After a productive summer, the Clippers are finally Doc Rivers’ team
The Clippers are Doc Rivers’ team now, in style and in substance. His busy summer gave them not just a lot of bodies but unprecedented quality depth, and he got the versatility he wanted but couldn’t assemble in previous summers.
It was an impressive haul. Forward Josh Smith beat the Clippers with Houston and then joined them. Forward Lance Stephenson has incentive to bounce back from a terrible season in Charlotte that he said “humbled me a lot,” and he should beef up what was a woeful bench. Former Laker Wesley Johnson, who went down the hall for the veteran’s minimum for one year, might start at small forward. Paul Pierce came home to be a voice of championship experience and added his voice to a strong chorus when players gathered at DeAndre Jordan’s home to discuss past problems and future dreams and persuade Jordan to stay with the Clippers rather than leave for Dallas.
“Looking at the roster and how it was put together this summer, I bet it was pretty much a shock to the media on how Doc was able to get everybody to come together,” Smith said.
Circumstances made it easier for Rivers, who was hired as coach and senior vice president of basketball operations in 2013 and became president of basketball operations the next year, to complete his shopping spree.
Playing alongside a core of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and Jordan — intact after surviving the scare of Jordan’s possible departure to Dallas — was a great attraction for potential newcomers, but Rivers also benefited from the prospect of a huge leap in the salary cap in 2016-17, when revenues from the NBA’s lucrative media rights deal will kick in. Players were willing to take one-year deals to play for a contender and wait to cash in when the cap soars.
“The first summer was tough. We didn’t have an owner in place. Recruiting was near-impossible,” Rivers said of the chaos that reigned before Donald Sterling sold the club to Steve Ballmer in 2014. “You go in and talk to free agents and their agent would say, ‘Well, we don’t even know who’s going to own your team. Why would we commit to you guys?’ That was a hard summer for us.”
The Jordan episode aside, this was an easy summer for Rivers. But now comes the hard part of blending his vision from the executive side with the reality of coaching these guys every day, of keeping everyone happy and productive on a team that’s three-deep at every position and has more potential ballhandlers on the second unit than can possibly work.
Rivers the coach has, finally, been given many excellent tools by Rivers the basketball operations boss. The pressure of getting the Clippers over the psychological hurdle of last season’s collapse against Houston and past that second-round barrier has shifted to his coaching shoulders, and he’s prepared for that.
“I could care less about being judged. You can judge me any day. I’m going to keep doing my job regardless,” he said Sunday after the team practiced at UC Irvine. “And at the end of the day we’ve had a great summer but if the players don’t play well, I guess that’s my fault too. And I don’t care about that.
“We have a heck of a core and we have to just keep trying to figure out the right group around them. Right now on paper we’ve had an amazing summer but we don’t know if it fits perfect or not yet. You’ve got to keep doing it until you get it right, and you can never be gun-shy because of criticism.”
Balancing minutes and egos looms as tricky. Will Pierce be happy with reduced time? Will Stephenson erase his reputation as a sour presence in the locker room? Even if they do — and if a half-dozen other things go right — there’s no guarantee the Clippers can get past the defending champion Golden State Warriors, reloaded San Antonio Spurs and still-formidable Houston Rockets.
Rivers said spreading minutes around isn’t as important as winning, “and if we can do both, that’s great.” But he wouldn’t predict what the team’s identity will be, though he said improving defensively remains a priority.
“As far as how we play and how we look and if we’re a rugged team, a running team,” he said, “I always think the team will tell us who they are before I can tell you who they are.”
They’re his team now, whatever they turn out to be, whatever judgment is ultimately passed.
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