On nearly every Zoom call and Facetime chat, Doc Rivers hears the phrase he hates.
“Everyone says, ‘It’s the new normal,’” the Clippers coach said. “I do not use that term.”
It’s an accuracy thing. The circumstances that Rivers, the Clippers and the world have found themselves in since the spread of the novel coronavirus went global — leading the NBA to suspend its season March 11 — are new, no doubt.
Normal? Nothing about the past month of isolation qualifies.
Not the amount of time Rivers spends talking with the three or four players he calls every day. Not the shelter-in-place orders that have left a majority of Clippers without gyms, unable to even shoot. Not the number of times he and his coaching staff have rewatched their 64-game season, nor how deeply they’ve scouted potential postseason opponents. Not the way Rivers’ voice, usually worn down to a rasp by April, feels great. Certainly not the number of holes he’s played on his in-home golf simulator.
“Listen, you almost have no choice right now at betterment,” Rivers said on a teleconference with reporters Wednesday. “That is the way I’m looking at this. This is a forced betterment camp.”
Looking for the silver linings is easy. Considering what could be lost if the season cannot be resumed? Not so much. The Clippers spent at least two years formulating a way to sign Kawhi Leonard as a free agent, pair him with another superstar and build a win-now roster around them. Accomplishing that last summer created championship expectations in a tight window — Leonard and star teammate Paul George can opt out of their contracts in 2021. Going 44-20 and rising to second place in the Western Conference gave such expectations credibility.
With no way yet to know whether this team played its last game together March 10, the Clippers have urged players to control only what they can, a process they began by shipping as much exercise equipment as possible to players’ homes in March. Using video-conferencing software, strength and conditioning coaches are holding virtual workouts with as many as 10 players a time. Leonard and George, whose offseason workouts were limited by injuries, now have a chance to train and “will be in phenomenal shape,” Rivers said.
Out of concern for the effects of long-term isolation, Rivers and Lawrence Frank, the team’s president of basketball operations, check in with players several times per week. The players-only group chat has helped.
“PG and Kawhi have made a conscious effort and so has Lou [Williams],” Rivers said. “Pat [Beverley] has been fantastic. He’s been great — just reaching out to guys, reminding them why we’re here, reminding them that we’re together. But it is different. Our guys are used to being together. This is abnormal for everybody, especially for those guys.”
Amid the disruption, Rivers believes the team’s motivation hasn’t wavered.
“We are playing for something,” he said. “If this gets started, you can tell our players are invested in the season. And they don’t want this season to go away. And they’re working like it is not going to go away.
“I’m trying to get my guys to understand two things: that our goals haven’t changed and the second thing is, we cannot use whatever happens when we come out of this as the reason we don’t win. So we have to be mentally prepared for something different, something strange, [like] an NCAA tournament-style, [or] a three-game series … or a five-game series. You just got to be prepared for it and you’re in the same boat. We use this phrase: Win the wait.”
Rivers and Frank are open to resuming the season even if it requires doing so in circumstances far from the norm. Scenarios discussed by league officials have included playing some portion of the remaining season at a neutral site, such as Las Vegas, where teams would attempt to isolate themselves.
“Look, these are unusual times, you have to be really adaptable,” Frank said. “That’s what I think the entire league would do.”
Said Rivers: “If it means we get to play and continue our pursuit for the goal that we want, I feel like one of the Dr. Seuss titles: ‘I will play anywhere. I will play in a house, I will play in a mouse.’ That’s how you feel. I think that’s how our team feels. We don’t care where, when, why, what. We just want to go after our goal.”
Few players currently have access to a hoop, Frank said, making any resumption of the season tricky. Unlike September’s training camp, every player understands the Clippers’ playbook. With the exception of center Joakim Noah, the ink on whose 10-day contract was barely dry when the season was suspended, every Clipper understands what it is like to play alongside one another.
“But as far as the rhythm and just getting the feel of a ball and playing pickup games — think how bad the first game after the All-Star game break looks every year,” Rivers said. “Now then, put two months on that. That’s basically what you’re going to have.”
Rivers has tried to make the best of what he prefers to call “the new now.” He’s working out more than ever, has grown a goatee and developed what he feels are deeper relationships with players. Video-chatting has proven so beneficial that he expects to continue holding them with players on days off upon basketball’s return.
“We talk about taking advantage of this crazy opportunity — it’s so strange to even call this an opportunity when you think about what is going on — but that is what we are trying to tell our guys,” he said. “Let’s see what we can find.”