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Clippers

Doc Rivers has an unconventional solution for the Clippers’ void at point guard

Clippers head coach Doc Rivers in a preseason game against the Denver Nuggets at Staples Center om Thursday.
Clippers head coach Doc Rivers says smart basketball players can make up for the team’s lack of a classic point guard.
(Kyusung Gong / Associated Press)

When second-year guard Landry Shamet heard concerns about the Clippers’ void at point guard this summer, he did not dismiss them.

Indisputably, a void was created in July when point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was traded coming off an all-rookie season.

Yet Shamet considered the worries overblown, in part because he envisioned nights like Thursday.

In their third preseason game, the Clippers spread ballhandling duties among a range of players who kept the offense running smoothly, primarily in the first half. Shamet, three-time sixth man of the year Lou Williams and rookie Terance Mann each recorded three assists and forward Kawhi Leonard led the way with six in less than 11 minutes.

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None fits the mold of a classic, playmaking ballhandler. Neither does Patrick Beverley, a combo guard who didn’t play because of an injury.

Clippers center Ivica Zubac spent his summer researching how champions train and develop. Not just basketball players but show-jumping horses as well.

Each, however, fits coach Doc Rivers’ criteria for the type of player he wants controlling the ball.

“Good players, smart players, high IQ players know how to play basketball,” Rivers said. “If [defenses] want to take him away, then he gives the ball to the open guy.”

Whether it’s sustainable to rely on that core over a full season is a question the front office must answer. But Thursday’s small sample size offered a window into a believer’s point of view.

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Rivers wasn’t sure Thursday who would direct the offense when his lineup included Shamet, Leonard and Williams, even saying that “you always worry, because there’s no real point guard in that group.”

His concerns were apparently eased. When asked two days later what he has learned about his team, Rivers included his comfort playing without a traditional “one.”

“We believe we can use a point or have no point on the floor, and we’ll be OK,” he said.

Though Leonard is defined as a forward, the All-Star appears to be able to flip seamlessly between the two modes of his game — the one-man scoring machine and the player who can turn an opponent’s focus on him into open looks for others.

Mann, after logging time at nearly every position but point guard at Florida State, is undergoing a transition to the role in the NBA that isn’t without its struggles. At times, opponents have deflected his dribble and coaches have had to yell at him to move to the correct spot from which to initiate the team’s sets. And yet he has 6-foot-7 size and has displayed preternatural passing vision.

Shamet, who earned a rookie reputation as a knock-down shotmaker, played point guard extensively at Wichita State.

Williams scores effortlessly, but coaches call passing his most underrated skill.

“I was the ‘one,’ and yet Lou initiated the first two out of three plays,” Shamet said. “It’s positionless [basketball] … we have plenty of guys who are comfortable within playmaking roles to be able to fill that void.”

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Leonard’s brief appearance was particularly eye-opening, especially to teammates who knew how little he had participated during offseason scrimmages. But the rust Leonard said he’d felt in training camp wasn’t evident. From his first possession, he drew defenders on a drive into the paint and kicked out to JaMychal Green for an open, corner three-pointer.

“It just happened naturally,” Leonard said. “For the most part, I caught a lot of attention. So I passed to the open man. They were knocking down shots.”

Said center center Ivica Zubac, the beneficiary of three Leonard assists: “He didn’t practice for a while and tonight, he showed who he is. That’s Kawhi. We didn’t have much time yet but it felt kind of natural. He would find me.”

Kawhi Leonard shows he’s ready to play with seven points and six assists in the 111-91 preseason loss to the Denver Nuggets.

To Shamet, worriers were thinking about it all wrong, too narrowly defining what a point guard should be. It is less about who brings the ball upcourt and more about whether the Clippers are prepared to make the extra pass. In Shamet’s case, that means identifying passing lanes even while sprinting off of pin-down screens looking for his own shot.

“Thinking about what you do offensively in a scoring mind-set to help get others involved,” he said.

And when it comes to handling the ball this season, several Clippers will be involved.

Etc.

After playing 11 minutes in his Clippers debut Thursday against Denver, Leonard isn’t likely to play Sunday against Melbourne, but Rivers didn’t have a firm answer about the All-Star’s availability. Leonard is expected to play in the team’s preseason finale Thursday against Dallas. … Mann injured a hamstring and hip during Saturday’s practice and did not take part in a scrimmage to conclude the workout. Neither Mann nor Rivers appeared concerned about the severity. … Beverley returned to practice after suffering an undisclosed injury Wednesday and sitting out against Denver.


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