketball intelligence showed in meetings. He averaged only 1.2 points and 1.0 rebound during five preseason games but coaches looked beyond the statistics at his skillset: Great vision and a good shooter, too, even if didn’t display the accuracy that has made him invaluable in Utah.
“He was solid but you know, he was on the third unit so he wasn’t getting a lot of (opportunity),” said Jazz forward Ekpe Udoh, who was then a Clipper. “He wants to compete and just show people that he can play. He’s done that since the beginning of time, from Europe to here.”
The Clippers were intrigued but even they couldn’t have predicted the kind of contributor he’s become.
“I didn’t know Joe was going to be this good,” Rivers said.
An injury to guard Jordan Farmar sealed Ingles’ fate. Needing a backup for starting point guard Chris Paul, the Clippers opted to keep guard Jared Cunningham than hold onto Ingles.
Without using Donald Sterling’s name, Rivers intimated it was the former owner’s preference to keep roster costs low that forced the team’s hand. The Clippers could have kept Ingles on the 15-man roster, but it would have required releasing someone else while paying out their contract.
“Unfortunately I was working for someone who said we couldn’t eat a contract and that’s life,” Rivers said. “We were begging to try to just, ‘Let’s eat one contract.’ And they said, ‘That will never happen.’ So we had to let him go.”
The Jazz claimed Ingles three days later off waivers and beat Jordan Hamilton for the team’s final roster spot. Both Ingles and Utah have reaped the rewards since.
Ingles had his revenge less than three seasons later when Utah beat the Clippers in the first round of the 2017 playoffs. He scored 12 points, with five rebounds and four steals, in a Game 7 victory and signed a four-year contract worth $52 million later that summer.
He’s become beloved in Utah and gained more national notoriety this week as a trash-talker by calling Detroit’s Blake Griffin a “flopper” to his face during a game.
Inside the Jazz locker room, “people definitely have love for him because they know he’s going to war with you every time,” Udoh said. “He competes, he’s witty. That’s my guy.”
And much to Rivers’ chagrin, Ingles was once the Clippers’.