The Sacramento Kings trailed the Houston Rockets by 21 points at halftime. Without DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy Gay, and Ben McLemore, a comeback was unlikely. And yet Sacramento’s rookies played a combined 19 minutes, and didn’t see the floor until the fourth quarter. Georgios Papagiannis didn’t play at all.
After the game I complained about the decision, and was greeted by a chorus of Memphis Grizzlies fans all saying that this is a known issue with Dave Joerger. He doesn’t trust rookies. He won’t play rookies. And we had heard the same when the Kings first hired Joerger, but it was easy to dismiss because the Grizzlies were...what’s the word....good. The Grizzlies were a good team under Joerger. The Kings are not good. Not playing rookies in blowouts is inexcusable.
Dave Joerger doesn’t trust rookies. He’d rather play Matt Barnes 21 minutes in a blowout. Or give 35 minutes to Anthony Tolliver. And you know what? I understand. Dave Joerger spent his career scrapping for opportunities. He worked his way up from the depths of professional basketball and became a head coach in the NBA. At each of those stops along the way, he was probably on the hot seat with regularity. There’s no loyalty to a low-cost coach who isn’t winning. Joerger had to succeed. Rookies are a risk.
But that’s not Joerger’s situation anymore. He’s no longer in Memphis where the front office has no loyalty to him. He has a long-term contract and a front office that has been incredibly supportive of him. He’s expected to be in Sacramento a long time. His long-term success here will not depend solely on playing vets. It will also depend on developing his players. Quotes like this can’t become the norm:
Dave Joerger on the play of his 2 Reno call-up rookies tonight, "I don't know. We were losing by so much, it's not something I looked at."— Jim Crandell (@JimCrandell) December 15, 2016
How do you trust a player? Time and experience, right? The fallacy of not trusting rookies to play in garbage time is that without opportunity you’ll never be able to grow that trust. Play a rookie in the third quarter. See how they do. Maybe they’ll play well and then you can start to trust them.
And the rookies played well! Malachi Richardson looked like he should be in consideration for heavier minutes at shooting guard. And while +/- is a potentially flawed stat, Malachi and Skal Labissiere were the only Kings players who didn’t have a negative +/- in this game.
It’s easy to sit back and nitpick rotations. This roster is not well-constructed and will likely be changed between now and the trade deadline. Dave Joerger doesn’t have an easy job trying to figure out the rotation, but in a unique game like this it isn’t difficult to conclude that the rookies needed more minutes.
Dave Joerger doesn’t need to worry about his job this year. Probably not next year either. But if he fails to develop young players in a team that is trying to rebuild its competency, eventually it will hurt him. It will hurt him as much as he fears he’ll be hurt by trusting rookies.